How to have the most successful multi-gen holiday ever

Just before Christmas, I had one of my travel highlights of 2021: hugging my sister in her driveway in a small mountain town in California. My nephews, Rathlin and Arran, waited for us as we drove around the corner. With one small boy attached to each leg, like a pair of human cowboy chaps, I hugged Naomi, and finally felt the ache of this two-year separation subside.

All around the world, emotional family reunions like mine are taking place. Sadly, so are an awful lot of family non-reunions; travel plans torn up, holiday invitations rescinded, gatherings cancelled. The same day that Mum, Dad and I arrived in LA, my friend Juliet was starting a 10-day motel quarantine in New York City. Juliet (a jet-setting solo mum) and her teenage daughter had both tested negative on departure, but Juliet tested positive on arrival… so sent her daughter off for the extended family Christmas they had been dreaming about for months, while she (voluntarily) checked into an astoundingly expensive motel in Hicksville and ordered UberEats. Her friends have formed a WhatsApp support group for her, where we laugh at her snaps of the miserable motel tuckshop, fellow inmates and bizarre Christmas decor. 

Juliet and I share a mantra: if something cannot be fun for us, it can at least be a fun story for our friends. But even the most creative gallows humour is a poor substitute for a long-overdue family Christmas.

So I know how lucky I am to be here in Bishop. I did hope, however, that my sentimentality would hold at bay my own selfish traveller’s needs for a little longer than seven hours. A few months ago, I would have told you that I’d sleep on a bed of nails in the snow if it meant I got to see Naomi and her family. Back then I was making all sorts of dark deals with the travel gods, cheerfully offering my soul in exchange for the correct series of QR codes that would grant me admission to the United States. But by 2am that very first night, I was on dirty old ordering an electric blanket, fussing about the temperature. (In my defence I am sleeping in her cute caravan in subzero temperatures, and cuteness can’t keep you warm at night.) 

Twelve hours after my arrival, I was wondering if I could find a yoga class nearby. Twenty-four hours after making it to Bishop, I was missing the quietness of my own home office. All this joyful family time is playing havoc with my ability to listen to podcasts! 

But perhaps it’s no bad thing that I’m determined to balance out an emotional family occasion with something resembling a break. Most of us are experiencing unprecedented levels of sentimentality this year. But let’s not let these dangerous levels of sentimentality get in the way of the holiday we all desperately need. 

Psychologists would say this is all about “boundaries”. I prefer good old-fashioned “selfishness”. I haven’t always been this good at selfishness, however. For most of my 20s, I believed in blithely abandoning my regular rituals, habits and healthy routines as soon as I joined a group. Then I would wonder why I felt so stressed, fed up, unhealthy and below-par – a rubbish daughter, sister, partner and travel companion. 

For many of us, the Christmas holidays are an exercise in disruption and discomfort. I know loving grandparents who step into the roles of exploited au pairs every Christmas, woken at 5am, spooning gruel into hostile mouths at 7am, trying to make sense of mystery meltdowns at 9am… while their adult children try to snatch a few precious hours of sleep. Friends with young kids have had their entire sleeping programme thrown out of joint by trying to force another family’s routines on to their own on ill-fated group holidays. I’ve slept on steadily deflating air mattresses in an attic in Shetland, fighting with my partner over an ancient Spider-Man single duvet. I have written my final articles of the year hiding from nieces and nephews in a laundry room, cross-legged on the floor with my laptop on my knees, as my keyboard vibrates along with the spin cycle.

We do all this because we love the people we love. But these days, I believe in a healthy balance between submitting to the needs of the tribe, and maintaining my own individual fiefdom. And if this means running away from my beloved nephews for a solo hike, in the middle of a pandemic, when everyone else I know has had such gleeful family reunions cancelled, well, this is just how I travel.