When Treasured Traditions Die: Remaking Christmas in the Face of Inevitable Changes
Seventeen years ago, while visiting my best friend Jill in Spokane, WA where I used to live, her brother made a space for me at the crowded Christmas table. I had my own place holder with a name, and there began my entry into this family’s long-held holiday traditions.
That night I watched in awe as a slew of family members moved seamlessly in and out of the kitchen, wine glasses in hand, each working on a separate dish, and no one getting in anyone else’s way. They are all superb and accomplished cooks. The combination of the wine,the skill and the general amiable atmosphere transformed what I had long experienced to be the toughest holiday of the year. Laughter ruled. What a nice change of pace.
My family was long gone. I’d been adopted into a new one, and I swiftly embraced all the new traditions as my own. Each year, those treasured traditions defined the season for me, and I held them fast. Perhaps a little too tightly.
Every Christmas Eve, my friend Jill had a huge family dinner. That was the night we opened gifts. The youngest had the job of handing out goodies, which were piled at the feet of the recipients. They were opened from youngest to oldest in turn. As the family expanded, this took many more hours to complete.
Christmas morning was at Jill’s daughter’s house. Krisha made killer cinnamon buns, fresh, and a sausage and egg casserole. That, combined with Bloody Marys, began our day.
Christmas night we were back at the brother’s house. At the end of the night we had a book exchange. This tradition, which honored a family of dedicated readers, was my favorite. When I’d attended enough holidays, I was finally included in this solemn ceremony. Finding just the right read for your giftee was serious work. I loved that challenge.
Over the years, kids grew up, married and moved away. Grandkids got born, two very elderly matriarchs died, and with all those changes, a brand new set of demands was placed on the older members of the family. Jill, her husband, her brother and his wife all had to juggle travel demands. The availability (or not) of newly-married kids whose in-laws also wanted time shares with them and their children. Events shifted to new and larger houses. It felt different.
It was different.
Christmas dinner was always prime rib. It’s the only time of year I eat red meat. I love the taste, although I mourn the cow. Today I associate the smell of this dish exclusively with Christmas. That’s the power of traditions.
Slowly, the trips to the brother’s house and even the book exchange passed away. There were too many people to please, too many exigencies to juggle, and too many new households to accommodate.
This Christmas, with one divorce, a brand new kid pairoff and a new house to visit, it all came undone. Jill’s house no longer hosted Christmas Eve gifts. Part of me was deeply saddened by this. But there was a new opportunity.
Christmas Eve night had begun to stretch so late because there were so many of us. By the time Jill’s husband, the eldest, finally got to his gifts, his scotch intake had rendered him nearly unconscious. The youngest kids, having long opened their gifts, were bored and impatient with the adults, who liked to take their time to enjoy and thank others.
It was time.
We moved Christmas Eve to the daughter’s house, taking the traditional foods in tow. We made visits to the son’s house, where he and his new partner had her kids visiting, so there were new faces and friends to make. As a result, I was far more engaged, since family-only gatherings meant that I was largely on the periphery of conversations about family business. That never bothered me, but with the influx of new folks, suddenly I felt included at a wholly new level.
By the time we’d carted bags full of gifts to all the appropriate families, it was well past Christmas.
For us old folks, we still hadn’t done our gift exchange. On Boxing Day we woke up to a pile of presents under the tree that were still untouched.
Last night we took our time building the traditional piles at the feet of the recipients. It was just Jill, her husband Doug, and me. Two big, curious dogs. Two big, curious cats (who loved the wrapping and boxes, natch.)
We took our time to open, admire and comment on the gifts we’d gathered. For the first time in a very long time we didn’t feel rushed. There was time to look carefully at and fully appreciate each item, which, with twelve or more people jammed into a very small farmhouse, simply wasn’t available.
When we sat down to our Christmas dinner, which consisted of a Costco roasted chicken and perfectly steamed artichokes, we commented on how lovely it had been. Just us.
These good people long ago opened their hearts, their home(s) and their lives to me as an outsider. These days I am as much a part of Christmas as if I’d been born into the family. Their traditions were mine. Just as I am part of the changing traditions, which, as we say goodbye to them, open up new ways to celebrate long friendships and lasting love.
Have We Really Lost Anything?
During the holidays, Jill taught her grandson the complex process of making Scandinavian cookies. He’s a master at it. Jill’s daughter served Riskrem (https://thecountrybasket.com/norwegian-riskrem-rice-pudding-christmas-dessert-recipe/), which Jill’s mother had painstakingly made for all of us for years. New family members are picking up old traditions and carrying them forward.
Nothing is ever truly lost. Traditions are woven in our collective memories, and the best of them are embraced and carried forward. As new friends and spouses and kids enter the fabric of the family tapestry, the loom stretches to include us all. Nearly twenty years ago, that fabric accepted me. Now, there are many more. Some threads are forever lost when someone passes away, but each year we welcome someone new.
In some ways, Christmas allows us to watch how time changes us, and the demands of family and friends cause us to make room for, or say goodbye to, both those we love and traditions we held dear. For me, it’s also been an opportunity to watch how those same demands create new ways to celebrate while still upholding the old.
Out with (some of) the old, in with the new. Traditions, as it were. In many ways, those are some of the season’s best gifts.