For awhile I nicknamed the holiday season the “Tinsel Wars” because it was with such dread that I approached the emotional vulnerability and violence.
Yes, I am exaggerating…kind of…
I mean, what do we cling to with more fervor than our childhood traditions? And if someone tries to take them away from us? Oh, baby…watch out.
At the beginning of my marriage, I imagined my husband and I would step into the holiday realm as magicians—we would be (re-)creators of the feelings I had felt on and around Christmas. But then…tinsel.
And really, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Can you imagine my horror when my husband suggested that we track Santa Claus’ progress across the globe ON AN APP until the presents found their way to outside our front door…on Christmas EVE?
What kind of idiocy was this???
My husband cared NOTHING about making sure we had tinsel that would magically appear Xmas morning, or tangerines, or nuts, or new toothbrushes for the stockings….he wanted to put little chachkas in them??? I mean, how did he think we were going to get dental floss this year….magic???
Can you imagine the rage I felt when an ELF ON THE SHELF made an appearance in our house shortly after Thanksgiving? Had my husband had a neurological episode? Was there any other object more obscenely commercial? AND, once introduced and NAMED by our toddler, here it was FOREVER…
How had I made such a terrible mistake in regards to choosing a mate? Why did this man hate me? And why, had he chosen this insidious string of cruel actions and non-actions to show his true colors? I mean, here I was thinking I had hit the jackpot on partners and now….all of this?
My daughter was 13 when her brother was born—which added other layers of complexity to the mix. We always visited her dad’s family on Christmas Eve. What would it mean to them if we started traveling to a new family for the holidays? How would all three different groups (my old and new in-laws + my parents) be honored by celebrating with them? Alternating every other year? Flipping a coin? I was so angry at my husband.
Nothing was right.
I vented to my mom about the holiday negotiations and she shared how she and my dad had cobbled together my beloved traditions from their separate ones. Whoa, whoa, whaaa?
The cohesive image of the holidays of my youth were also the result of negotiations?
Well. That was unexpected.
I wonder now if angry-hurt feelings were the hallmark of those early years for our kids as we quibbled over when to give gifts, how much to spend, what to eat, and where to be? (We tried to hide our conflicts for sure but children generally seem well-attuned to disturbances in the force.)
I wish I could have just come right out the gate asking my husband questions (and actually listening to the answers), but it was my tearful rages and sullen silences that were the precursors to the years of (we now know, fruitful) negotiations. “What is important to you about the holiday season? Are they the same things that are important to you now? What did you love as a child? How did different elements of the holiday make you feel? What are the lessons we want to pass on to our children?
Here are some of our take aways...
Ask about origin stories.
Finding the origin stories of various traditions made it easier for us to see if there were some that we had taken for granted or some we could let go of.
For instance, my husband’s eldest brother was really into weather—hence, him sitting by a weather radio and tracking SC’s progress across the globe to announce to his younger siblings. Thirty years later, this process wasn’t as cool via app plus what had made that tradition magical was his older brother’s passionate performances. Our trying to recreate it in the age of the iphone didn't make sense anymore.
When I was two-years-old, my mother took me to visit Santa. During the wait in the long line, I chattered about ALL the things I would ask for when it was my turn to sit on his lap. It was a long, long list which was a helpful diversion in that long, long line.
When it was finally my turn, my mother watched her exuberant, impressively verbose toddler transform into a very quiet, very still thing. Looking up at Santa, completely dumbstruck. (...‘And what do you want, little girl?’) I was prodded and prompted by him to ask for SOMETHING…Finally I said, in the tiniest voice audible, “A Christmas tree.”
Every year thereafter, a few weeks before Christmas I would open our front door to find that Santa Claus himself had delivered my special tree, with a special card attached to it written in his ancient, scrawling handwriting. This was the beloved tradition around the Xmas tree. Fast forward to…
Let tradition transform…
My husband as a new step-father to a thirteen-year-old girl and father to an infant son. This moment didn’t require the fulfillment of a toddler’s wish (or finding some justification for standing in that ridiculously long line). It required relationship building and acknowledgment of new, awkward terrain. It required showing a teenager that she was at the center of this new family when she often felt on the periphery. A new tradition was born. Dad and daughter, together, picked out the tree and brought it home. A new, tree topper was chosen--all purple glitter (cause that is what is cool when you’re thirteen).
Pull apart the feeling from the thing.
I loved the feeling of magic surrounding Xmas. There was a transformation of humdrum space; beginning with the magical appearance of the Christmas tree. Waking up to stockings that had been empty—now full! The overnight multiplication of presents! Each gift wrapped in special wrapping paper (from the North Pole!!!); addressed to each of us in SC’s shaky, old handwriting! I loved the lights my dad put up with great attention to detail. I loved the inevitable burnt smell from the doomed batch of pizzelles or toasting panettone (with the accompanying story of how my mother’s Nonna saved to buy the special loaf of bread each year for her family (was it a whole day’s wages she’d saved, or a week, or a month?—the sacrifice seemed to grow in my imagination each year).
The feelings were not actually about the food. Or the lights. The feeling was knowing that the people around me loved me enough to try and create a magical experience.
Imagination to Creation.
All rolled up in the holidays are our desires to repeat or repair the past and create the perfect future. This time of year can give rise to feelings of loss…It's a sensitive time...we all have so many memories and so many hopes.
There is great relief in the realization that the past (both the perfect and imperfect versions) and the future are ideas we created. Memories have gone through multiple iterations--they are not stagnant, unmovable things. Their malleability has power in the present moment. Our imaginings don't need to be burdens that we lug about.
I feel like my husband and I have started (finally, after a decade) to move past trying to recreate past experiences to gifting the experiences we want for our children and ourselves.
So we ask questions now as a starting place every year, like:
Does holiday magic depend upon overly-packaged, store-bought gifts? Does a holiday banquet have to include meat? (Or if a celebratory feast does feel more complete with meat…might we have a deeper appreciation for it if we weren’t feasting all year round?) How can we honor our elders? Do we keep traditions or consciously transform them into something that is in better alignment with the present without erasing the past?
Tradition, Control...L'il Bit of Both.
The new 'work' of the holidays has become learning how to move into and through change gracefully. My knee-jerk response to change is still to try and stop it (i.e. “Is an undiscussed elf-on-the-shelf grounds for divorce?”).
There can be a lot of fear around the holidays: Will my children still love me if we can’t (or won't) buy what is #1 on their wishlist? Will my parents feel disrespected if we stop making oyster stew on Christmas Eve? Will any changes we make create problems with the in-laws? Are the memories we're making going to wind up on the repeat or repair lists of our children?
Wrap it up. Own the Present.
It's been helpful to remember that, whatever my past memories and future hopes are, everyone I love has memories and hopes just as personally vibrant and vital--and just because I have shared years of holidays with them (parents, siblings, partners, children) doesn't mean that my feelings are the same as thiers.
Annual conversations about traditions have made them richer (or at least have made certain traditions more palatable/less anger inducing) for our little nuclear family. Recognizing the value of what has been gifted to us is so, so important. So are dreams. But sometimes, to own and enjoy the present, we need to carefully wrap up the past and future. Put a bow on them. Cherish them. But put them away.
That's our goal this year. To widen the circle of asking questions, listen to the people we care about talk about the traditions they care about, and not let the holiday noise (pretty as those jingle bells might be) deter us from what we want to create in this moment.