This is the first time in fifteen years we won’t be traveling for Christmas. We will be staying at home, just the four of us.
It has been our tradition to spend Christmas Eve with my husband Phil’s (very large) family in Philadelphia, and then Christmas Day with my (very small) family in New Jersey. When we lived locally in a suburb of Philly, this arrangement worked. We covered all our bases and everyone was happy.
But since moving to Boston seven years ago, upholding the traditions of Christmas past has taken a lot more effort. Like, a lot more.
First, there is the gift organization: What can be transported via car, and what needs to be shipped? A responsible person would use an Excel spreadsheet for such a task; the name of the gift, the receiver, type of wrapping paper used and shipment status recorded in its own neat little box. I am not that person. I am the person who binge shops on Cyber Monday, stuffs the incoming packages into her closet and says: “I’ll figure it out later.” Later = three days before Christmas. Ok, two days.
Then, there is the travel itself: The packing, the last-minute boarding of the dog because we can’t seem to remember that we have one, the installation of the Thule purchased on Cyber Monday to transport anything that can’t be lodged into the trunk, the administering of Dramamine, the traffic on the Merritt and the GW Bridge, the voice of the Waze lady re-directing us to her short-cut through Harlem. Then there is the constant complaining: My IPad is dead, the Wi-fi’s not working, it’s my turn to use the charger, She’s at 11% and I’m only at 6% so I get the charger, I need to pee, I’m hungry, actually no I’m nauseous, why did I eat those Fritos, PULL OVER I AM GOING TO PUKE RIGHT NOW!
I realize these are first world problems. We are fortunate to have family to visit in the first place. But for me Christmas had become a marathon I had to muscle through, rather than a season to slow down and savor. Maybe no one actually does that, I reasoned. Tis the season for overextending yourself.
And Christmas is about being with family, right? I truly do love Phil’s family, and I would prefer for them to love me back. I didn’t want to be “that in-law” to break a family tradition that long preceded my membership.
Until last year, a few days after Christmas, my mother-in-law let me off the hook. .
Over martinis at a restaurant in Philadelphia, she told me the story of the one Christmas they spent away from home over 40 years ago, at Uncle Joe and Aunt Aurelia’s house in Connecticut.
Her holiday tale was straight out of a National Lampoon movie: Nine people crammed in an old station wagon, including Phil’s grandmother who asked every ten minutes if they could jump off the NY thruway for a cocktail. The gifts were transported in my father-in-law’s homemade luggage carrier made out of painted green wood he had found in the backyard.
“It looked like a green coffin on top of the car,” she said. “People kept slowing down on the highway to check out the corpse we were carrying.”
I was laughing so hard I was crying. My mother-in-law – an Irish firecracker from South Philly – knows how to tell a story.
“By the time we arrived,” she said, “I was already exhausted and knew I would never travel for Christmas again. We were barely there when the kids spotted Aunt Aurelia’s collection of gingerbread houses. I’m not talking about the sloppy ones you slap together with some icing and gumdrops. These were masterpieces – Martha Stewart worthy. God knows how long they took to make. But within five minutes, my children ate them. Devoured them. Not a crumb was left. I wanted to die.”
I snorted and vodka come out my nose.
“My point is,” she continued, “is that you don’t have to do this next year. I appreciate that you make the effort, and we love seeing you, but you should be in your own house for Christmas.”
It took a moment for her words to sink in – for what she was saying to register.
I always thought being part of a big family meant going with the flow: showing up and blending in. To not take part in this tradition, I feared, would be seen as a rejection of those who did. Everyone else made it work, so I should make it work, too. No excuses. But, according to my mother-in-law, 300 miles is actually a legit excuse. And she’s The Boss.
The word tradition is derived from the Latin root tradere, which means to “hand over.” And that is what my mother-in-law did in that moment. She passed the torch. She released me: selflessly, magnanimously, no strings attached. She gifted my Christmas back to me by saying, “This is your family, your holiday. You need to do what works best for you.”
The thing is, I have no idea what works best for me.
Marrying the baby of a large, tight-knit family is like an all-inclusive vacation package at Sandals. There is very little guesswork as to how things run. Holiday traditions were long ago set in motion and now run like a well-oiled machine. By the time I came onto the scene, the Christmas Eve menu consisting of eight pounds of bacon, six pounds of sausage, and six pounds of ham had long ago been set. All I had to do was show up with a fruit salad to offset the 20 lbs of pork and pour myself a cocktail. Phil’s family knows how to party, and Christmas Eve is their Super Bowl: great-grandchildren banging on the piano, thirty-three people sitting shoulder to shoulder around the dining room table or huddled in the kitchen, kids required to sing a carol for their presents, stories being told and re-told. And so much laughter. Lots of good, deep belly laughs.
Clearly this is a tough act to follow. How do I compete with a feast that showcases a pig in all its versatile glory? What do I know about creating traditions? How do I create a Christmas from scratch?
All I know is, everything needs to start somewhere, and traditions need to change with the times in order to last. Hanging stockings for Santa to fill with candy started as shoes being left out for St. Nicholas to fill with coins. Before it was a cake, the yule log was actually burning wood meant to keep away evil spirits. My mother-in-law’s Christmas Eve celebration started as a dinner, but was bumped up to a brunch once grandchildren entered the mix.
So, I will approach this with the spirit of a pioneer. We already have a few traditions in place, like giving books as gifts on Christmas Eve in matching plaid pajamas. Just yesterday, my friend Katie invited us to join her family for Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. This felt like a gift from God. If we are depressed and hating each other by the end of the day, we will be saved by shrimp tempura, Katie’s hilarious kids and the waiter at Gourmet Garden who pours a 10 ounce glass of Kim Crawford.
If I have learned one thing in my thirteen years of parenting, it’s that kids smell your desperation. They sense your need for perfection, and will go to great lengths to remind you that it does not exist. They know that you have appointed yourself as The Keeper Of Everyone’s Happiness, and feel it is their responsibility to return you to a more humble state.
So my holiday refrain is: “Here goes nothing.” The higher the expectation, the steeper the fall. I am prepared for frustration and failure. Right now my plan consists of a walk on the beach, staying in my pjs as long as possible, and letting people briefly feel all their feelings before distracting them with Elf and overly buttered popcorn. There will be very few instances when everyone is happy at the same time – which may be the one consistent tradition regardless of location. But another thing I have learned about parenting is that there will be a few grace-filled moments of perfect harmony, if I am present enough to notice.
While I am sure there will be sadness at what we are missing 300 miles away, there is an element of excitement and freedom in creating something new. And when this sense of freedom triggers feelings of guilt, I need to remind myself that putting my immediate family first doesn’t mean I love my extended family any less. To grow, there has to be room for both the past and the future. Maybe the actual tradition is not as important as the core belief that fuels it. And when a parent gives you permission to step fully into your own life, as my mother-in-law did for me… well, I can’t think of a better tradition than that.