My husband’s family is full of wonderful, generous, beautiful, insane people who open their stockings on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning. Gathering around the fire on Christmas Eve and digging into stocking gifts is delightful, kind of like tiptoeing towards the magic of Christmas morning, but it’s not what I grew up doing. And I didn’t mind the new tradition at all until we had kids. Then I looked at my own little family and the idea of my kids opening their stockings on Christmas Eve instead of crawling into bed to dream of morning was, in a word, ludicrous. And besides this 12 hours too-early stocking theory, my husband also thinks Christmas trees should be fake. Less mess, he (rightly) claims. It’s like Christmas tyranny. Might as well throw out the cocoa and drink kombucha, clean up the garland and do some yard work instead of snuggling on the couch and crying when Kevin McCallister finally sees his mom again.
I had no idea that we needed to make all of these decisions as our family grew. I thought that families came with holiday traditions instantly established, Thanksgiving dinner menus chiseled on stone tablets, the children all smiling participants in each ritual as years pass by. What really happened to Christmas was this: We got married, made a family, and had no idea what to do next. Fake tree or real? Hang lights on the house or avoid a huge power bill? Do we believe in Santa? Do we believe in traveling in December? Do we give lots of gifts, or are we minimalists? Is eggnog actually a thing and do we drink it?
What’s strange about this side of the holidays, the grown up side, is the newness of our family culture versus the established expectations of our parents and the people around us. In our effort to set the tone for how we celebrate any holiday, Christmas or otherwise, we must contend with ingrained notions of normal while wrestling with the fact that our children will someday go their own way and make their own decisions, which may or may not hearken back to their childhood with us and our fake (Real? Still haven’t decided) Christmas trees. What if they follow my sister into Messianic Judaism and ask for Hanukkah gifts? What if they marry someone who always spends the holidays in Florida? Or worst, and most annoying of all, what if someday they announce they are gluten-free and won’t even eat my Christmas morning waffles?
But really, buried beneath the self-imposed stress or imagined urgency of all the decisions, the question I suppose I’m really asking is this: Does any of it matter?
I know, I know. “Why can’t this girl just be a normal person and not question every single detail of life? It’s just a stocking, for goodness sakes. Her poor husband must be exhausted.” To which I reply, yes, he is. But also, I think these things are worth asking. Because traditions, like loyalty, occupy a slippery slope. If we follow rules, ideas or people without asking what good they produce, we run the risk of either missing their goodness altogether, or worse, passively allowing toxic patterns to develop in our lives.
So I have to ask myself: how can I spend so much on these last weeks of the year -so much time, energy, emotional currency, actual currency- when it seems the world is in a constant state of crisis? How can I buy a tree for my living room when over 25 million men, women and children don’t even have a country to call their own, much less a home with a living room? How can I blissfully hold my children by the fire while my dear friends enter their first Christmas season without their little boy? Where is the line between frivolity and celebration, ignorance and peace? Can I find space in my heart to hold both? Can I know the weight of suffering while also choosing to participate in the building of something good, one tiny detail at a time?
I think that, really, what we do on a holiday is merely an attempt to hold beauty in our hands a moment longer than usual. I wake up on Christmas morning and kiss Audrey’s soft round cheeks, creased from her pillow. I touch Clara’s curls resting on the collar of her Christmas nightgown. I catch Sammy in my arms as he leaps down the stairs. I kiss my husband as he pours our coffee. I slide bacon into the oven, wipe maple syrup off little fingers, talk over the rumbling furnace as the vents wake up, pour waffle batter sizzling into the press, and smile as our kids open their gifts. I form these traditions, the waffles and the singing and the prayers and the matching pajamas, knowing that while the details are incidental, those details are also scaffolding in the history we build. It’s like squinting at a house trimmed with white lights, softening your focus until all you see is a glow. Each light matters, but the wonder is what they display all together.
The traditions are why we keep coming home, even when it’s hard. The stability of home, the aggregate of family stories and inside jokes, the shared pain of loss and grief, exists in the house we build out of memories. And as mother, I am the memory keeper. I am the magic maker. That’s the pressure I feel with my young family, I suppose- the pressure of what we will say to each other about these days in years to come, the dream of a future where my family loves each other and continues to gather under the covering of what we built.
In a world of dark shadows and cold hearts, on a planet full of one sorrow after another, personal and global pain barking like an angry dog at the boundaries of our lives; in this hard place, I believe that mothers and fathers are co-creators with God, the source of Love, creating goodness with traditions that are clothed in generosity. Like a heartbeat thrumming in the background of our lives, the way we celebrate sets a rhythm for how we remember. Because in the end, that is what we do at Christmas. We remember each other. We remember the God who remembered us in Bethlehem, all those cold nights ago. We remember those who have been forgotten. We remember what we’ve done, we remember what we’ve lost, and we find ways to stand shoulder to shoulder and face the same direction. We make dinner rolls from tattered recipe cards. We sing songs we can’t remember learning. We hold each other up to the light and whisper, in the tender tones of forgiveness and invitation that seem to come a little easier as the year slows and ends, “I see you. You matter to me. Today and all the days.”
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and from my heart to yours: Truly, dear one, you matter. Today and all the days. Let us be generous, and build something good to cover the ones we love.