Illustration: Libby McGuire

I have never spent the December holidays anywhere but back home with my family. Through college in another state, through post-college jobs with little time off, through a move two time zones away, I still make it home every Christmas. The option not to go home, to just stay put and spare myself the overpriced plane ticket and the travail of Newark Airport baggage claim seems not to enter my mind. And so, every year, I find myself home, temporarily bored in the suburbs.

There are the requisite Christmas festivities, of course, and now that my parents are divorced, they’re doubled. Gift-giving with one; gift-giving with other; Christmas Eve mass with one; Christmas Day mass with the other. (I spend so much time in church around the holidays that I can recite the lyrics to the rarely-sung third verse of “Hark The Herald Angels Sing.” Worst party trick ever!) But between gifts and church and cooking and visiting family, there is plenty of down time. I used to know how to amuse myself in my hometown, but those plans involved high-school friends who’ve moved away or coffee shops that have since closed or teenage hijinks I’ve since outgrown.

What follows is a brief, Kate-tested compendium of activities to keep an adult from tearing out her hair with boredom when back in the ’burbs for the holidays. (Note to my mom and dad and little brother: I do love being home at Christmas with you guys. I wouldn’t miss it.)


1. Liquor cabinet archaeological dig

If your parents, like mine, have a lacquered-wood liquor cabinet with brass knobs and musty contents like a sarcophagus, you too can play boozy Indiana Jones. Remove the cobwebbed bottles one by one, attempting to guess the decade in which they were last opened. Consult Encyclopedia Britannica if necessary.

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2. Sibling-vs.-sibling Chopped

Enlist a sibling or cousin who would also like to pass the next hour avoiding another episode of daytime courtroom television. Set a timer for 20 minutes, open your family’s refrigerator, and construct a meal out of its contents, which ideally include head-scratchers like fat-free cottage cheese, a brick of ageless marzipan, and leftover chili. Let the family dog determine the winning dish.

3. Grocery-store bar hide-and-seek

Bars inside grocery stores like Whole Foods and Wegmans are a welcome development not just for restless housewives but also for adults returning to their hometowns. Acquiesce to your family’s request that you come holiday-meal grocery shopping with them, then see how long it takes your family to realize you’ve absconded from the gouda display and have been drinking holiday beers at the bar. I’ll arbitrarily set the time-to-beat at 12 minutes.

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4. Panettone-carving contest

Some people enjoy this Italian Christmas bread, and when it’s fresh, it can be quite the treat. But what is any household supposed to do with three loaves of the stuff, perhaps of varying degrees of degradation? Open those babies up, grab some paring knives, and get sculpting. Your aunt might go with a classic Venus De Milo (arms are hard to carve in bread, anyway), while your art-school cousin might get modern with a fruit-flecked tribute to Richard Serra.

5. Grandma’s grocery guessing game

Need to pass 20 minutes with grandma? Tired of her bugging you about your aversion to homeownership/marriage/capitalism? Casually ask her about grocery prices, a trick that keeps my older relatives talking without interruption until they’ve exhausted themselves: “Doesn’t it seem like milk used to be less expensive? And when did stores start ripping you off on grapefruit?” That should set in motion a string of grocery-store price-fixing conspiracy theories that require little more than a nod or “mhm” from you. Chime in every now and then with “How much is peanut butter at your store?” to keep the momentum going.

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How do you pass the time in the suburbs during the holidays? Besides drinking and laughing at your high school friends’ Facebook pictures? Please share. We’d really like to know... asking for a friend.