I loved Christmas as a child. My dad grew up on a farm in Southwestern Ontario and we would almost always make the journey there every December. We did if my brother and I had a say in it. We would make the 3 hour journey with boxes covered with blankets under our feet and excitement in our hearts. I don’t even know how my grandmother fit such a crowd in her home. I can still remember seeing the gifts from Santa waiting for me in the sitting room when I got up. Santa never wrapped our gifts. There were stockings full of nuts and an orange in the toe. Santa would always leave each person in the family a paper lunch bag filled with old-fashioned candy. I never ate any of it. I never had much of a sweet tooth. I suspect they were my grandfather’s favourite. My grandmother would cook a huge dinner for her huge family and their offspring. My parents have the photos of the whole family sitting around a heavy-laden table in their paper crowns from the Christmas crackers. The group might vary a little. The kids got bigger but we have the same photo from a handful of years. The crowns were non-negotiable. If you wanted to eat, you wear a crown. That was my grandfather’s rule.
I don’t really remember when it changed. The family kept growing. Most of my aunts and uncles lived in other cities by then. My cousins and their families had to visit with the other side of the family. The group started shrinking. Then my grandparents built a smaller home on the property to live in while one of my uncles and his family moved into the old farm house. I was 11 years old when my grandfather died of cancer. Christmas was changing.
Change is a certainty of life. One of the few. I like things staying the same. Maybe not as much as my son with Autism but I find comfort in knowing what comes next. By the time I was an adult, we had changed our Christmas traditions so much that they barely resembled the Christmas of Santa and childhood. We changed. We grew.
Pete’s family is a little different. They are virtually tradition-less. It doesn’t matter when they meet or what they eat. As long as they were together, that was enough. Then I introduced to a tradition from my father’s family. Christmas pudding with hot butterscotch sauce. I loved it as a kid. Then it was deemed too rich to follow a huge meal so it was discontinued in favour of my grandmother’s pies. I missed that pudding so I introduced my German in-laws to a British tradition. The year the twins were born I was making Christmas pudding with a month-old baby on my shoulder. The year Arlynne died I made Christmas pudding. This “tradition-less” family had a tradition. It is something they always anticipate and I always comply. Even when it is hard.
Traditions can offer comfort to someone who is grieving. They make life predictable. Unfortunately, though, these traditions can also be another casualty in the loss. I didn’t expect to sit down to another meal with my ex-husband’s family. But I missed my daughters when they were there. I still have both my parents and my in-laws but there will be a day when they aren’t there, just like their parents before them. There will be a time when my dad won’t have 25 different kinds of cookies and treats in the freezer. When my mom won’t be up at the crack of dawn to stuff her bird and start her turkey-basting vigil. I won’t like it. But there is nothing I can do to stop it. We just don’t know when the last year of tradition will be the last. And I can appreciate the years I have to appreciate them. It is one of the things that loss has taught me.
The year that Arlynne died we received counsel that we should abandon tradition that year. It was suggested that we do something completely out of the ordinary. We always have Christmas dinner at my parents’ house on Christmas day. That year we met as a family at my brother’s house. I remember Nathan falling asleep during his dinner of chicken fingers and McCain “Smiles” (he doesn’t like turkey!). I remember a very chaotic gift exchange in my brother and sister-in-law’s family room. I also remember forgetting most of the gifts the kids got when we left. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate them. It was just that kind of a day. It was different. I don’t remember much else. It passed like a blur. Just like most of the whole first year. Would I do the first Christmas different next time? I don’t know. It was pretty irrelevant. It was what it was. Nothing could change it. Nothing could make it easier. Maybe next time I wouldn’t try. I’d just stand in the waves and let the tide overtake me. I’ll give myself permission to grieve.
Maybe it is time to make some new traditions. I met a couple who had lost 3 sons. I can’t even imagine. They light 3 candles on the table in remembrance. Or the family who leaves an empty chair at the table. The chair where someone special used to sit. A physical acknowledgement of something that is often too painful to say. That someone is missed. It is so much easier to remember than it is to forget. Sure, there may be tears but tears are a healing balm to the heart. My heart can always use some.
We were back to “normal” the next year and every year since. Grief has been set aside in favour of the familiar. So much time has passed that we should be able to move ahead without a backward glance. But it isn’t that easy. One thing is certain though. We won’t be trying to avoid tradition again.