I can think of no time more steeped in tradition than Christmas. When I was growing up, Thanksgiving marked the beginning of the season and I learned to celebrate it with the Macy’s parade. Seeing Santa Claus come down the street on his sleigh meant it was time to kick into high gear preparing for that one big day. I still tend to tear up when I see this year’s Santa waving to the crowd. It is tradition.
Immediately after Thanksgiving, we started with cookies. My step sister and I would pull favorite recipes out of their year-long storage and then ransack Woman’s Day and Family Circle magazines for new ones. With our list close at hand we would spend the first couple of weeks making and freezing cookie dough. The week before Christmas meant baking dozens of delicious and creative cookies. It was tradition.
The tree always had to be large and fresh and generously strung with carefully placed strands of silver tinsel that seemed to find its way around the house. In those days, we did not have the option of artificial trees but I’m not sure we would have ever gone that route in any case. After all, it was tradition.
Shopping meant lots of presents under the tree, most of them very inexpensive and some, like underwear and neckties, necessities. But, wrapping those simple gifts in on-so-creative ways (ideas culled again from Woman’s Day and Family Circle) transformed each one into something very special. That was tradition too and I spent hours at it.
At some point, the family would pile into the car and my dad would drive us around to see all the lovely Christmas lights. This was a carry-over tradition from my earliest days in Texas when the highlight of the season was walking around downtown Dallas to see the exciting displays in all the store windows, especially the animated ones at Penney’s and Neiman Marcus. Yet another important tradition.
Is it any wonder that when I married, I brought those traditions with me? The tree always had to be large, fresh and smothered in that insane silver tinsel. I drove myself crazy trying to bake cookies while holding down a full-time job. Shopping in December became my second full-time job. After all, I needed, really needed to let my new family know I could make Christmas something truly special. I so was exhausted from all the preparation that I forgot the important part of Christmas when it finally arrived – family.
Well, as I have gotten older and our family has changed, I have started allowing some old traditions to fade away and some new ones to creep in. Some of the old ones are easier to release than others.
The cookies and tinsel went first. That was easy. I realized I did not need the extra calories contained in too many Christmas cookies and my family did not seem to care one way or the other. And frankly, the tinsel went because it not only took forever to put on the tree, one strand at a time, but was also most unwelcome when it kept appearing in the house – in August!
The drive to see lights never caught on. After all, when you live in the country as we did for many years, it takes forever to find anyone who has decorated outside.
As our family scattered and grew with new spouses, grandchildren and then great-grandchildren, I eventually learned to curb the obsession over too many gifts and creative wrapping. Quality, I found, matters more than quantity. Instead of having a gift-opening frenzy, we introduced a new tradition. Rather than buying gifts, the adults now have a spirited gift exchange game that we all love. And, rather than ship gifts out of state, our far-flung families now make donations to favorite charities in the name of the family.
Eventually, the tree, that centerpiece of the holiday, changed too. It was the hardest tradition to change. The year we left on December 26 for a cruise, I was reluctant to leave a fire trap unattended in our house and so bought our first artificial tree. But at 7 ½ feet, it was still massive! Several years ago, I threatened to have no tree at all as that heavy tree (the second one I had bought) was just too much to drag out of storage and set up. A new tradition started that year. Our kids insisted we had to have the tree with all the very special ornaments I had collected over the years. That was the year Dale and Dennie started coming over early in December to assemble the tree for us.
This year was to be no different. Until cancer took our Dale in June and our Dennie spent most of the year fighting her own cancer. As we approached this holiday, celebrating in any way just did not seem to matter. I think we are all still grieving too deeply. I was torn. Do I soldier on, keeping to all the old traditions as though nothing has changed when in fact, everything has? Or can I get away with doing nothing, which is what would be easiest? Please, can’t we just ignore Christmas this once? Traditions be damned!
Still, tradition is a powerful beastie. Too many others are invested in continuing as we have before. One by one, they have let me know they plan to be here as always. And so, in honor of the son we have lost, we are keeping most of the old traditions alive. We will come together for Christmas Eve. We will have the same foods, the same drinks. We will have the gift exchange and it will be raucous. Christmas lights already adorn Dale’s house. His widow and son made sure of that because he always loved them so. It is, after all, tradition.
This year there is something new, however, driven by necessity. For the first time in my life, the tree is not only artificial, it is also a mere 5 ½ feet tall. It is lightweight and easy for us to handle without help. I have it decorated now, but my most special ornaments will remain in storage. The ones on the tree are lovely, just not the oldest or most meaningful. Perhaps this new, smaller tree will become tradition in time.
And in the gift exchange, there will be an extra gift, a ball cap, to be given to someone who would not otherwise get anything for Christmas. That will be in honor of Dale.
Changing the way things have always been done is never easy but it is inevitable, and we must somehow find a way to adapt. I think there can be comfort in the old ways, but sometimes, as it is with grief, they can be painful reminders of what has been lost, what will never be again. For me, a smaller Christmas tree and a simple ball cap are new traditions and adaptations to the changes this year has brought. They are small ones to be sure, but still they are changes I will have to get used to. It is one small way I have found to keep moving forward when all I want to do is stop.