“Are you ready for Christmas?” asked the sweet lady at the place where I was paying a bill. She was the second person to ask the question that day. When I admitted I wasn’t, a scant two weeks before C-Day, her eyes widened in shock. “My goodness, what are you going to do?”

A few days later, a friend commented that the best way to get ready for Christmas is to make travel plans–to a city distant from anyone you’re remotely related to. Funny thing is, I like Christmas. I like Christmas trees, great big tacky light displays, Nativity scenes, and chocolate Santas. I like giving presents. I really like getting presents. But for the biggest of public holidays, Christmas also seems the most private of days. I’ve spent a couple Christmases walking deserted streets, looking at tight-shut doors, wondering if I’d rather be in there huddled with a bunch of relatives grimly determined to be festive if it kills them. Or if it was better to skulk around in self-pity, getting colder and colder, like some poor little Match Girl.

My family seems to have dwindled with the years–my siblings don’t all show up, there have been divorces, my sister’s kids are no longer kids, my brother’s wife doesn’t seem to care for us, not that I blame her. Family gatherings used to be hostile–one more round in the battle of 10-year-old grudges and childhood resentments, everyone choosing a side each time. Now we are kinder to each other, almost polite, as is appropriate with people you no longer know very well. Holidays are something I try to make the best of, biding time until I can return to my real world.

One of the most dismal-seeming Christmases I ever had was also one of the happiest. I was living in Chicago, with a boyfriend who’d just moved in with me. He was avoiding his family, for some reason, and mine was far away. We refused all invitations, and kept to ourselves. We ingested a substance I’d better not name, and went walking along the lakefront, where the waves washed up into huge, eerie ice formations on the shore.

Sadly, said substances had absolutely no effect. We were just cold and dinnerless. We went home and rummaged in the fridge. It was remarkably empty. We ended up eating hard-boiled eggs and pickles. I think it made us a little nauseous, but it seemed an appropriate Christmas dinner, in honor of all the lonely old men spending the evening in bars all across that icy city. We kind of had a good time, but I was glad when it was over.