I've given extra thought to the idea of traditions lately as I embark on my first Christmas season with my daughter living in two households. I have pondered the purposes of traditions and what they bring to our lives. I know for certain that they are an essential part of life. Important to adding richness, texture and meaning. But what I know now in a brand-new way is that it is possible for traditions to run their course, and when they do, it is best to accept their expiration date and let them go. A tradition that once felt good and right, but is now past its prime, brings undo strain, unrealistic expectations, and the threat of a heaviness which undermines its intended purposes.
When my sister and I were first married, we took to creating new traditions that could be well-established by the time our as-yet-unconceived children came along. Our traditions took the form of sending our Christmas lists to our parents in creative ways and thus competing in a contest for most imaginative presentation; playing Christmas trivia before opening presents on Christmas eve; someone writing a Christmas poem or sentiment to be read aloud before opening presents. With two new men in the family, we had a veritable crowd now, and we wanted to have more outward expressions of the holidays than when it had been just the four of us with our grandparents.
In our enthusiasm, we MAY have gone a little overboard. One Christmas my then-husband asked, “Can we add a tradition to delete a tradition?” We laughed and I wrote his quote in our Christmas memories book. But I was crestfallen. I wanted these traditions to stick. To mean something. To add meaning to our families' times together.
What I understand now that I couldn't then was that traditions work best when they are organic, living, breathing things. They don't work so well when they feel forced. And some of what my sister and I had devised wasn't working for our husbands. I know now that it's okay. We had fun doing the things we did while they lasted. A few more years down the road and those babies came. And that first Christmas with the newest members of the family, we were too busy chasing after crawling infants, dispensing medicine for earaches, and trying to get overstimulated babies to sleep to worry about the traditions we'd started years before.
We let them go. And then in time, our children ushered in the real traditions: watching Home Alone and cackling their way to silent giggles as the bad guys got pummeled by Kevin; scaring Aunt Julie with plastic mice until she screamed hands covering her face; or the Heisman pose photos that are taken every time we see each other. These are the traditions I can already tell are going to stick.
And so as I sit on my couch alone to watch White Christmas, a movie I introduced to my three-year-old and was amazed when she sat through the entire movie, I tell myself it's okay that she's not here to watch it with me. Even if she was here, she might choose playing with her best friend over watching it with me and it's okay. I love reading the picture books in our Christmas Library Collection. My daughter is enthusiastic about them in spurts. She's much too busy to sit for long, and so I've reminded myself this season that reading them is part of what makes the season merry and bright for me. I can read them regardless of whether she's on the couch or snuggled next to me in bed.
I've thought a lot about how I will spend this first Christmas Day alone. I have devised plans that will fill my day with joy. A different kind of joy than the kind that comes with a house full of family and presents and food, but alas, it's still joy and I will revel in it.
This is the year to re-calibrate. To sit quiet. To enjoy memories from the past. To mourn the things that no longer remain. But it's also the year to ask what feels right now? How do I want to celebrate the season in new ways? I know now that I can ask that question every year and make adjustments as circumstances ebb and flow. My two grounding traditions are the Willow Tree nativity, now placed on the piano, which takes up prime real estate in our living room, and the "baby" fir tree Cadence and I choose together when we visit our grandfather after Thanksgiving. That tradition may not last forever, but I will relish it as long as it does, and when it's time for a new tree seller, we'll tweak the ritual again.
I am learning to let go of so much. And in the letting go, I'm also gaining so much more: peace and freedom and the willingness to try new things. When I concentrate on what is rather than what was or what will be, I have the opportunity to create new rituals and activities that will infuse my life with energy, joy, creativity, and possibility. In that spirit, new traditions usher in new adventures, healing, and hope for the future.