Facing Christmas for the first time without the family homestead

You may have noticed that I haven’t posted in a few days. There’s a good reason: it’s the holidays, and during the holidays I procrastinate. Usually, I’m pretty together – no overdue library books for me! Bills are paid early! Punctuality is my middle name!

Yet every December I put off ordering Christmas cards, buy gifts at the last minute, and hem and haw and ignore family questions about my travel plans. I have not lived within driving distance of my extended family since graduating from college, and every year there is the nagging and pressure to come home for the family to-do. Procrastination is the tool with which I avoid things I prefer not to address.

I’m among the ranks of people who don’t like the holidays. Too much stuff, too many obligations, and an abundance of complicated memories and pressure to make it so freaking special for two full months every single year. Now that I’m a parent, it's no less grueling – or complicated. On one hand, do-over, right? My kids’ wide eyes and joy and all that do indeed serve as a salve for woeful Christmases past. On the other hand: I kinda still hate it.

One thing I don’t hate is the annual family get-together in my hometown in rural Illinois. The Christmas Eve gathering attracts my aunts, uncles and cousins – plus my brothers, mom and significant others – at my grandparents’ home, where I always stay when I visit there. They live in a town of 800 people in a pretty, old house full of good antiques, wallpaper and English china. The traditions have been alive for three generations: Dinner is oyster stew, which no one but my Grandpa Ernie likes (but you eat it anyway – it’s tradition!). Instead, everyone fills up on an assortment of standard-issue appetizers: Grandma Shirley’s Swedish meatballs (secret ingredient: grape jelly in the sauce), asparagus rolls (crustless Wonder bread smeared with blue cheese, mayo and rolled around asparagus), my mom’s spinach squares (her version of the Greek spanakopita), and my aunt Bambi’s crab dip (smear cream cheese in a dish, top with a jar of cocktail sauce and sprinkle with canned crab and shrimp. Serve with Ritz crackers). If this sounds like a weird Midwestern spread, you are correct. And if it sounds delicious (save for the oyster stew), you are so, so right.

My ex-husband came to one of these Christmases about 10 years ago when we first met. His family is small and scattered, and he always dreamed about a big family holiday. This fit the bill – right down to his first encounter with Grandpa Ernie, who cheerfully thrust a martini in his hand within minutes of meeting. Everyone is so nice, he’d say. All so welcoming and enjoying each other. Knowing this party was knowing me. Of course, he was blind to the various, subtle tensions brewing everywhere, but for the most part, his assessment was spot-on. It was a great time, every single year.

Here we are, end of November and the nagging questions begin, and I am dragging my feet once more. If this were any other year, I’d keep everyone on their toes until about Dec. 15 when I would cave into the pressure to travel and find plane tickets to O’Hare are $700, but I would pay it anyway and everyone would have a fantastic time and I forget why the decision was so hard to make.

But this year, everything has changed. Grandpa Ernie passed away last year, and last week Grandma Shirley moved to Oakcrest, a fabulous assisted living facility where all her friends already have a bridge game going she is thrilled with her new two-bedroom apartment. My aunt has agreed to host the Christmas Eve event, but that just won’t be the same. Where will the kids and I sleep? Maybe a hotel, my brother’s apartment in Chicago – an hour and a half away? Grandma Shirley invited us to camp at her place – which would be charming and fun. For about a day.

If we go (and mom, if you’re reading this, we’ll probably go!), I’m sure we will have a good time. But in addition to celebrating the holiday with my personal festivities of anxiety and mild depression, I will also be sad. This marks the end of my childhood memories, a lost homebase, and lots of questions about how I will inform my children’s sense of who they are and where they come from.

I count among my blessings the web of family and friends around the country who love and support us. But this holiday is an acute reminder that my family is ultimately just me, Helena and Lucas in our apartment in New York. We will get our own tree, wrap presents and send cards to all those people everywhere. And maybe I will create a recipe for oyster stew – one that Grandpa Ernie would like, but also one that everyone else will look forward to for years to come.


Recipe for Johnson Family Oyster Stew

  • Fresh oysters

  • Milk

  • Butter

  • Salt

  • Pepper

Dump in a big pot. Cook. Serve with oyster crackers, pickles and domestic beer in the can. 

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. betsy on December 8, 2012 at 9:25 am

    too funny Emma the weird dishes. we have Swedish spaghetti which is spaghetti, sugar, bacon and stewed tomatoes pretty sure its not Swedish but it tastes good in the same way that warm breezes across corn field smell good. its Midwestern childhood where everyone is too polite to bring up important issues and love is shown by holding your tongue.

  2. lawmom on November 27, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Where is my invite because I LOVE oyster stew!

    • Emma on November 28, 2012 at 12:59 pm

      For real?

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