illustration by Clare Owen/121 Art

What’s Christmas Without Traditions?

My family’s rituals are here today, gone tomorrow.

For my best friend, Carol, holiday festivities are as reliable and unchanging as the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Every Christmas Eve, some 30-odd members of her family gather together for their yearly dinner of shrimp creole and beef stroganoff, after which the children change into matching pajamas and open one present each before the customary reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The next morning, the remaining presents are unwrapped. They snap a few family photos and later, enjoy a lunch of turkey and all the traditional trimmings. It will always be this way.

In my family, holiday festivities begin with the Annual Phone Call Home, placed two days before Christmas, wherein the following conversation takes place:

Me: Are we going to Mass on Eve or Day?
Dad: Ask your mother.
Me: What time are we having lunch?
Dad: I don’t know. 2:00? 3:00?

My family isn’t big on tradition. Much of this stems from the fact that most of our relatives live out of state or country, so intimate holiday gatherings consist of my mother, my father, my brother, and me. Not having to plan around dozens of schedules makes it too easy to plan nothing at all.  Christmas after Christmas, we play it by ear, making spur-of-the-moment plans—or not—the way we would on any other night that we all happened to be under the same roof.

Unfortunately, I love tradition. In every aspect of life, whether it’s my workout routine or my hairstyle, I’m a consummate creature of habit. (That’s what traditionalists are called from January to October, when there aren’t special occasions to make our addictive tendencies socially acceptable.) So nearly every year around this time, I try in vain to introduce a ritual within my family in hopes it will stick. I gave up long ago on trying to help trim the tree, which happens each year on Whatever Day Your Father Gets Around to Hauling It Down From the Attic. My mom has a secret tradition of her own: getting the job done faster and better on her own.

The dinner menu is also a dead end. Not only do we forgo eating the same dishes every year, we actually try out new recipes on holidays. It’s a dangerous practice that, come to think of it, birthed one of our only recurring trademarks. In an attempt to lighten the mood after a chorizo-stuffing experiment gone wrong, we joked that my brother had “ruined Christmas.” It’s a phrase we now delight in employing anytime anyone makes the slightest mishap.

Not satisfied with hurling insults (even in jest) at one another, I turned to an old faithful: a trip to the movies on Christmas afternoon. But finding a movie we all could agree on—or the motivation to change out of our robes by 5:00 p.m.—eventually proved too great an obstacle.

Another quiet Christmas Eve, my brother and I, having exhausted our family’s circa-1988 selection of board games, ventured out to buy a new one. We returned with a game so complicated that before we’d finished reading the instructions, my dad, unimpressed, snuck off to bed. We tried making board games mandatory for a few years after that, but for every Scattergories on the market, there are a dozen Scene It: The Twilight Saga Deluxe Editions. It was time to bone up on our Robert Pattinson trivia or move on.

Most recently, I tried plying the family with sweets, baking and meticulously decorating sugar cookies. But no one cared to pitch in—or even honor my hard work by eating the results.

So here we are, another holiday season upon us. And while you’re readying your Yule log, my Advent calendar remains wide open. But while I don’t know what lies in store, what I do know is that my family will be together. We’re happy and healthy, a blessing that’s all too rare. The house will be beautifully decorated (my mom’s right about her being better solo) and will smell of something delicious—if unfamiliar. And I will work on a new tradition: caring less about what we do and being thankful that we get to do it at all.


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