Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Reinventing Christmas

Christmas, to me, has always been about tradition. When I was a kid, we had our family rituals. We cleared the everyday chotchkes from the shelves, laid them away and brought out the Christmas knick-knacks. The plastic magi—identical but for their colored robes—one pink, one blue, one green--astride their shiny silver camels; the caroling china angel quartet, their mouths eternally frozen in cherry-red circles; the candy-cane striped "N-O-E-L." My mother’s creche with the hand-repainted figures that she rescued from an attic fire in the ‘forties. We left the manger expectantly empty until Christmas Eve, when we placed the tiny plaster Jesus gently in his crib before we went to bed. To the mouldings around every doorway in the house were taped the scores of Christmas cards we received from every person my parents ever knew.

Dad cooked a turkey for Christmas dinner, Aunt Mary brought her jello molds—strawberry (yay!) and carrot (yuck!) There were pumpkin and mince pies, always over-baked and a tad leathery. The pumpkin was perfect, piled with enough whipped cream to overpower any other flavor. The mince was…well, Dad liked it. After dinner, we’d clear the table, scavenge the leftovers and fearfully wash my mother’s china. With those chores done, we’d adjourn to the living room, where there always lingered that particular smell of hot tree lights inexorably singeing the scotch pine or balsam fir needles.  In the warm glow of those lights, we'd talk quietly, tell jokes or sing carols.  The youngest among us would remain conscious only long enough to nestle a head into the soft lap of the nearest willing adult.

Those were the traditions of a post-war suburban baby-boom family. Quaint, comforting, with deep connections to the past. Written in stone. For about a decade. Until the sixties hit and tweaked everything in the direction of the pop culture of that decade.  Shiny aluminum Christmas trees, Charlie Brown and Barbie... 

The thing is, our family’s traditions never were written in stone. They were liquid, changing with the complexion and demands of the times. As we changed and grew, our rituals evolved to accommodate the growth. When I hear folks wax nostalgic about the traditions their families have followed for decades, I have to wonder how they do that. How can they be so…static?

This year, I’m particularly aware of the temporal nature of our family traditions. In this season of change and loss, the keeper of the last traditions is no longer with us. There’s no call to indulge in the faded remnants of the old rituals, and the traditions that we had built around her decreasing mobility are suddenly unnecessary. There was no trundling her wheelchair around the World’s Largest ChristmasBazaar on Thanksgiving Friday. No Dollar Store shopping sprees. No casting call for the 2007 additions to the heavenly host adorning every inch of her apartment and overflowing into the hallways. In her last years, she was at once matriarch and the child some of us had never had. Christmas, in many ways, was for her. And now, it’s….not.

And so we’re stumbling through this Christmas season, liberated yet bereft. Finding new meanings, missing the old ones. Stepping forward, but with one foot stuck in the past. There will be moments of beauty and magic, punctuated with wistful sighs. We will miss her. But we will take our memories of her, as we did those of Dad and my sweet sister, into our futures. Always part of our ever-evolving traditions.


  1. Lisa ... so many hugs for you today.  It is so diffiult  lose our a parent and then the secdon parent.  The death of that loved one in partiular brings with it an ache or yearning for staying in the past.  At the same time we know we must move forward and let our own families evolve -- large or small.  

    You are in my thoughts.

  2. We try to make it to the candle light service Christmas Eve. After that everything is up for grabs. Especially with the families growing up and building their own traditions. If we manage to get everyone in the same zip code sometime during the holidays I'll be really thankful.

    I believe the missing members will be there in spirit cheering you on, and adding that special something to the egg nog. If it tastes extra special this year you'll know why.


  3. Reinventing Christmas...yes, that's what it is, and we all must do it...I like this, Lisa.


  4. Wishing you joy and peace in the midst of challenge and sadness ~

  5. Lisa...You are Christmas.  

    You always find hope.  You keep me looking for it.