Every year, there are many holiday traditions at my house.
We take a long, cold hike on December 23rd. On Christmas Eve, we cook and open one gift and crowd into overfilled church pews. Christmas Day, we wake early and gobble steamy cinnamon rolls and welcome a visit from my Dad and his wife.
On December 26, we do nothing. And during the week after Christmas we have, for years, headed north for a few days of skiing.
I cherish these rituals, the big ones and the small. The way we add one holiday book to our collection each year, to be opened on Christmas Eve just after lunch. The way, on Christmas morning, the kids all creep into our room at 6 to wait for the latest sleeper to wake. Then they hover upstairs excitedly while my husband and I start the coffee and light the fire and turn on the Christmas tree.
I am comforted by the script, knowing the parts we all play. I enjoy walking through the days laid out on a grid locked into place long ago. It gives me a feeling of control, I think. Of predictability. I feel like I know how it all turns out in the end because I’ve been there before.
But, of course, I haven’t really. Been there before. And I don’t, really. Have control.
Because while I can schedule the same activities at the same time every year, I cannot account for all that’s happened since I last stirred the egg nog or pulled the holiday decorations from storage. There have been 365 days of lessons learned and setbacks overcome, of joy and tears and new perspectives. We’ve made connections and friendships, we’ve lost family and memories. I am not the same person I was last December and neither, especially, are my kids.
Every year, everything is different. Even as we hang the same ornaments on the tree and sing our same favorite carols. Even as we set the table with our same fine china and head to our favorite holiday events.
Our traditions only provide the vessel. Inside, all the rest is fluid.
There were the years of wonder, when every little detail sparked delight and amazement in my kids.
And then there was the year my daughter was positive she would not be getting the only gift she wanted that year. She dissolved into bodily sobs Christmas Eve, trying to come to terms in advance with the disappointment she knew awaited her.
For many Christmases, my kids spent hours and hours in their rooms frantically coloring and glueing, sewing and coding. They were making gifts for each family member, the three of them using their talents to create something special for the someones they cared for most deeply. I loved every selfless, industrious moment of this. Until the year when one of them felt inadequate, overwhelmed, like there was no way she could make presents worthy of her receivers, of the occasion. I felt then that perhaps this tradition had run its course. If the act of giving had become a source of competition, it was no longer a positive.
What will it be this year? Cheer and gratitude? Angst and edginess? Resignation? Impatience?
I don’t know. I don’t know how I’ll feel as I pack the holiday decorations away, having watched my ever-growing children manage their expectations and emotions on these many days of big feelings. I don’t know if I’ll feel exhausted or satisfied once the weeks of celebrating are done.
Because even though I am following all the familiar paths, every year, the journey changes. Even as we step onto a pre-arranged stage, even as we play our prescribed parts, we are each bringing our new selves to this year’s holiday.
I’m beginning to see that that’s okay.