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December 19, 2016

Caroline Leavitt: Booking Holiday Parties? I’ll Just Take the Book-ing Part, Please

Posted by emily

The holidays are a wonderful time, full of family and friends, but they can also be a bit…overwhelming. Caroline Leavitt has a rather simple and time-honored solution: read a book. Here, the New York Times bestselling author --- most recently of the acclaimed (and Bookreporter favorite) CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD --- shares her strategy for avoiding holiday stress, plus how to pull it off with minimal insult to your loved ones.

I know, I know. It’s the holidays. My husband and I love our families and our friends. But truly, the only social gatherings I want during holiday season are the ones I can read about in books.

When I was little, my family celebrated Hanukkah, and I loved it because it meant eight (8!!!) different presents hidden in my mother’s closet, one for each day. My sister and I would always shriek at the joy of getting just what we wanted, (I got all the Wizard of Oz books, Grimm’s illustrated fairy tales, as well as a notebook to write my own stories in). Even though we had told our mom at least 8,000 times what we wanted, somehow it was still a surprise.

But then, when I was older, holidays became more of a family affair. My mother had eight siblings, and they all had spouses and kids and even grandkids. My father’s family was a little more manageable, but they always seemed to be screaming instead of talking. My sister and I had to dress up in uncomfortable dresses. We’d gather at my grandmother’s house, which was two stories, and everyone would pinch my cheeks and remind me yet again how much prettier my older sister was than I was, and didn’t I wish I looked like her. There were never any presents, but I would take my secret weapon out of my plastic purse --- a book --- and find a corner.

While my Aunt Gertrude was singing opera, and my Aunt Jean was playing on the piano, and my Uncle Freddy was snapping his camera in everyone’s face, I snuck upstairs. I found what had been my mom’s old bedroom, where she slept three to a bed. I curled up and opened my book, MRS. MIKE, by Benedict and Nancy Freedman, and suddenly, I didn’t hear the out-of-tune piano or the laughter or even smell the green bean casserole that always made me sick because I had to take some “to be polite.” No, instead, I was Mrs. Mike, up in Alaska, a young bride, waiting out the cruelest winter she had ever known. Only once did I fall asleep up there, and when my mother found me, she didn’t have the heart to punish me. But she did tell me I was impolite.

And then I became an adult, and I realized I didn’t have to do holidays the way my family did. Instead, I called everyone in my family to tell them I loved them and wished them a happy holiday. I made plans to see them on another day, when the roads weren’t so crazy and travel was less grueling. I apologized for not being able to make it.  

In my first apartment in Manhattan, my neighbor and I cooked a sea bass in black bean sauce and sweet potatoes. We exchanged books that year. I gave her a book of poems and she gave me, because she didn’t have any money, her copy of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. The potatoes didn’t cook and the fish tasted funny, but I remember it being the best holiday of all. In the quiet, after she left, I stayed up until three reading. I still have that book.

Later, when I got married, and we had a son, one of the first things we taught him was how to read. At three, he could read the letters Santa sent to him. Later, he looked for the small square packages first because he knew they’d have books. We loved seeing him sprawled out, reading, one book after another.

Now that our son is in college, our new holiday tradition is to go on vacation as a family. We pack more books than clothes; we head off someplace warm. People talk about the importance of passing down traditions. But I know we have. We look outside for our son, and there he is, on a corner of the beach, buried in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, so engrossed, he doesn’t notice the tide coming in, lapping at his toes.