For the past fifteen or so years, our family has been building holiday traditions. We incessantly listen to the same music (the Roches’ “We Three Kings”) and put up the same questionable decorations (I confess, the illuminated lawn penguins were my idea). Everyone gets new pajamas on Christmas Eve. We’ve always held a gingerbread-house party for the girls and their friends. We bake up divine sugared pecans to distribute to friends, coaches, and teachers. My husband and I break out a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, which we don’t touch the rest of the year. We often host a “New York New Year’s” party (ending at 9 p.m. for us West Coast folks who can’t stay up until midnight), featuring board games and pots of soup. These things, so often repeated, now feel indelible.
When I was growing up, my small family had its own traditions. I always went to pick out a Christmas tree with my father, while my mother stayed home and made hot chocolate for us to drink when we returned with cold red ears and noses. It never occurred to me to wonder, or to ask, who bought the tree when I went away to college. Did she go with him? Did he go alone?
For most of my childhood, my extended family — cousins, aunts and uncles — came to our house for Christmas dinner. My mother fixed a huge turkey with bacon stuffing and a sweet potato casserole with marshmallows. After dinner, the relatives would tromp down the basement steps to pick through my traveling-salesman father’s sample boxes. He represented a dozen companies at a time, and sold everything from miniature antique dollhouse furniture to Rainbow glass to silver and turquoise jewelry to wicker baskets to Peanuts items. Whenever he “discontinued a line,” the company would let him keep the cartons of samples. Then it was time for the free-for-all. At Christmas he’d open the basement door and let our relatives and my neighborhood friends gleefully take whatever they liked.
When I was in my late teens, a family rift left my parents, grandmother, and me on one side of a chasm, and Everyone Else on the other. We didn’t have anyone over for dinner anymore. The basement door stayed shut. We ate on everyday plates at the kitchen table. It was way too quiet for comfort.
To build a set of traditions can be a joyful thing, but to dismantle them can be heartbreaking. And yet some shifting and evolving of tradition is necessary as children grow up, and families change. Isn’t it?
For the past few years, our family has gone to Las Vegas the day after Christmas. A brief but very festive and flashy vacation, filled with Cirque du Soleil shows and good meals. But this year, I didn’t make the reservations. We’ve seen all the shows now. We’ve eaten a lot of food. We’d been there. We’d done that. When I tried to suggest that maybe we stay home, or go someplace closer, confusion broke out. Where could we go? We couldn’t agree on a destination.
And then my attempts to plan the gingerbread-house party were met with downcast eyes and, “We don’t need to do that this year.” Whaaaaat? I suddenly felt as if all of the children in my home had sprouted wings and flown away to Neverland. I felt like Puff the Magic Dragon, forlorn and alone in his cave.
I was sad for a few days. Then my daughter said, “We can do the gingerbread thing, Mom.”
I looked at her suspiciously. “But do you want to?”
She hesitated. “Wellll . . . ”
I shook my head. “No. We’re not doing this for me.”
“But you really want to!”
The idea of my daughter grimly sticking peppermint candies onto an icing roof for my sake was too depressing. And just like that, poof, another tradition gone.
I went down to the storage room to break out the decorations. They just looked too ugly all of a sudden, too tacky. I climbed upstairs empty-handed. On December first, my daughter hung our Advent calendar – a polyester affair with small fabric decorations in numbered pockets that you Velcro onto the form of a tree, day by day. “I hate this Advent calendar!” she declared. She was used to sharing days, odd and even, with her sister, and with her sister away at college, the whole thing felt wrong. “Plus. I like the kind where you get chocolate — or something nice — every day.” Hmph.
This holiday season feels like something brand new, wobbly and ungrounded, as we abandon some traditions and take others on. Our children are growing up, and the things they used to treasure are not nearly as dear anymore. I’m trying not to mourn the passing of the old, but it does feel like a major sea change from what felt like an endless era of childhood.
I bought a cute new advent calendar, a knitted laundry line of numbered stockings, hats, and mittens, which can indeed hold chocolates and other small treats. I’m firing up the oven for a marathon baking session of sugared pecans. My college girl just texted me with the urgent request to FedEx a box of pecan gift bags that she can give to her professors and coaches. Some traditions do live on.
Instead of Las Vegas, we’re going to a Northern California beach in winter, to take bundled-up walks along the shore, to soak in the hot tub and look at the stars. The vacation will be over on New Year’s Eve day, but we won’t be hosting the board game party. The girls have been invited to more exuberant parties with their friends, and it will just be my husband, mother, and me, who will no doubt go to bed long before midnight, maybe after watching a rented movie, with a nice glass of Bailey’s over ice.