Christmas is a time of traditions. There are decorated trees in house windows, rooftops with lights, shopping malls decked up with elves and fake snow. For Christians, both devout and seasonal, there are living Nativities, productions of the Hallelujah chorus, and the various services celebrating the birth of Jesus. Across all the commercial spaces we travel through, a compendium of accepted songs rings out, repeated again and again in various voices and rhythms. Whether you want anything to do with Christmas or not, when December comes around you can’t avoid being sucked in to this one massive shared experience.
For obvious reasons, I loved Christmas as kid. The excitement and anticipation of gifts appearing under the tree tinged every day with fine bits of electricity. Then as the magic of Santa Claus dwindled into a cloying game and the gifts started becoming either practical – a sweater! – or absurd – talking reindeer action figures! – other things came to the foreground to keep that electricity alive. All that Christmas music, for one thing, took on a whole new importance. Years before I was born my parents had compiled a collection of Christmas music on a big reel to reel tape machine. Scratchy versions of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Barbara Streisand singing ‘Ava Maria’ filled the house throughout my first Christmas seasons and once I was old enough to recognize those songs, they were all I wanted to hear. We eventually transferred them over to cassette tapes and ran those tapes every year until I left home.
Our tree decorating tradition became sentimentally importance as well. Usually one Saturday afternoon in early December, Dad would bring the box with the artificial tree up to the living room, where my sister and I would help him sort out the pieces, assemble the tree, and string it with lights. Then after dinner, with darkness filling the windowpanes and the living room warmed by lamplight, all four of us would come together to do the ornaments. Dad’s role in this was to hang out in his recliner and survey the tree as it was transformed from artificial conifer to crazy Christmas jambalaya. Mom usually sat on the floor, picking through the box of ornaments and deciding which ones should go up next. My sister and I would take turns hanging whatever Mom handed us. We had a lot of ornaments. There were colored balls and candycanes made up like reindeer and wooden angels with my sister’s name on them and painted sleds and old crumbling snowmen my mom had made from clay during my first Christmas. By the time we were done hanging things the tree would be so loaded down that it was difficult to find a place for the final few. Then Dad would take the angel – a sedate, cross-stitched puppet Mom had made when my sister was a baby – and slide it on to the top. In our teenage years, my sister and I took over this role. She would climb on my back and place the angel on top of the tree then I would spin her around in silly circles.
I always liked this evening because for two hours it felt like we were channeling the spirit of what Christmas is supposed to be. The television was off. There was music playing in the background. Everyone was relaxed and happy. Even in the years when the evening didn’t start out that way, the rhythm of hanging ornaments and the comfort of familiar roles eventually created a bubble of joyful calm around us. It always to me felt like we were building a moment that would melt Scrooge’s heart.
Now that I have a family of my own and no longer live within close proximity to my parents, Christmas is different. We travel more. We go to Christmas parties less. Old traditions have gone by the wayside and new ones have begun to emerge. One of my favorite new traditions that have come into being is a twist on the old, tree-decorating one. For the last three years, we’ve visited my parents on the weekend before Christmas, spending a couple of days with them before heading back to our own home for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the like. The first year we did this my mother had the house decorated to the hilt with wreaths and multiple trees and Dickensian ribbons everywhere, but left a smaller tree undecorated until we arrived. That first night of our visit we all went down to where the tree was in the basement and while I played Christmas songs on the piano, Pip, Polly, Ava, my parents, and my sister, all worked to wrap the tree in lights and cover it in ornaments. It was a slow process that sometimes diverted into art projects – the kids decided to make a few ornaments – or other activities but I like it immensely because it accomplished the same thing as our old, tree-decorating ritual – everyone was in one place doing something fun together.
For the past two years we’ve wound up doing the same thing again, even down to the little details. My mother once again tried to sing along with my piano playing eventually making me screw something up. Ava hung out on the couch and kept the kids from getting too worked up as they worked. My dad mixed drinks and laughed with my sister (and now her boyfriend, too). It’s become a bustling and happy two hours that feels to me like one the best things we do each year. I would drive the seven hours to my parents’ house just to do that one thing.
The power these acts of tradition have to create bonds within our family together feels especially strong when reflected against moments where such acts are absent. The afternoons of Christmas Eve and the afternoon of Christmas Day are both something of a black hole in our holidays. On Christmas Eve when all the preparations are done and most of the people we know are out of town, we’re all kind of just waiting for the day to be over. We tried making cookies for Santa this year, but it was a hit or miss affair. Maybe we’ll have more luck next year. On Christmas Day, once the presents are open, no one quite knows what to do with themselves. The kids play with toys for a while but by late afternoon that play takes on a scattered and harried quality. The need in that moment for something to focus our collective attentions is high but that thing we need still eludes us.
But we’re still new at this. Pip is almost eight. Polly is approaching six. We’ve been in four different houses during their lifetimes and have had four different sets of neighbors. The friends we’ve met to this point have their own sets of traditions and practices and travels and we haven't yet found a couple that overlap with us. But, we’ll try some more things next year and see what happens, because ultimately traditions are like nicknames. You don’t really get to choose them. They emerge from the things you do. So we’ll keep trying things and doing things and eventually one day those afternoons on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will have their traditions, too.