Family traditions are funny things. We try to string as many elements of an event together as we can that link one year to another. Days like Christmas are supposed to feel somehow the same each year. But everything is always changing.
When I was really little I remember Christmas mornings at home. We hung tinsel on our tree, which was impossible not to just want to drag in handfuls all over the needles when we were small, but my mom always made an effort to get us to carefully hang individual strands onto the branches to look like icicles. We always took the tinsel off later to store in its box for the next year, and it eventually got quite crinkly.
As we got a little older and could handle the car ride, the tradition for us was to drive to Ohio on Christmas Eve to spend the holiday with my grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins. My grandfather worked for Sears, so we got to circle things in the famous catalogue that we desired, and a fair number of those toys would end up under the tree in the den. I remember the torture of waiting for grown ups to finish their coffee in the morning until everyone was assembled and ready to throw open the doors in the family room to reveal the carefully decked out tree and the pile of presents underneath. Their tree didn't have tinsel, but did have golden tinsel garlands that wrapped around it. My grandma always made spritz cookies in the shapes of wreathes and trees, along with pecan crescents and date yums. She made stollen. At dinner there was her famous orange jello. For years our tradition also included my brothers feeling carsick on the their birthday on the drive back to Detroit.
When I was in college I lived in the same town as my grandma (my grandpa died when I was 15, but the Sears catalogue tradition had died years before that). I got to help her decorate her tree as she told me the story behind each ornament and pointed out which ones were the oldest. I got to help her decorate the spritz cookies. All the cousins were growing up. The gift exchange was no longer the frenzy it used to be, but became more personal as the children were all old enough to want to give as well as receive.
When Ian and I moved in together we started off by splitting up for the holidays because his mom was in Oregon and I couldn't imagine not being in Ohio, but on occasion she'd come out to us and join our busy packed gathering. There were some really rockin' Christmas Eves at my uncle's house not far from my grandma.
When Aden was born, only a few weeks before Christmas, the tradition evolved into everyone coming to us in Milwaukee since we couldn't travel. I learned never to underestimate the drawing power of a new baby, so we repeated that two more times with more holiday babies. A few relatives would stay in hotels, but we would fit as many people as we could onto air mattresses and futons and Christmas became a crammed but joyful event that we loved hosting. We didn't have a fireplace, so I built a board with pegs on it that I could clamp to a window sill in the living room from which to hang all the stockings. My stocking is one my grandma knitted. She made one for each of her seven grandchildren, identical except for the names on them. It used to look like part of a set when I was a child, but now it is unique among the store bought and modified stockings we have in our collection.
The last Christmas my grandma was at my house was after Quinn was
born. She was incredibly frail, but nothing was going to keep her from
seeing that baby. I'm having trouble remembering where she was for
Christmas after that. Her last couple of years were hard, so maybe I'm
blocking it out.
Ironically, when we moved across the street into a house large enough to host so many people more comfortably, Christmas shifted back to Detroit primarily because my dad's health was becoming an issue. Our new tradition became to open presents on Christmas morning at our house, then drive to my parents' for dinner and stay through New Year's and meet up with whatever relatives were able to gather there. My kids like a road trip, so that was a lot of fun.
This year we are home. My mom is coming to us. It's my fourth Christmas without my dad, and I'm struck when I shop for presents how he remains the easiest person to buy for, but it doesn't matter now. I don't need books on the Beatles or Springsteen so they stay on the shelf. It's quiet here, and it's nice. I can take a nap if I want, which after many late nights at the violin store sounds pretty good. We made spritz cookies. We did not make stollen this year. My kids made the orange jello and we'll find out tonight how well it set. We have some of my grandma's oldest ornaments on our tree along with many a weird new one that are important parts of what my children consider important traditions. We have a crazy "Tree Dazzler" light set that makes us happy. The dog keeps drinking the tree water. We don't do tinsel.
Here is the beautiful thing about this particular Christmas morning, though. I was concerned going into it, because we've hit a scary financial crunch due to purchasing our building and then discovering a few weeks later that the roof needs to be replaced. We told the kids not to expect much because we really couldn't afford anything. My first gift this year was that all the kids simply shrugged and said that was fine. They don't need anything. They have enough. Aden even handed me one of her favorite things that I bought her over the summer and asked me to wrap it so she could appreciate getting it all over again. My kids seldom ask for anything. That not one of them even looked disappointed at the idea of nothing under the tree this year meant more to me than I can ever explain.
I did have things for them under the tree, just things that were either more ordinary or homemade. There was a lot of cereal under the tree, and pop tarts. Socks, hairbands, some really cheap and broken candy canes which made them laugh. In their stockings were playing cards and new pens and they each got an empty wrapping paper tube which kept them entertained for a surprising amount of time. And this was the year I made mini dolls of all of Quinn's past Halloween costumes like I did previously for his sisters when they each turned 12. Each of those was individually wrapped so there were a lot of little packages under the tree, and he was delighted with each one, lining them up and saying, "Ooh, my wolf costume! My iguana! My chimera!" I made this year's costume doll for each of the girls, too. I explained the dolls were what was keeping me at the store so late every night, not violin work, and they hugged me for it.
But they had also decided among themselves that there should be things under the tree, so they pooled their money and got things for us and each other. Not big things, but things they knew everyone would like. I got a bottle of ginger ale that they were careful to put in a bag under my stocking so that my grandma's careful knitting work wouldn't get all stretched out with the weight of such a thing. Quinn made me an ornament. Mona bought toys related to cats for Quinn. Quinn and Mona together picked out a plush toy for Aden that she just keeps hugging. And Quinn got Mona a shiny pokeball toy that came with cards and coins inside that she immediately distributed among her siblings so they could share in the fun and all play together.
So that's not the traditional way of thinking about kids getting things at Christmas, but Mona came into the kitchen all happy while I was making breakfast, saying that in terms of gifts it was the best year ever, because it was so much more fun to give things. I told her that's why all these years when they didn't understand why nearly everything under the tree was for them, we were fine with it. We were the ones actually having the most fun because we were giving things. My kids have reached a point where that is what they would rather do, too. And it's wonderful.
The things I think of that make a real Christmas are when there are lots of little kids, except when there aren't. Lots of driving, except when there isn't. Too many people in every room, except when they can't be here. It's putting up lights except for the years that we don't. It's all the things and none of the things. It's family. The best part of today is that we are together, we are healthy, and we are happily awaiting the arrival of my mom (who is now the grandma in the family) so we can share a meal and snuggle and watch a movie or play a game.
I miss too many people today, but I'm grateful for every person in this house.
I hope whatever traditions you share or are evolving through are everything you want them to be. Happy 2019.