Hint: It involves a lot of food and booze.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Last year I thought it’d be simple to find someone to celebrate Christmas with. I was in Bangkok, where I didn’t really know anybody, but still—I figured I could pull something off with a hookup app. I couldn’t. I didn’t do Christmas growing up, but still found being alone for it pretty sad, especially 8,465 miles from home. And yet I put myself in the exact same situation again this year, except in the Andes instead of Bangkok. But this year, I’m thinking that food, not a fling, might be a more reliable strategy for Christmas since it’s the only thing I can really control.
Being raised Muslim, I didn’t celebrate Christmas at all until I came out of the closet and left the house over 16 years ago. My ex-turned-best-friend was looking for a reason to escape the dysfunction of his family, so we decided to re-appropriate the holiday, replacing turkey and trimmings with a shopping cart full of cheeses, crackers, cold cuts, seafood and desserts, like we were kids on a shopping spree. We always bought just as much booze as food, and the whole thing became a bit of a bender for a day or two. By virtue of circumstance, our Christmases went against typical traditions involving family dinners and stocking stuffers. No tradition became the tradition.
Soon we were inviting friends and friends of friends to join, and sometimes their friends too. My drug dealer (he was Jewish; he didn’t celebrate either) came one year with his pals, and after my best friend moved away, I organized my own Christmas, hosting my Parisian neighbors and a writer I had met at a reading, who in turn brought a bunch of her people, including a girl who did some work as a dominatrix. The holiday evolved into a gathering for those who couldn't make it home or who were left behind by normative traditions. So long as nobody stole from me, all were welcome.
It wasn’t a conscious decision not to be home for the holidays last year. I’m a freelancer and can do my job anywhere, so I try to take advantage of that whenever possible. I planned a two-month trip to Thailand because I’d always been curious about Bangkok’s nightlife and street food. Missing out on Christmas was an afterthought.
And since I’d grown accustomed to being around strangers during the holidays, I thought, I should try to find someone to celebrate with who might also be on their own. We could go shopping for food and buy booze, just like at home. I met loads of people through hookup apps, but none that I really felt comfortable enough to spend the holidays with, so in the end I was on my own. It all fell apart as a result because I thought, “Why bother getting food or alcohol if I’m by myself?”
I felt like a big screwup, being alone like that, like my priorities were out of whack. Being alone for Christmas seemed like punishment. The only thing that made it easier was that Thailand is predominantly Buddhist and most of Bangkok’s city streets lacked the kind of holiday decorations that would have reminded me of my inadequacies. Everything was pretty much open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day so I went on with it, trying to pretend it was any other day.
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This year, Peru just kind of happened. My parents recently divorced and my mom wanted to visit Machu Picchu with her kids to celebrate her newfound freedom. I decided to travel to the country a few weeks beforehand to check out the Amazon and then go up into the Andes, settling in Cusco before meeting my mom and my siblings on Boxing Day. They didn’t bother planning to arrive on Christmas—because again, they don’t celebrate the holiday.
Peru is largely Catholic, so I know that I’m going to get off as easy as I did in Bangkok with the no-public-decoration thing. There’s a Christmas fair called Santurantikuy market (“selling of the saints”) in Cusco's main square, Plaza de Armas. The square will be outfitted with lights and decorations. At midnight on Christmas Eve, fireworks apparently go off by the hundreds throughout the city, but as loud the night will be, the next morning will apparently be equally as quiet and it will stay that way for the rest of Christmas. Am I going to be lonely and sad? Maybe.
But rather than looking for a Band-Aid solution, I think I need to accept that loneliness goes with the territory when traveling solo. If I want to keep traveling like this (which I do), I need to suck it up and get used to the idea that this is what the holidays look like when you're away. So in Cusco, whether I make a friend or not, here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to go to the grocery store on Christmas Eve, fill up my basket with whatever looks good, and buy just as much booze. I’ll bring it all back to my AirBnB, spread it all out like I’m having a party, and go at it. Drunk and bloated, I’ll walk through the city streets at midnight to check out these fireworks I read about. I’ll return back to my place and call it Christmas.