One of the best Christmases I ever had was the time I spent it mostly alone.

It was 2006. I’d moved to Denver that October and was still new to my co-workers at 5280; the only friend I had here was the guy who got me the job. The plan was to fly to Arizona to see my family, but as I inched blindly up a snow-swamped Peña Boulevard toward DIA, I could tell my trip was doomed.

That day, December 20, was the first of countless, impossibly snowy days that year (it would become Denver’s third-snowiest December on record). As the blizzard buffeted my Toyota, I called the airline; my flight had been canceled, so I made a U-turn, loaded up on groceries—my car would soon be buried for about two weeks—and resigned myself to a holiday that would have been comical if it hadn’t been such a colossal downer. You see, my 40th birthday was just a few hours away.

I’ve never really liked Christmas. Part of it is the usual beef: It’s crassly commercial; it’s strayed too far from its original meaning; it causes undue stress. There’s a reason Hollywood keeps churning out bittersweet holiday movies about dysfunctional families reuniting over big meals and bigger grudges: They’re funny (or sad, or heartwarming, or irritating) because they’re true.

My family is no exception. My parents divorced when I was 11, and although we hadn’t established many Christmas traditions before they split, their breakup ensured that we never would. Mom and Dad still got along, they never used the holidays as a guilt-trippy wedge for us kids, and we’ve always been warmly included in our new stepfamilies’ celebrations. But none of that really matters. Being a child of divorce means feeling disjointed, especially over the holidays, and not even the most well-intentioned parents can fix that. No matter how “at-home” family number one makes you feel, there’s no escaping the nagging sense that you should be somewhere else, sharing the seasonal joy with family number two. It’s no one’s fault; it just is.

And then there’s my birthday. For most of the year, being born on December 21 is pretty cool. “Ooh, a Christmas baby!” people gush. Still, most of my birthdays—the one day each year when you’re permitted a little self-indulgence—have been hijacked by last-minute shopping panic, traveling mishaps, or Kringle-induced family squabbles.

Or, in 2006, by isolation. Once it became clear I’d be glued to Denver for the break, I waited for depression to slide down the chimney.

Only it didn’t. I started to hear from friends, relatives—even mere acquaintances—who’d found out I was stranded. There were sympathetic emails. My aunts sent heartfelt cards. My lone friend here invited me to join his family for a lovely Christmas dinner, and after the break, my new co-workers cheerfully berated me for not coming over to their houses. Like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, I felt like the richest man in town. 2006 taught me that Christmas is about being with who you love in spirit, even if you can’t in actuality, and feeling grateful that someone is thinking about you.

That year also showed me the importance of establishing my own traditions, which I’ve begun doing with my girlfriend. This will be the second Christmas we navigate together—and our second Brown Palace holiday brunch. Whatever path our celebrations take from here, I couldn’t have found a more simpatico partner. Perhaps it’s because of her birthday: December 25.