What happens when you say "See ya!" to holiday stress, pare back on presents, skip the cards, and surprise your kids with a road trip instead? Writer Elisabeth Egan found out.

Elisabeth Egan and family
Credit: Rob Howard

When I got married, I dreamed of having one of those families where everyone wears matching snowflake sweaters and sings carols around the piano. I hoped our future children would invite their friends over to string popcorn and cranberries. We would count our blessings over a crackling fire and rejoice more in the giving than in the receiving.

In pursuit of this vision, I aggressively established holiday traditions. One was handmade cards—200 of them—crafted from felt, buttons, and scrapbook paper, dispatched around the globe in square brown envelopes requiring extra postage. One year, I made the envelopes myself. Another, I melted red sealing wax on the flaps, imprinting each red puddle with a tiny candy-cane stamp. I would save lone-soldier socks all year to fashion into ornaments—festive balls stuffed with pillow batting and tied up with grosgrain ribbon. I invested in a candy thermometer and a double boiler and made six varieties of holiday confections, which I bundled into festive tins tied with raffia.

I left matching holiday pajamas under each of our kids’ beds with a note that said, “Congratulations! You’ve received this bonus gift because you were extra good this year.” For our annual winter-solstice party, I made 200 pigs in a blanket. I even owned a tasteful holiday sweater.

But after 13 years of producing the extravaganza for everyone else, I started to dread the holiday season. My special traditions felt like items to check off a list, especially in conjunction with shopping for dozens of presents, mobilizing gift cards for teachers and babysitters, assembling presentable clothing for holiday events, and attending sing-alongs at multiple schools and houses of worship.

I started to get sloppy. I ordered custom postage stamps with a photo of our family and didn’t notice that one of our daughters had been cropped out. (“Huh? Guess I didn’t make the cut,” she said as she glanced at the envelopes, ready to be mailed.) I dropped the ball on the bonus present, and our youngest burst into tears: “Was I bad?!”

This all culminated in a “Mommie Dearest” moment the night before Christmas 2014. We hosted dinner for 12. When the guests left, sometime after midnight, I pulled out the presents from closets, under beds, inside cabinets—all of them still unwrapped. With piles and shopping bags surrounding me, I discovered my wrapping supplies were down to almost nothing—scraps from a school fund-raiser, one wafer-thin roll of tape, no scissors. From the basement, I could hear my husband, Ethan, cursing as he attempted to assemble a mini trampoline.

About to lose my mind, I assessed the damage and marched into our older kids’ rooms. “Guys,” I said, as they blinked like moles in the light, “do you still believe in Santa?”

“No,” said the 14-year-old, Louisa.

“Maybe a little bit,” said Simon, 12, hedging his bets. Their eight-year-old sister, Frankie, had fallen asleep listening for Rudolph.

I took a deep breath, visions of future therapy sessions dancing in my head. “OK, here’s the deal,” I said. “I’m Santa. And I need help.”

Back downstairs, I rationed slivers of tape, and my husband flattened old newspaper into gift wrap as our big kids diligently and quietly printed names and affixed labels with sweatshop resignation. In a rare conspiratorial moment, my daughter whispered to her younger brother, “Just so you know: What’s happening here is not normal.”

At 2 A.M., as my husband and I fell asleep, I whispered, “I’m not doing this again next year.”

“Good night, Scrooge,” he said.

The following December, with the help of my coconspirator (Ethan), I set out to have a different kind of Christmas. I didn’t obsess about cards or cookies. I trimmed the list for our holiday party and served less food (nobody noticed). Our younger daughter wore a hand-me-down denim vest and clunky snow boots to her school concert, and my heart still grew three sizes when her class played “The Dreidel Song.” For the first time in 14 years, we arrived at my mom’s choir concert early enough to snag five seats in the same pew. I sat holding my husband’s hand, actually listening to the hymns instead of jotting a to-do list in the margins of the program. When I closed my eyes, I was transported back to a familiar and beloved touchstone from childhood: the sound of my mom’s alto, belting out the chorus of “We Three Kings.”

On Christmas Eve, I couldn’t fall asleep—not because we were spelunking in the junk drawer for a Phillips-head at midnight, but because I couldn’t wait for the big reveal we’d planned for Christmas morning. We’d told the kids there would be something different about gifts this year, but we didn’t get specific. Our secret was that instead of the usual bounty, much of which gets abandoned by the tree, we were taking a surprise 10-day road trip from our New Jersey home to the Carolinas, visiting Charleston, Hilton Head, and Asheville (city, beach, and mountains), with a stop in Washington, D.C., on the way back.

Planning and booking this vacation took a total of three hours—a fraction of the time we normally spend brainstorming and shopping for gifts. And the execution cost less than you might expect, thanks to low gas prices, a tight souvenir budget, and off-season hotel rates.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to Christmas Eve. After our dinner for 12 (Ethan made pork ragu in the slow cooker, and I passed the dessert torch on to our older daughter, whose chocolate chip cookies are our family’s best hope for future wealth), the kids headed upstairs, archly requesting a decent night’s sleep. Ethan and I took our time wrapping a couple of small gifts, then curled up and watched a movie together, still making it to bed before midnight.

I woke up nervous that the kids would feel cheated by the fact that there was so little under the tree. Turned out, when we came downstairs, the cats—as if accessories to our Christmas plan—had created a distraction by shredding the wrapping paper off most of the gifts. The kids didn’t even seem to notice that their haul was significantly smaller than usual and that it consisted mostly of basics, like mittens, socks, and books.

When there were no more boxes to open, my husband handed a slip of paper to the kids. It was a rhyming clue—the first of eight leading to our big reveal. The hunt took us, as a family, through the house, from attic to basement, clue to clue, and finally brought us to the driveway. Opening the door to our minivan, the kids found a small white box buckled into the middle seat. Inside was a scrapbook revealing, in photos and words, the trip that we would embark on the next day.

Our youngest, once she realized what was happening, said with utter delight, “It’s like those commercials where they get a surprise trip to Disney World, but better!” And our two older kids were just as excited, even though they’re in the throes of adolescence, a zone naturally pillared by resentment and boredom.

Next, we gave each kid a certificate for his or her own “experience gift”: a culinary tour of Charleston for Louisa; a Savannah ghost tour via hearse (!) for Simon; and a horseback ride through a nature preserve on Hilton Head for animal-lover Frankie. I also surprised my husband with a reservation for zip-lining, which quickly became the most hotly anticipated event of the week.

We packed Christmas Day, went to my mom’s house for Christmas dinner, then came home and argued about whether we should undecorate the tree and drag it to the curb before we headed out of town. My husband worried about the fire hazard of leaving a dry tree in an empty house; I worried the naked tree would be an invitation to burglars. Laziness prevailed!

We left the next morning at dawn. The drive to Charleston should have taken 12 hours. With traffic, it took us 19, which included six movies, one lengthy audiobook (All the Light We Cannot See), lunch at a Panera near Quantico, and dinner at Prime Smokehouse, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. This was a barbecue joint we found on Yelp, and it provided our favorite meal of the entire trip. (When the waitress brought over an unsolicited refill of sweet tea, our 14-year-old said, “It’s weird how people here are so nice.”)

From there, our adventure unfolded as all family vacations do—or at least all my family vacations: equal parts “Why are my kids so annoying?” and “I truly adore these people.” Some days I felt like the mom in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (frazzled, long-suffering); others, like Carol Brady (amiable, relaxed to the point of seeming medicated).

A few highlights: strolling along the Battery in Charleston, then visiting the Calhoun Mansion, a museum in the largest private home in the city. Hearing Gullah spoken for the first time and gorging on fried chicken at Leon’s Fine Poultry & Oyster Shop, a former auto-body joint that still has its original garage doors. On Hilton Head, we went night swimming, rode bikes on the beach, and ate “oooey-gooey” sandwiches at a tucked-away treasure called the Lowcountry Produce Market & Café. (For the uninitiated: This delicacy consists of grilled pimiento cheese, bacon, and garlic pepper jelly on plain old white bread.) In Savannah, we waited on an hour-long line for Leopold’s famous ice cream and were so richly rewarded that we considered waiting another hour for seconds. We visited Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, in Asheville (a vast, cozy mecca for bookworms), strolled through the galleries in the River Arts District, and capped off the first day of 2016 with a candlelit tour of the Biltmore Estate, the Vanderbilts’ country cottage, which has 250 rooms and 43 bathrooms. (You know, as country cottages do.) In Washington, D.C., we rested our feet on our friends’ coffee table and regaled them with travel tales. Then the kids jumped on the trampoline while the adults drank wine.

Personally, I hate hearing about other people’s idyllic vacations (the only thing worse is listening to someone else’s dream), so let me assure you: We had plenty of tense moments. Our kids pinched one another and feuded in the backseat. My husband and I got into a heated argument in the parking lot at South of the Border—the world’s most overrated megamall/pit stop. (If there’s a couple who hasn’t gotten into a heated argument in the parking lot at South of the Border, I would like to meet them!) The ghost tour backfired: Afterward, certain members of our family needed to sleep with the lights on, and other members of our family were not as sympathetic as they could have been. As for the much anticipated zip-line adventure? We showed up on the wrong day, and the course was closed. But overall this was the happiest, most relaxing vacation we’ve ever taken together. It’s also the first one where our kids slept late, so my husband and I were able to squeeze in breakfast and a walk before they woke up—the Christmas miracle I’d been waiting for.

Looking back on all our family Christmases, even the most frenetic, I find there is one moment that never loses its luster: when all five of us line up at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning, then parade down to the living room to begin our celebration. What gets me every time is the togetherness—all of us in our pajamas, tree twinkling, coffee percolating, Bing Crosby filling the peaceful silence. No matter what happens next, whether we’re untwirling those maddening twist ties that hold toys in boxes or bickering about whether it’s rude to ask the neighbors for a cup of sugar on Christmas, this is the moment I remember on my first day back at work after the holidays, or the following October, when I’m in the grocery store and I hear the season’s inaugural rendition of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

On our road trip, that moment showed up, in a somewhat different form: We had just finished our first day in Charleston, and the five of us were crammed into a too-small hotel room, resting before dinner. One daughter flipped through a leather binder advertising local attractions, pretending to be a concierge. The other daughter lay flopped on a cot, reading a book. Our son tossed a Nerf football at the popcorn ceiling. My husband squinted at his phone, ordering the tickets for the next day’s event. There wasn’t anything magical about the scene—no ringing bells or crackling fire or wafting perfume of Douglas fir—but the feeling was the same: the joy of being all in one place at one time, with everything to look forward to.

Photo credit: Rob Howard