Traditions are ever-changing

Washington Post
Friday, December 22, 2017

‘I saw one,” my son said, while walking in the front door after school. “How many is that?”

The “that” in question referred to our yearly attempt to count how many Christmas trees we spot in transition, the real and the spectacular ones strapped atop vehicles making their way through the holiday season. We keep a running tally, all four of us reporting our car-top additions close to real time.

Last year we counted more than 50, a record. This year we often take the long way home, hoping we might beat that total.

Some traditions are easier than others, and some are built upon a foundation of generations.

At the intersection of holiday and family lies the cornerstone of tradition, where relatives and recipes rise to the annual occasion. It is the real time of memories in the making, the now that we will remember fondly. And yet, nothing ever stays the same. Life goes on as hindsight in a montage, taking family traditions with it and creating new versions in their stead. Tradition, it turns out, is a fluid thing.

Experience has shown that tradition is hinged upon the repetition of happiness. It swings back and forth because it works, and if a thing is not broken, then it need not be fixed. Life, of course, has other plans, and there are factors – both good and bad – that can alter traditions accordingly. Those factors can include the addition of new family members, the loss of a loved one, marriage, divorce, moving, the occasional scandal and arguments you can’t put a bow on.

It is only now, as a father of rapidly growing boys, that I can appreciate how my parents were able to maintain grand illusions of holiday sameness despite the magic fading everywhere.

Tradition, I have realized, is only as strong as those who hold it together.

For years I wasn’t the one in that role. There was an intermission when I moved away from home, married and lived three states away. I was too burdened by airfare and the demands of shift work to make it back to my family for Christmas. The holidays changed from Christmas Eve with my grandparents to bottles of wine with our childless friends, good food and tree-lit laughter. But then, that too, could pass for tradition.

Once we had kids, though, the game was back on, for who were we to deprive our children of festive grandparent spoiling? At that point, we were living a couple of states closer, and tradition started with a car ride.

Eventually, we decided to turn the holidays into a movable feast. Tradition became destination travel, the years split between our place and the respective homes of my parents and sister. It worked as a concept, and we penciled it in forever.

Then four years ago, on Dec. 23, my mother died in a car accident while driving to our house for the holidays. The pain and heartache, obviously, made that year nearly unbearable. Her grandkids opened the last thoughts from her, lovingly wrapped and handwritten just days before, each package still remarkably intact. She had been the only precious cargo broken.

The next year my sister and her family came to our house, along with my dad and stepdad, and we spent Christmas together on the anniversary of my mother’s death, first in the sands of the beach that she had loved, and then in my living room as she once intended. Now that, too, is our tradition.

And beneath our tree, there lives an unwrapped gift, signed four years ago in the crayon script of two little boys who have grown so much bigger, and a tag always addressed “For Nana.”