I was driving around Federal Way the other day when my daughter Robin called me. “What Christmas traditions should I be sharing with my children?” she asked.
What do you mean?” I asked distracted by my driving.
“I mean, should I take them to church even though I don’t believe in it? How will they know how to behave in church if I don’t teach them?”
“I don’t think you should take them to church if it isn’t something you believe in. That is kind of hypocritical don’t you think?”
“Well yes, but I can’t answer their questions about Christmas.”
I sighed. “Look I can’t drive and have this conversation. I will think about it and call you later, okay?”
On the drive home I started thinking about Christmas, its traditions and what I really believe in. I was brought up in a noisy, Italian Catholic family. My mother shopped for Christmas all year long and started decorating and writing up her Christmas cards right after Thanksgiving. Along with the tree decorated with a mish-mosh of homemade decorations and old store bought balls, the garishly painted Nativity scene she and I had made when I was about nine was always on display on the buffet.
Together we baked cookies and Mom always had plenty of her special pickles stored away. The week before Christmas my mother cooked to feed our huge extended family. On Christmas Eve there was feasting, drinking, loud talk and laughter, and after dinner was the sharing of gifts which I never enjoyed because the gifts were always a disappointment to me. My mother bought what she wanted regardless of my desires, but I did love opening my stocking for the small treasures it contained. After the whole Christmas Eve extravaganza, we donned our new, scratchy Christmas finery and headed off to Midnight Mass. And while I found the whole day to be quite overwhelming, and spent most of the time hiding behind the tree, these are my childhood memories of Christmas.
After I got married and my father passed away, the traditions changed. My mother often came to spend Christmas with us, arriving just after Thanksgiving and staying on through the first of the year. We continued to put up the tree and send out the early Christmas cards. We celebrated Christmas Eve but the gatherings were smaller and much more sedate, even after the girls were born. Midnight Mass was replaced by Christmas Eve service with my Presbyterian husband. I enjoyed the music and the pageantry, but my faith in organized religion had faltered.
In the year 2000 my mother died. Sarah was 18 and off to college. Robin was in the midst of a gargantuan teenage rebellion. They couldn’t be in the same room for more than fifteen minutes without swearwords and objects flying. Tom and I decorated the house alone and I slogged through the preparations. Every item I held reminded me of my mother, especially the nativity scene which was now mine to display on the buffet. We decided to change things up and celebrate Christmas morning. I broke down sobbing over pickles as I prepared our Christmas lunch. When we sat down as a family, the food was hastily eaten. The gifts were quickly unwrapped and then the girls ran out the door to spend the rest of the day with their friends. Tom and I cleaned up the dishes and tissue paper and sat staring at the TV the rest of the day.
We carried along with this new tradition as our family grew again. Robin got married and our grandson Caleb was born. We returned to the Christmas Eve dinner and gifts. Sarah and Robin continued to rub and chaff against one another. As soon as the food was consumed and the gift wrap disposed of, they would run off to their separate lives. Tom and I would go to the Christmas Eve service and then we started going to the movies on Christmas Day.
Tom and I divorced four years ago and when Christmas came along, I asked myself the very questions Robin had posed to me on the phone that day. What did I believe? What were the most important traditions I wanted to share with my grandchildren? I was brought up Catholic and converted to Presbyterianism, so I speak Christian. My mother’s garish nativity scene and the Christmas story are a strong part of my tradition but I choose to find God in the power of the ocean, the cool green of the forests, and in the ever surprising variety of nature. So my pagan tree with its mish-mosh of old ornaments, birds and lights appeal to me. I take my grandchildren to the Nutcracker every year where they enjoy the music and dance and the Mouse King cookies at intermission. I get my music and pageantry from attending the Messiah.
The sharing of food and the opening of gifts Christmas Eve remains the biggest part of our family tradition, and while the girls still do not get along that well, they want to be here with me. I enjoy watching my grandchildren’s faces as they open their well-chosen gifts and their stockings for the treasures they contain. Afterwards my girls head back to their lives and I sit in the dark with a drink watching my favorite black and white version of A Christmas Carol.
With all this in mind, I called Robin back. “What memories do you have of Christmas?” I asked.
She started to cry as she recalled Christmases with my mother. She remembered her grandmother’s cooking, especially the pickles. She fondly remembered my mother’s crazy Christmas tree with all of its tatty homemade ornaments which the girls were allowed to take down and admire. She recalled all the family Christmas Eve dinners, reading the family Christmas books and watching The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.
“Then those are the traditions you should share with your children,” I said. “Part of the joy of the Christmas holidays is nostalgia for the memories of the past. Hold on to them, and then make your own new traditions based on them. But remember traditions not set in stone. They will change as your family grows and changes, but if you build a firm foundation then your children will also have a life time of Christmas memories to share. And one day, that horrible Nativity scene will all be yours.”
She groaned and together we started to laugh.