I opened today’s door on my Advent Calendar, because I’ve had a December count-down calendar all my life. I asked my husband to hang the mistletoe ball in the doorway because that’s where it goes. Tomorrow I’ll bake peanut butter blossoms and raspberry ribbon cookies because they are a family requirement. I’ve hidden the pickle ornament on the tree and will get the extra surprise gift ready, because we always do the pickle present. I added an antique angel to my creche because it was my mom’s. I’ll polish and wear my silver angel necklace for Christmas Eve Service because she always goes to that mass with me. Because, because, because – they are traditions.
There’s no other event or time of year that is as dedicated to a multitude of “because that’s how we do it’s” as the December Holiday Season. Sure, we have our customs and rituals throughout the year for other holidays, birthdays and life events. But as soon as we near the end of the year, we become ferociously devoted to doing things a certain way. Like putting on our favorite, perfectly fitting, soft, warm sweater that we’ve had for 20+ years, our traditions make us feel good. They are comforting, they are fun, and they connect us to the past.
I’ve seen people get almost aggressively protective of their traditions. As funny as some of them may seem, it makes sense. Traditions provide a sense of comfort and belonging. In our ever-changing, frequently frightening big world, being able to rely on something NOT changing is like a big hug.
Once in a while, though, as uncomfortable as it may feel, we have to – gasp – change things up. Starting new traditions can be for joyful and fun reasons like a new member of the family, a move to a new home or part of the country, or starting a new relationship – which can also lead to creativity. I’ve had some fascinating discussions with folks who blend Hanukkah and Christmas (one called it Hanumas) or take part in seemingly contradictory customs depending on which branch of the family they are visiting.
The most bittersweet shift in traditions of course comes about with the loss of a loved one, and just the progression of time. Within our world of Real Women, it feels like 2019 has been a year of loss. Many RW’s I know have lost a loved one, or are dealing with the decline – both physically or mentally – of parents and other relatives. Which means how they celebrate the holidays has shifted and changed and will never be quite what they were before. Having to let go of some of the “that’s how we always do it’s” can hurt, and make us surprisingly sad or agitated. Facing a changed tradition can hit us emotionally and suddenly like being run over by a pack of reindeer. The key lies in how we get back up and brush the snow off our faces, shake the hoof prints off our backs, and find the right elves to support us in going a different direction without giving up completely to go hang out on a beach in Aruba. (Remember how well that plan worked in Grisham’s Skipping Christmas.)
Not having a loved one with us for the holidays, for any reason (death, military service, school, distance) feels like a big chunk of our heart has left without taking along the rest of our body. As many of you know, I’m a big believer in signs that come to us from our missing loved ones. During this magical time of year, they are easier to see if we just keep our eyes open. One of my brother’s favorite traditions was to recite “Twas the Night Before Christmas” every New Year’s Eve. It was a carry over from our childhood, when we would each take turns reading that story. A couple of months ago, I randomly selected my Advent Calendar at a Christmas gift shop because it was pretty. Well, guess what. Each door I open is a verse from that poem. Not a coincidence.
Finding ways to honor and remember those who are not with us helps ease the pain and discomfort. I love seeing how RW’s choose to do this. One BFF’s husband adapted certain parts of their Christmas Village to be in memory of her father who passed this year. Another RW friend is carrying on the tradition of making a cookie tree because her mother is no longer able. Another is hanging inherited holiday décor, even though it doesn’t match anything else in her home. All of these things bring a piece of that person back into our daily traditions.
We have to also be ok with doing new things, and feeling the freedom to make changes and enjoy them. One RW and I were discussing that with the loss of our loved ones this year, our caretaking chores were relieved and we’ve had more time to enjoy our holiday preparations. Without having to go back and forth to transport or visit our ailing loved ones, we can relax and be home more. Maybe the loss of someone in your life has allowed for starting new traditions like changing the menu for Christmas dinner, or changing which church Service you attend, or having the time to go help out at a Soup Kitchen, or listen to different holiday music, or go on a trip for the New Year… whatever it is, we RW’s are struck with the dichotomy of guilt, grief and joy, and it really can twist us up inside. Hence that lovely cry-laugh that emanates from us at any moment, scaring the men in our lives more than if they saw one of Scrooge’s ghosts.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter WHAT the tradition is. Whether you’ve been carrying on for 50 years, or starting something new this year, what matters is the peace and comfort it brings, and the memories it builds. Webster’s gives a definition of tradition as “the handing down of information, beliefs and customs by word or mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction.” There’s no way really of knowing what will “stick” for our future generations. We just know, that like us, our kids will do certain things “because that’s how we do it”, and will have some form of story, accurate or not, likely embellished through time, to tell for each one.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get out my mom’s cookie recipe (old) and go set up a small lit tree on my son’s desk for when he gets home from college next week (new). Then I’ll tune into my playlist to sing some of my loved one’s favorite carols and hear them in my head singing right along with me. Just because.