We swung open the door to our tropical paradise of green leaves hanging from the rafters, a bamboo four-poster bed, and an in-room jacuzzi with a clear view of a flat-screen television.
Tahiti? Bermuda? Key West?
Nope. Our oasis was the Gilligan’s Island Fantasy Suite at the Radisson Hotel Valley Forge in suburban Philadelphia, adorned with empty wine crates labeled for Thurston Howell III. My husband, my sister, my mom, and I stood speechless, bewildered by the kitsch before us. Down the hall was the Little Red Riding Hood suite, deep in a fake forest, that my sister had booked for herself, also unaware of the innuendo.
It only took us a few seconds to notice there were no windows in these “suites.” But there was a mirror above the bed.
How did my family get here for the holidays? For years we had done transportation acrobatics to see my family over the few days between Christmas and the closest weekend. The year we traveled through five states in one day to make it from southern Indiana to northern New Jersey convinced us that something had to change.
What fun is holiday travel if that’s all we ever did during our time off? And so, a new tradition was born.
Behold, Hotel Christmas.
The first rule of Hotel Christmas? It’s never on Christmas.
In addition to our holiday travel time crunch to see in-laws and extended family, my mother and sister were rarely free on Dec. 25. My mother, a recently retired minister, understandably had to work on one of the biggest religious holidays of the year. My sister works in theatre in New York City — another career that rarely allows for multiple days off during the holidays.
So five years ago, we agreed to try our own version of Christmas — several days after the fact. We found the next available weekend and spent it holed up with one another at a Hyatt Regency in central New Jersey. At the time, the location was relatively equidistant from our homes, plus we got a terrific rate on a two-room suite as long as we were out by New Year’s Eve.
My mother, never one to let timing or schedule get in the way of the holiday spirit, drove from Pittsburgh with a 30-inch fake tree in the backseat. The stockings were hung from bellhop trolley with care. She set up the generic hotel room with holiday crafts and wrapped gifts -- all of which had been deeply discounted starting Dec. 26!
In the years that followed, we repeated the tradition. There’s always wine, cheese, and more wine. We open gifts. We empty the stockings. We laugh. In honor of our late Israeli father and keeping with the traditional Jewish celebration of Christmas, we order Chinese food. We go to the indoor pool and splash around like we’re 12 years old.
The second rule of Hotel Christmas? Save your money for shopping. We find the most affordable 4- or 5-star hotel available, and reserve the rest of our cash for the insane post-holiday sales.
This rule has brought us to some interesting locations to celebrate the holidays.
The most recent Hotel Christmas was celebrated at the Hyatt Regency in Greenwich, Conn. There was a leafy atrium, spacious rooms, and an indoor swimming pool, all within several miles of a Macy’s and an Anthropologie.
The ample shopping is why we celebrated a few times in King of Prussia, a Philadelphia suburb with one of the largest malls in the country. First we stayed at the Hyatt Place, and then at Gilligan’s Island, er, the Radisson.
The last rule of Hotel Christmas? Tip housekeeping.
It’s a honor and a pleasure to host family during the holidays. It’s also exhausting. So yes, we save whatever wrapping paper and adornments we choose, pack up the bellman cart, and then we check out. We don’t have to do much else in terms of cleaning up. That’s a gift in itself.
Is this ridiculous? Perhaps. Privileged? Certainly. Materialistic? Oh, yes.
But at the heart of the whole crazy tradition is this: It doesn’t matter where you are, but who you are with, that makes all the difference.
One by one, my mom, my sister, my husband, and I collapsed onto the king-size bed in our Gilligan’s Island artificial-plant filled “tropical paradise.” And as we each looked up, we saw the four of us reflected in a giant heart shaped mirror on the ceiling. We burst into laughter.
The mirror evoked the opposite of whatever you want to be thinking about when you pile into a bed with your immediate family.
My sister had an idea: Let’s take a mirror selfie.
Family holiday photo? Check.