On Giants' Shoulders

Monday, December 08, 2008

Traditions and Transitions

This, for us, was a year of transition. We went from being part of the middle generation to, not so suddenly, but inevitably, the oldest generation in the family. We also gained a new family member and within weeks of that got the news that we were going to be meeting a new grandchild in the spring. So it will soon be three generations of family again, only we'll be the oldest of the three, not the middle one. Of course the last two parts of the transition (the wedding and the baby) mean that some of the traditions surrounding the holidays will be changing. It won't be the 4 of us at midnight Mass, for starters. Jim and Abby will be with his family on Christmas Eve this year. Next year, with a new baby, who knows what Christmas Eve will bring. I'm trying to figure out a way to make this Christmas Eve feel special rather than diminished.

Last Christmas Eve there were also just three of us at Mass. Abby was horribly sick and had to miss it. Hopefully she'll at least be able to enjoy Christmas this year without a horrible fever and headache.

The last pre-marriage Christmas I had was also not a fun one. My father had died a few weeks earlier and my mother and I were staying at my aunt's home. Everyone tried to be very nice, but, it wasn't in any way shape or form the same thing. My sister and her husband were at his parent's, we had none of "our" decorations, none of "our" favorite foods, not even "our" type of Christmas cookies or my father's omelet for breakfast. Ironically, I think that made things easier the next year. I was able to embrace being part of a new family, embrace having our own tree, our own nativity set, the beginnings of our own traditions. Once again my own family wasn't there. My sister was at her in-laws, my mother was in Florida with her brother. However, my "new" family welcomed me in with such warmth that I truly did not feel the lack.

Our first Christmas together was a pretty meager one economically. David was an out of work carpenter, I was a stay at home wife, although I had done a little part-time work as a homebound tutor and substitute teacher. We did our Christmas shopping at discount department stores. We still have a couple of ornaments we bought that year and despite the fact that they are definitely cheap plastic kitsch, they are among my favorite ornaments on the tree because they speak of new beginnings. That was the year that I made my brother-in-law a flannel shirt, my sister-in-law a crocheted afghan, and my mother-in-law a crocheted vest. None of them were elegant, all of them were made with inexpensive material. That was back in the era where I used discount type acrylic yarn, not the nice wools I knit with today.

That was also the year when we began some traditions that survive as well as tried out a few things that were sort of "one time only" affairs. I began baking my mother's Christmas bread, not just for us, but for David's family as well. That was a tradition that continued. I found a recipe for plum pudding and we had flaming plum pudding at Christmas dinner for the first time. That was also a tradition that continued. We made spiked eggnog and served it to all and sundry (including David's cousin and his wife - Dick as I recall really appreciated the eggnog). That was a tradition that somehow didn't continue.

One tradition that survived was actually one of the important traditions from my own home. When I was a little girl, the thing that made Christmas really Christmas was not the tree, although we had a tree and I loved it. It was not the stockings (truly old stockings not special ones made out of flannel until I was nearly all grown up) that made Christmas feel like Christmas. What made Christmas really Christmas was our nativity set. Now growing up the nativity set was simply made out of cardboard. The figures folded out and every year they got just a little less sturdy. However, I knew it was truly Christmas when that box got taken out of the bottom of the chest and we were allowed to set it up. When David and I got married we bought a nativity set at Woolworth's. We couldn't afford a nice set, so we got this little cheap plastic one complete with sheep, cow, donkey, camel and Wise Men. It always bugged me that the baby Jesus was stuck in the manger and that Mary and Joseph were stuck in the stable. It always bugged me that the angel didn't necessarily stay perched on top where it belonged. However, like the cheap nativity set of my childhood, it became an integral part of Christmas for me. A few years back it got relegated to being the kitchen nativity set when we got a nicer set for the living room. Now part of each year's tradition is unwrapping the nativity set again and putting things out in their proper order. Now the creche and animals appears before Mary, Joseph, the infant Jesus and the angel. The shepherds come in a bit later and the Wise Men don't appear until Epiphany. Somehow, however, despite the changes I have managed to bring along with me one thing that makes Christmas sing like Christmas to my heart.

My daughter and I have been talking a lot about traditions lately. We've talked about traditions that connect us to earlier generations, and about families without as many traditions. What I've realized is that a lot of what I cherished about my own growing up Christmases had little to do with my mother's family at all. Her family never had a Christmas tree until she was an adult and bought one for them. They didn't do stockings or read about Santa Claus. Christmas was the Christmas program at church, a nice dinner and a few presents along with a reading of the Christmas story. The festive atmosphere simply wasn't part of things at all. My father's family was a little less austere than that, but still had far less Christmas spirit than our home. My mother was given to encouraging letters to Santa Claus (I recall one I wrote in crayon that she sent to the Santa who read the letters over the radio and the thrill of having my letter read!). She always baked Christmas cookies. I still have the cutters we used when I was 4 and they are among the ones I still use. Christmas wasn't necessarily lavish at our house, but it definitely was celebrated. Sometimes we were home for all of it, sometimes when I was little we were at the grandparents.

Our extended family Christmases got ruptured early, however. My father and his brother had a huge falling out when I was 6 and there was never another big Drown family Christmas again. We sometimes went to my Grandmother's and a couple of times we went to my aunt's, but there was never ever again the gathering of the clan complete with a present from the person who's name you'd drawn. Any traditions that came from that side of the family just stopped. So Christmas became whatever my parents chose to make it. They did their best, but it felt diminished. Christmas at my aunt's wasn't a whole lot of fun because my aunt and her husband tended to spend much more lavishly on their kids than my parents did on us and their kids gloated in that fact. My father didn't like going to his sister's because she wanted to serve things like an Italian chicken or pasta dish instead of turkey. It wasn't that she was Italian or had married an Italian, it was just upwardly mobile suburban attitude of let's do something different and less old fashioned (she read a lot of women's magazines I suspect!). As far as my father was concerned Christmas without the turkey was ruined. Consequently, we brought the turkey or we stayed home.

Over the past 33 years we've developed our own set of traditions. Some of these come from David's family (like going to church on Christmas Eve, and putting up the Christmas tree right before Christmas) some (like my father's omelet and my mother's Christmas bread, presents on Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve) come from mine. However, much of what we do is something we, or to be more accurate, I initiated. I'm the one who started the plum pudding tradition. I'm the one who first insisted on oyster stew on Christmas Eve (with an alternate soup for the non-oyster eaters among us - Jim isn't alone in his aversion to oyster stew!). I'm the one who began making fruit cakes for Christmas, who bought "Santa Are You For Real" and "The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas" to read to the kids along with the nativity story and "The Night Before Christmas." I'm the one who bought the St. Nicholas statue and began the custom of special cookies on Dec. 6. Here again the tradition sort of holds because it was my mother and my mother-in-law who were responsible for tradition starting in their families as well.

Santa Claus was a huge part of my parents focus at Christmas and a huge part of the focus at my in-laws. We rather relegated him to the background (by mutual decision!). He was clearly a storybook character, not someone who arrived at Christmas. We focused on Jesus and for years put candles on the Christmas bread and sang Happy Birthday to Jesus on Christmas morning (that particular tradition died sometime around the time our oldest hit junior high age). I still like the idea of focusing on the Christian saint rather than the commercial Santa Claus figure, but we'll see how the next generation handles all of this.

In some ways our Christmases have had more in common with the spirit of my grandparents' Christmases than the Christmases of the 1950's. We've tried really hard to make the focus of things be the birth of the Savior rather than a winter saturnalia complete with a jolly old elf. Yet, we have tapped into another tradition as well. We have, long before the kids and I became Catholic, tapped into the tradition of the feast and festivity. We've had Advent wreaths and Advent calendars, we've had Wise Men trekking their way around the room towards the stable, we've had candles in the windows to welcome the King. We haven't had inflatable Santa's on the lawn or fake snow Santa's stenciled on the windows. No one dressed up like Santa Claus, the kids didn't get their pictures taken with the Santa at the mall. In some ways I think perhaps the focus being where it's always been makes the transition easier. In so many houses Christmas is a holiday for children and when there are no children it hardly seems like Christmas. Now I'll freely admit to being more than ready to welcome a child back into our Christmas celebration. I'm looking forward to reading the old stories with a new little person, to baking Christmas cookies with a new little person, to finding ways to share all of this joy with a new little person. However, we can have a meaningful Christmas even when the little person still resides inside his or her mother, even when we're in a time of transition, even when the people who made Christmas special have died or moved far away. The gift of Christmas is not simply the celebration and festivity, it is the gift of Christ himself. The celebration and festivity are supposed to be in joy and thanksgiving for His gift of himself. The gifts we give each other are supposed to be in thanksgiving for the ultimate gift to us. So long as we can remember that we can live through times of transition, we can include old traditions and institute new ones. We can warmly welcome new family members in while still holding onto memories. We can be thankful for family, whether the family of the Church or the human family to which we belong.

In the final analysis my father was both right and wrong. It can be Christmas without turkey (we frequently have done roast beef or goose or both), but it is important to retain some sense of continuity. Some traditions continue over generations some get dropped along the way. For years someone gave my parents a box of Whitman's chocolates for Christmas. I told David about that, and nearly every year he got one for me. In recent years it's been more apt to be a different kind of candy and somehow it doesn't really matter. I still remember my mother storing the box of chocolates on top of the refrigerator when I was little and the solemn ceremony of choosing just one. My love of Jordan almonds began with those boxes of Whitman's chocolates, now they will always be associated with a wedding. In can in fact still be Christmas without the Whitman's chocolates, even if a box of them still evokes Christmas to me. We no longer go to Christmas Eve service in a Protestant Church, but we usually go to midnight Mass. This year midnight Mass will be very different for us because our parish has transitioned to new priests this year and the bishop is going to be celebrating midnight Mass with us. Some things will be different, many things will be the same. The continuity of tradition helps us know where we are, helps us know who we are, but changes sometimes simply underscore when we are.

My in-laws were very wise people (as I've pointed out many times before). They allowed us to bring new ways of celebrating into the mix while retaining much that was important to them. Grammy Swift cherished her special icicles and loved wrapping the Christmas ornaments away in a ceremonial fashion sometime after Epiphany. She loved having an Advent log, and going to church as a family on Christmas Eve. However, she also came to enjoy a flaming pudding and Christmas bread, one a tradition of my family (even if it was only one generation old), the other something that I had begun (even if in the large context of things it goes back many generations). Now we are in the midst of welcoming new family members and new traditions. I pray we'll have both the wisdom and the charity of my in-laws as we do so.