12/17/2012 03:28 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

I Won't Be Home For Christmas: How Taking A Vacation Made It Easy To Ignore The Holidays

For the first 20 years of my life, every Christmas followed the same path. I woke up way too early, cheerily jumped out of my bed and nudged my brother and parents until they finally complied (yes, even until I was way too old to be that eager). It was Christmas -- there was festive music to be played, stockings to be emptied and and a pile of presents under the tree that begged to be opened. How could anyone sleep at a time like that? Later in the day, my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousins would come over, and Mom always made Christmas dinner. And throughout all of the day's festivities, I don't think I ever changed out of my pajamas.

But last year, for the first time ever, we didn't spend Christmas at home. In the beginning of the year, my mom lost a long and very tough battle with cancer. And for the following months, each time a different holiday or birthday rolled around, my dad, brother and I faced the same dilemma: how do we celebrate? These days were filled with traditions and memories, most of which involved Mom orchestrating the whole event. And we floundered, trying to decide how to go through the motions without her.

So sometime during the summer, my dad brought up Christmas, a topic we had all avoided until then. Naturally, we knew this would be the hardest holiday to face without Mom. My dad's a wonderful guy and I love him dearly, but he doesn't exactly ooze holiday spirit (sorry Dad!). My mom was always the one to enthusiastically unpack all of the decorations from the basement and make our home merry and bright. She was also the one who demanded we all clear our schedules for a day to find a tree. And Mom would then coordinate a full night of decorating, where the four of us sat around the coffee table eating appetizers and finger foods and taking turns hanging ornaments.

Well, we unanimously decided that there was no way we could do any of this. It just seemed too unbearable to try to make it feel like Christmas when we knew it wasn't the holiday we all remembered and loved. So Dad had a grand idea: my mom had always wanted to take a family cruise. She talked about it for a couple of years, but when she got sick, she stopped scheming. When she was healthy again, we'd go, she decided.

So, hoping to make it feel as little like Christmas as possible, we thought it fitting to finally take that vacation. Instead of putting up a tree, stringing up lights outside and switching out the normal dishes for our Christmas set, we packed our suitcases, flew to Fort Lauderdale and sailed off on a weeklong cruise in the Caribbean. In place of gifts, Dad gave us permission to freely charge any drinks to the room (a pretty sweet gift for a 21- and 23-year-old). We spent the week lying on the pool deck sipping margaritas and going on excursions at each port of call. The boat was inevitably decorated for the holidays, so on Christmas we took an obligatory photo in front of one of the trees, and that was that. We carried on the rest of the night like we did every other night that week with no other thought about what day it actually was.

And after spending Christmas 2011 literally in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, sunbathing on the pool deck while sipping a mojito and reading "The Help," I noticed for the first time how intertwined holidays are with our homes. By removing ourselves from our typical setting, it was surprisingly simple to just forget that it was Christmas. Even that picture we took didn't matter much. It wasn't our tree sitting in our living room that we decorated on our typical appetizer-fueled family night. It was simply a pretty background for a photo. And since we ate dinner at the ship's restaurant instead of sitting around our dining room table with our special Christmas dishes and napkins, we couldn't even consider it Christmas dinner. By leaving home, we were able to accomplish exactly what we wanted: the feeling that Christmas hadn't happened at all.

Unfortunately, it isn't exactly financially feasible to sail off into the sunset for a week every December. So this year we'll be home. And by "home," I mean we're going to my aunt's house for the day. We won't decorate or put up a tree -- we're still not ready to go full force. But I think we are ready to celebrate the holiday in a completely new place that isn't a constant reminder of how Christmas should be. We'll probably never be able to celebrate Christmas at home again like the good old days, but I think straying from our old holiday tradition and starting a new one in someone else's home is the best way for us to make the most of the holidays to come. And no matter where our new traditions take us, we'll always hold onto the warm and loving memories of those perfect Christmases, when my mom brought our family together to celebrate in our home.

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