by Michelle Van Loon
The thing they didn’t tell me about creating family holiday traditions is that you need to use putty to form them, not iron. Traditions need to hold their shape while remaining flexible enough to grow or shrink as the family changes form and location over the years. Tradition that doesn’t bend over time can become an iron-barred emotional prison.
When we got married in 1979, Bill and I discussed how we’d merge the holiday traditions of our respective childhoods, and at the same time create new traditions that would reflect our young faith in Jesus as Messiah.
I grew up celebrating Chanukah, which meant eight nights of presents. Even if the middle nights of Chanukah involved gifts like underwear or mittens, when I was a kid, I loved getting a blue-and-gold gift-wrapped present every single night, right after we lit the candles on our family chanukiah, the nine-branched candelabra that provided a nightly visual reminder about the miracle of the holiday.
My husband’s mother is Jewish, and his dad was raised Presbyterian. The pair found their way to the Unitarian church as a sort of negotiated compromise between the two faiths. Bill grew up in a home that observed both Christmas and Chanukah, navigating both December holidays in a pretty low-key manner.
In other words, Christmas was a relatively blank slate for both of us when we married. We enjoyed flexibility and intention as we considered forming our new family’s holidays. For example, when I was a young believer, I figured the Christmas tree was mandatory. As I wrote in Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith:
…after I came to faith in Jesus as Messiah during my teens, I couldn’t wait to see what the Christian hubbub was about. My parents forbade me from attending church as long as I lived under their roof, so my first three Christmases as a believer were spent alone in my room, reading my Bible and listening to Christmas carols on the radio. I figured that the tree, lights, presents, carols, and maybe even Santa had something to do with the birth of Jesus. I couldn’t wait to try out this Christian holiday for myself.
The first year my husband and I were married, I decided to surprise him by setting up my first-ever Christmas tree. While he was at work, I headed to a local tree lot and purchased a half-barren, lopsided ball of a spruce tree, a tree stand, and a couple of strings of lights on white cords. (I had no idea that white cords were for houses and green cords were for Christmas trees. Yes, our tree looked as pathetic as you’re imagining it did.)
The holiday decorating, baking, parties, and special services at church were pleasant enough, but they didn’t lead me to the manger to worship the baby King like I thought they would. It didn’t take me long to recognize that my lonely first Christmases, without all the cultural trappings, had been far more worship-filled than these busywork-packed ones.
Bill and I ended up keeping the tree as part of our holiday celebrations for three decades until our nest emptied. (I bought lights on green strings to replace the white ones, however.) We purchased or made a new ornament for each member of our family every year. We never included Santa as part of our own simple family celebrations when our kids were young. Bill wasn’t especially connected to the idea of Santa, and I had grown up without him, so we told our children about the courage and generosity of Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, instead. And we created a new tradition of our own, writing letters of blessing to each of our children and to one another, and then reading the other’s letter aloud to the recipient every Christmas Eve. We’d gather with extended family for dinner on Christmas Day. The day after Christmas, we’d get together with friends in order to eat leftovers and drink wine while the kids played with their new toys or zoned out on movies. We continue to observe Chanukah as well, because the story of one holiday informs the celebration of the other.
But as the nest emptied and our children began building their own young adult lives, I mourned the passing of time. Looking at the ornaments we’d collected over the years made me cry. I never could understand why people got so nostalgic at Christmastime until the ache for my own days gone by ambushed me the first couple of holidays where the old script for family holidays had to be scrapped.
I discovered my once-flexible approach to creating holiday traditions had hardened into iron. I typically think of bitterness and unforgiveness as key hardening agents in our lives. Both constrain us, keeping us from growth and love of God, others, and ourselves. Unhealthy nostalgia doesn’t flex, but demands the present fits into the shape of what once was.
Clinging to joyful moments in our past as if they are a life preserver is just a subtler kind of bitterness. The writer of Ecclesiastes coached those in search of wisdom with this blunt advice, “Do not say, ‘Why were the old days better than these?’ For it is not wise to ask such questions.” (7:10). It took a couple of holidays before I recognized that my nostalgia was in fact a form of mourning. One long, rich chapter of my family’s life had come to an end, and a new normal was being created. As a result, some traditions ended altogether. Others changed shape. Our family shrank through death and fractured connections; it grew through new relationships, including the birth of two grandsons; it changed through relocations.
As I allowed myself to feel all of the emotions that accompanied my grief (a scary but necessary prospect), I discovered that my once iron-clad longing for past happy holidays had morphed into something that resembled moldable putty once again. At midlife, our Christmas is not a blank slate. We have the ingredients of our past traditions, both aching and sweet, from which we can choose to build new memories.