Wednesday, December 05, 2007


We are a family of traditions. Some have been carried over from our own childhoods, while others created during the evolution of our family unit. In seventeen years, we have never missed marching to one beat of the tradition drum. If anything, our traditions have expanded and have been embellished by the growing and changing of our family.

This year has required some letting go; some easing of the structure that we built around ourselves. The teenagers have splintered off with friends leaving us to trick or treat with only our youngest. Sports and work consumed many of our weekends this fall so we did not make the annual trip to the pumpkin patch, where I take about 100 photos to acquire that perfect one for the Christmas cards. We are seldom all in the same place at the same time and yes, I am feeling tired.

Returning relaxed and refreshed from a family vacation, we are suddenly thrust over the threshold of the Christmas season and again, I find myself looking to trim away a little of the routine. Do I really need to haul out all of that Christmas stuff? Do we have to put all of the ornaments on the tree? Must I put wreaths on the doors? Do we really feel the need to host a gathering, or couldn’t we just go to someone else’s house? Do we have to trudge to the green with hundreds of others for the official tree lighting, singing carols over the sound of our kids fighting and then searching for the oldest who wandered off with friends?

I wonder if my family would be upset if we just did things a little bit easier this year; sort of a less is more approach. Leave a little of the routine out to keep things simple.

I think about my boys who insist upon a minimum of one hour in the Christmas tree lot, hiking miles to the farthest corner to prolong the experience. I think about Brad who, in spite his eagerness to spend Thanksgiving with foreign food in a foreign place, has set aside this coming weekend for a traditional, albeit belated, Thanksgiving feast. And I think about Cadence, who carries the glow of magic and wonder like a torch. I’m immediately hurled back thirty years to scene that plays my heartstrings like a harp.

It was 1977 and my parents had trimmed tradition for the third year in a row as they hauled out the box containing what was called a “Christmas tree.” “Branches” were extracted from the box and piled according to the color dabbed on the end of their metal stems. A wooden pole riveted with colored holes stood in the living room like a naked Barbie Doll waiting to be dressed. I sulked and my thirteen year old brother complained that it wasn’t the same as a real tree. My parents methodically assembled the odorless giant, claiming that it was easier and far less messy…no need to water, no dry tree, no needles in the carpet.

The tree, finally adorned with the usual lights, tinsel and ornaments, stood perfectly trimmed while my mother sprayed pine scent from a can; in spite of its ease, it didn’t feel like Christmas. Christmas Eve arrived that year with a breathtaking transformation. It was the first “white” Christmas we had seen in a while and pangs for everything traditional welled up in my brother and me. Bundling up and sneaking the car keys, we drove to a place that we had seen from the school bus where trees were sold for one dollar per foot. With rope, a saw and a ten dollar bill, I navigated with great care; a new driver who’s everything would be on the line if this went badly. The tree lot was un-kept and brambled and the sky beginning to grow dark. We searched for the largest tree we could get to. It seemed like it was twelve feet tall, but the old woman who lived there had Christmas in her heart and charged us only six dollars.

With much effort, we stuffed the bottom into the trunk and tied the trunk with the rope, certain it would fall out part way home. We didn’t speak as we hauled our green beauty up to the porch, sticky sap on our hands and the cold aroma of pine in the air. We undecorated the plastic monster in the living room and put it back where it belonged…in a box. We struggled to position the tree to hide the unsightly empty spots, sprinkling snow and needles all over the carpet. It was the most beautiful tree I had ever seen. My parents lit the fireplace, a practice reserved mainly for holidays and I knew with all of my heart that tradition was worth fighting for.

Embarrassment consumes me as I open the crawl space behind our bed where Christmas lay neatly boxed. I know it is only November 29th, but I might as well get a little bit started. I pull out the nutcrackers, the manger and the bows. It occurs to me suddenly that my youngest is likely to be in her last ‘believing’ year and I am washed over with sadness. As each of the three boys graduated from believer to Elf, I watched the wonder be replaced by the thrill of making the magic happen; the same drama but a different role to be played. I am so saddened by the idea that this magic will leave us soon and the tradition will be changed forever.

Bing Crosby sings loudly on the stereo as I place bows on the banister and candle lights in the windows. I cannot stop now as space by space throughout the house says ‘Welcome Christmas!’ Cadence bounds in the door, does a spin around and lights up like a candle, “It’s starting to look like Christmas in here!” She squeals.

Indeed, I think, and its feeling good.

The end of the week rushes toward us and we are faced with the official town-wide kick off to the season. Hundreds will flock to the town green for the annual tree lighting ceremony. Holiday events and concerts fill the various church buildings that frame the green and the town joins together like one big family.

“Hurry or we’ll be late!” I warn Cadence as she rushes back to her room to plug in her window candle lights and gather last minute things for the evening. This is her third year dancing in a Christmas ballet and cast call for opening night is within the hour.

“What is that on your window sill?” I ask, squinting my eyes for a better look.

“Oh my G…..” she spins facing me with shock and awe on her face. “Elf Dust!” She pronounces with excitement and horror.

“Already?” I ask, “It’s only November 30th.”

Cadence sticks her finger into the sweet green crystals and dabs it on her tongue. “Yep, its Elf dust alright!” She confirms, reaching for another dab.

“Don’t Cadence! Gross! How many times have I told you not to eat Elf dust? You have no idea where that Elf has been! Do you think he’s still in here?” I ask as I look behind the dresser.

“Mom, the dust forms when they vanish like in the movie, remember?” Cadence grins and then her face falls flat. “Oh my God, Mom! Did you see what I was doing when the Elf was in here? I was in my mirror like this…” she says as she holds a fake microphone, face squeezed like a rock star while she lip syncs and gyrates to ‘Rockin Around the Christmas Tree’ which is floating up from the speakers downstairs.

“This is Soooo embarrassing!” She says, rolling her eyes, hands on her hips. I marvel at how she can seem fifteen and five years old at the same time.

Adrenaline surges through her as we arrive to the set location and she bounds into the costume room to prepare for the evening. “Break a leg!” I kiss her little face, rosy with stage make-up and then wander out of the building. A line of cars stretches for miles on the road heading into town and groups of people move briskly along sidewalk.

“Santa will be mad if you miss the tree lighting.” I hear one father say as he hurries his boys along.

“Oh my God he is so cute! Did he say anything to you?” A teenage girl giggles, huddled with her friends.

I call Brad who says he is fighting traffic and will get there before the show, but not in time for the tree lighting. Tyler calls from work to say he found a ride home with a friend. Trevor calls to say he’s been invited to sleep at his friend’s house after the tree lighting and perhaps he’d see me on the green.

I’m off the hook. Problem solved, tradition trimmed. No need to walk down in the freezing cold alone. It’s the same tree, the same experience; nothing I need to see.

I find myself moving and midway across the green, I button my coat and sink my hands deep into my pockets. The crowd is thick and the green is dark. It is impossible to distinguish faces unless they are within two feet. I walk slowly toward the edge and work my way into the crowd. I feel like I am watching the scene from elsewhere; television perhaps. Announcements and speeches full of recognition and gratitude are followed by Christmas music and warmth rushes through me in spite of the cold.

‘Oh Come All Ye Faithful’ rises in the air as I look upon a young couple snuggled close. I remember Brad and I coming here, on the threshold of marriage, longing for this infusion of family. A young mother nearby adjusts the blanket around her newborn, snuggled deeply into her neck. I close my eyes and I am back in that moment; content in that all important union. A man in front of me hoists his toddler upon his shoulders while his older bother bounces at mom’s side, anticipating that Santa will arrive just in time for the countdown.

Parents with tweens and teens struggle to keep the peace and to keep track of their brood among the chaos that surrounds them. The setting is all familiar; the drama has played out the same year after year, each year offering a different role. I have played almost all of these parts before. As I look around, I feel strangely undefined. I feel strangely peaceful. I am not the couple, yearning for the coziness of family or the mother of little ones; I am not the referee of chaos or the elderly pair strolling in time to the music. I am simply me and tradition calls me to be here. I understand now that it does not have to be scripted or perfect or the same as before, in order to be honored.

The ballet concludes, a successful opening night. Cadence is still dancing as she dresses for bed. My oldest arrives after we do, arms wrapped around rolls of wrapping paper and gifts. It is his first year with a job and tradition calls to him as well. He slips in the door beaming, having experienced his first independent Christmas shopping experience. I realize that in him, the drum of tradition beats and like his father and I, he will carry some of this with him. He will undoubtedly create new traditions as well as he grows into a family of his own.

As I reflect on that Christmas Eve in 1977 and my solitary tree lighting on Friday night, I realize that improvising is perhaps the best way to enjoy traditions; unplanned, non choreographed and expectation free. This year, the cadence of the tradition drum will be uncertain; we may skip, we may dance, we may even march and out of step is just fine with me.


Carrie Wilson Link said...

Lovely! I love that last line, Nancy. So true, the delicate balancing between new and old, tradition and making way for growth.

I'm so glad you're back! You've been missed!


Deb said...

So glad to find you here today. As I get ready for a weekend of Christmas getting-ready, this is the perfect inspiration and reminder what matters. Thank you!

Eileen said...

This was such a beautiful post, that I can really relate with. I struggle with many of the same issues of the Christmas traditions. I love the conclusion that you came to, it is OK to to adjust the traditions as needed. Christmas will still come and the traditions will may blend or change a bit, but it is all about what works for us and the family.

Your writing is so beautiful. As I am reading it, I was thinking, this piece (and so many of your other posts) should be published..they make such an impact on me. They stay with me, lingering on in my mind. That is a very special talent.

I hope you and your family have a very Merry Christmas!!


Michelle O'Neil said...

Beautiful Nancy.