I was buying my lunch last Wednesday, furiously attempting to block out the seasonal soundtrack, when I heard a conversation between two girls my age: ‘Bloody Christmas everywhere… We just booked Thailand and I am so relieved.’ I found myself nodding in agreement. I am not someone who could ever be described as the Grinch. However, in recent years life has shifted my understanding of the 25th of December on its axis. As a result, I have explored alternative festive options – with little luck.
This year, I was adamant I would not have a miserable one. So, as I asked around, I discovered many likeminded souls who told me that the best option is to opt out, flee the country and head somewhere with not a Brussels sprout in sight. My very own Crexit, if you will. In 2013, four weeks before Christmas, my beloved father lost his battle with an aggressive and ruthless cancer that rampaged through his being and destroyed him in just four months. Even now, I do not have it in me to faithfully articulate the extent of his pain and suffering and what we witnessed. Suffice to say we suddenly found ourselves one of those families for whom ‘Christmas is a difficult time of year’.
Growing up, my granny had always reminded me to be considerate of these people. But up until four years ago, I naïvely failed to comprehend how the hell anyone could not love Christmas. The twinkly lights! The food! The presents! The love! The booze! It is also my birthday on 28 December, so I always regarded the festive period as an extended celebration of me – attendance at my party was as obligatory as the Boxing Day walk. But four years ago, as my mother, brother and I found ourselves bewildered and numb, choosing coffins instead of presents, this family-orientated festival suddenly seemed cruel. How this time of year taunts those whose family is not perfect, not together, not here. On top of this, as a single woman, the fact that I have not yet made a family of my own seemed exceptionally hard to deal with as I approached my mid-thirties. So, in the past few years we sought to do Christmas differently. We’ve served turkey at Battersea Rotary Club; eaten dim sum in Chinatown.
Last year, I buried my head in Netflix for the week. But no matter what you do, you literally cannot escape it. But not this year. My best friend Ollie and I will be in Vietnam in the Anantara hotel for Christmas, the Anam for my birthday and the Reverie in Ho Chi Minh City for New Year. But what has comforted me in my new feelings towards Christmas is the discovery that I am not alone in my desire to run away. Emma Whitehair, 43, a PR from London, has spent the last two years travelling solo. ‘It is the only time of year to make me feel lonely,’ she says. ‘We’re force-fed this image of what a happy Christmas should look like, but it’s so way off most people’s reality. My only immediate family is my father, but he now has a partner to spend the day with, so I no longer feel obliged to play the dutiful daughter. Last year, I went to an Indian ashram and this year I’ll be in Goa.’
And it’s not just single women. Becky Stevens, 40, who runs her own PR company and is a mother of four, spent last year abroad due to her husband’s complicated family politics. ‘When I first met my husband 20 years ago, I always wondered why he became so Scrooge-like around the festive period,’ she explains. ‘Now after years of trying to appease both sets of parents, who have divorced and re-married and had more children, I understand why he needs to escape. So, last year we took off to Mauritius.’ Thankfully, my family couldn’t be happier for me. What once would have seemed unthinkable is now the preference as nothing is the same since Dad died. My brother will be with his girlfriend’s family in Scotland; Mum has a new man in her life. As for my wise granny, she’ll be with my uncle and a bottle of Bells and will be the first to say to me, ‘Darling, it’s just another day.’