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There's No Place Like (Being Away From) Home for the Holidays
How do nomads and long-term travelers deal with being away from friends and family for the holidays? It's complicated.
As one very popular Christmas carol insists, there’s no place like home for the holidays.
Which can be a problem for digital nomads and other long-term travelers who are often very far from their loved ones when that most festive time of year rolls around.
In fact, the more appropriate carol just might be, “I’ll Be Home For Christmas (If Only in My Dreams).”
Going home for the holidays isn’t only a problem for nomads, of course. As those carols attest, lots of people have to decide whether to make the trip back “home” for Christmas — or Chinese New Year, or Eid al-Fitr, or Diwali [Deepavali].
But the topic is especially fraught for long-term travelers who are already absent from their family’s day-to-day lives for long stretches of time. If we don’t go home, how do we deal with the guilt?
Naturally, different travelers come to very different conclusions.
Martha, 32, spent most of her 20s as a nomad, and she found that, pre-Covid, going home every Christmas created a kind of stability with her family back in Texas.
“It was the only time of the year they could guarantee that they saw me,” she says. “I think that consistency was a comfort to them.”
Martha also worked hard to stay in touch throughout the year, sending them messages and GIFs. “Here’s a pro-tip,” she says. “I don’t send them travel-related things unless they ask. I don’t rub my travel in their faces. I only send things they can relate to.”
Carl, 41, is another nomad, but with parents who have age-related issues, especially his mother’s dementia. “I feel lots of obligation,” he said, pointing out that he often goes home for months at a time to help out. “It keeps me from feeling free to be a nomad full-time.”
This year, he’s definitely going home. “For me and my sister, this year we know very well that it may be the last Christmas we have both of our parents around.”
Sometimes the long-term traveler is the parent, not the child, and that creates an entirely different dynamic.
“I love my boys,” said Rose, a seventy-five-year-old widow who became a full-time traveler eight years ago. “And I love my grandchildren. But I have never felt the need to give up my life to live the one they expect a gray-haired grandmother to live.”
The issue used to cause significant problems, because Rose’s family thought she should be around to babysit and not off gallivanting around the world — and she admits to sometimes feeling guilty.
“Mothers always feel guilty. I used to feel bad about missing holidays, but I had boys, and once they marry, they become absorbed into their wives’ families and leave theirs behind.”
Rose does work to keep a good relationship with her family. “I do go back,” she says. “Maybe once a year, and only when invited. And I Facetime the grandchildren, who are quite young, every couple of weeks.”
Angela is another traveling grandmother who felt that pressure to be available “just in case.” But she soon realized it was all based on stereotypes and pointless traditions.
“The reality is often so different,” she says. “My grandkids are twelve and fifteen now. They are upset when their grandfather and grandmother leave, and we are too. But by the next day they get on with their lives.”
In fact, she thinks their lives as travelers make them better grandparents — absence makes the heart grow fonder, and their grandmother more interesting.
“The richest family life can come when you and they are excited when you return for a visit,” Angela says.
Of course, not every traveler is terribly attached to the holiday season.
“Hanukkah doesn’t carry the same weight as Christmas,” says Naomi, a nomad in her 50s. “It’s never been a one eve or morning holiday, so expectations are different, and all are fine with it.”
For her, she misses the other big life events more — weddings, funerals, big birthdays, births.
“I try to stay in touch, send gifts, cards, donations, photos, but nothing matches being there,” she says. “It’s just one of the less delightful parts of the lifestyle.”
For some nomads, their families have done more than meet them halfway — they’ve flown across the world to spend the holidays with them.
Elena and her husband started traveling this past May — the very same day their daughter graduated from high school. But rather than be resentful, their daughter has come to see their new lifestyle as a massive plus.
“She said to us, ‘Look, Mom, do I want to come home and have a Christmas tree, or do I want to meet you guys in the Greek Islands? I’m going to pick the Greek Islands every time.’ For her, home now means wherever her parents are.”
In other words, in their case, there’s no place like a Greek Island for the holidays — or Mexico, which is where they plan to celebrate this year.
And, of course, some would-be travelers are deciding that, for the time being, they don’t want to be home only in their dreams — that there really isn’t any place like home for the holidays.
“We have small grandkids that we see several times a week, and I want them to feel like our home is their home,” says Tracy, another grandparent. “My parents are in their nineties, and I know we have very few years left with them. So, for now, we will dream and plan for when the time to become nomads is right.”
How do Brent and I feel about missing the holidays?
My parents are both deceased, as is Brent’s mother.
Harry, his father, currently lives in a nursing home back in Washington State. We both have brothers who have families of their own.
Our first two years as nomads, we returned for the month of December to see friends and family, but most especially Harry. Last year, due to Covid, Harry couldn’t have any visitors, which is why we spent the year-end in Mexico on our own.
This year, we aren’t returning to the States for the holidays either — partly for tax reasons, but also because Harry’s facility shuts down all visits whenever a resident or staff tests positive, which happens fairly frequently.
Other family and friends also won’t be available for a traditional Christmas, so we’d be going a long way for not much holiday cheer.
But one thing that being a nomad teaches you? As Elena and her daughter have learned, home doesn’t have to be a fixed place. Since Brent and I now move to a new country every couple of months, we’re always making some different place our “home.”
And that’s really the way it feels. We’re always surprised by how quickly we feel “at home” in a new city.
Partly, that’s because we’re together — with the person we both think is most important. But it’s also partly because the world is generally more open and welcoming than we knew.
As for Christmas, it’s amazing what an adaptable, expandable a holiday it’s turned out to be. Whether we’re in the middle of snow or palm trees, it still feels like a festive time of year — especially since we now always make a point to buy some lights and decorations, and maybe a small tree.
It’s not only in our dreams. We really are home for the holidays: our home.
We definitely still feel some guilt and FOMO for being away from friends and family. But almost everything in life has its pluses and minuses. There isn’t much that’s good that doesn’t come without sacrificing something else good.
So perhaps the most apt Christmas carol isn’t “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” or “There’s No Place Like Home (For The Holidays).”
It might be Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” perhaps the most bittersweet Christmas song ever written.
As Judy so memorably sings
Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow
Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now