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Cold Days, Warm Hearts: Surviving the Holidays in a Long-Distance Relationship

Sleigh bells jingle in the frozen air, their melodies rising over drifts of snow that cover highway and hill. The Christmas tree glows in the living room, Menorah in the dining room, sending soft lights shimmering off window panes, casting an inviting image to the outside world of you and your someone snuggled on the couch, sipping egg nog, holding each other to the warmth of your bodies, gazing into the roaring fire, thinking about love.

Let’s be serious: commercials began blaring Christmas music above shelves of leftover Halloween candy, the snow doesn’t fall where you live and global warming’s messing with it anyway, and you and your someone are dealing (yet again) with the trials of your long-distance relationship (LDR) at the time of the year when the movies tell us everything should run smoothly. It’s hard enough to maintain a spirit of generosity and fend off cynicism as stores sell out of toys, ice covers your car, and you recognize just how little the rest of the world has, but you don’t need to add your relationship status to the list of things stressing you out.

John and I are still planning our respective Christmases, but I’m expecting at least one of us to celebrate the holiday with at least one family. It didn’t work as ideally for Thanksgiving just a few weeks ago. Since we met in high school, and our LDR is created by the distance between our colleges, we are fortunate to return to adjacent hometowns. While this would normally put us within walking distance of shared holiday celebrations, my immediate family passes a chunk of the break at my aunt’s house, about 60 miles away. So this year, like others, John and I spent the time around Thanksgiving together, but fed our faces at different locations. While this arrangement saddened me because Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, I recognized the millions of couples in LDRs at this time of year that don’t even get the opportunity to see each other, let alone share a hug and wish a Happy Thanksgiving as they climb into cars and drive away.

But as you know by now, presence isn’t everything, and time apart can still feel (almost) like time together. John and I rehashed the mashed potatoes over the phone, but Skype is a great way to share moments that you can’t spend together. I’ve heard of people video chatting into dinners, projecting their faces from computer screens looming over the cranberry sauce. Why not Skype your loved one into your family’s tree-decorating tradition, or bring them to the kitchen while you make latkes? And don’t forget snail mail. Receiving presents is great; receiving mail is awesome; receiving presents in the mail, perhaps unexpectedly, is one of the best feelings next to exchanging your gifts in person.

Although we all recognize the glory of technology in keeping us together, it’s not a good idea to video chat your partner into every holiday moment or gush over grandma’s pumpkin pie as soon as it’s in your stomach. Clear the table, play a game with the cousins, and let it digest. The holidays are about dedicating time to everyone you love, and everyone who loves you. Don’t neglect your family and friends just because one pixely smile from them doesn’t put your heart in a tizzy. Recognizing the value of divided time, for couples apart and together, is crucial. Each of you has your own traditions, built up over a lifetime, and those traditions deserve your concentration; sometimes separating yourself from your partner can allow you to better appreciate what’s going on around you.

It’s a series of compromises. Christmas Eve is the best example of that in my relationship with John. It’s one of my favorite days; I may like it even better than Christmas for its sense of anticipation. I tend to spend my Christmas Eve day solely with my family, preparing the house, all waiting for Santa to be driven down our street on a fire truck (just one of the joys of small-town traditions). At midnight we attend a service at church, but before that I celebrate the day with John’s family at a party in the evening. I appreciate the talk and laughter of a crowd of joyful people and then appreciate joy in a more subdued and reflective way. In one important day John and I divide our time successfully and enjoy each other’s company and the season by combining two customs that seemed difficult to reconcile at first.

Time apart is important, but time for you is crucial. As much as they’re about sharing everything, the holidays are about cherishing moments, and moments without focus will pass you by. As I mentioned before, my family spends pieces of the holidays at my aunt’s house, usually with nine other family members. We fill our days with presents, meals, ping-pong, and generally raucous fun. The moments I appreciate most, however, are when I settle myself onto the sofa under one of my aunt’s quilts and read a book for pleasure. I can lift my eyes to the action around me, frequently the slow turning of pages by other readers, but I stay in my own restful world, rebooting for the next event.

These moments of peaceful self-indulgence and family traditions can feel lost or muted when the holidays are spent with your partner, so not passing them together is not necessarily coal in your stocking. Consider the birthday alternative. Perhaps getting together for your birthdays is more reasonable, possibly more exciting. Birthdays typically aren’t associated with the stress of the holiday season, the pressure to “meet the family” or to create quaint memories of bounding through the snow hand-in-hand. But images like these are alluring, aren’t they? And the desire to create memories and continue traditions is strong. So whether your proximity to the one you love is favorable or not this holiday season, embrace wherever you are, and love the one you’re with.

Melinda Clemmer
Melinda traveled short distances with her family but took her first big trip to Europe, as a student ambassador, when she was 13. The sights, sounds, and smells enchanted her, and soon she traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina for a university Spanish immersion program. Since then she has lived in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, California, and Texas and sees every new challenge as a great future story. When not traveling, Melinda’s craving for good stories and amazing travel is satisfied by reading writers’ contributions as Wanderful’s Managing Editor.

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