Evolving Holiday Traditions

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We have become accustomed to our family’s traditional – or not so traditional – ways of celebrating the holidays. Experiencing other families’ traditions can find you out of your element, or you can embrace the differences.

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Maintaining long-kept holiday traditions can be challenging for families that are inevitably changing and evolving, but it can be achieved if you open your windows to new possibilities.
A sense of humor never hurts either.

I vividly recall my first Christmas away from my family the year after I graduated from law school. Due to work constraints, I decided to skip the overcrowded flight home to upstate New York and spend it with my new boyfriend. We had only been dating since September, so it was a calculated risk to step away from the family Christmas traditions which I had so grown to love: prime rib for dinner on Christmas Eve with my father’s family; a midnight candlelight service at a Presbyterian church; no order to the gift giving or opening on Christmas day; candy in the stockings; mid-day dinner with my mother’s family; and tons of snow.

I arrived nervous but excited. We did not attend the Catholic mass which the rest of his family had gone to earlier. Little did I know at the time, but the house I was entering would eventually be labeled that of my “in-laws.” Three years later, I would marry this boyfriend. Introductions were made, and I attempted to discern the differences. Their synthetic tree had matching decorations. Everything was either red or green. I grew up decorating a fresh cut Frazier Fur with ornaments ranging from kid-painted elbow macaroni to delicate hand-blown glass. No prime rib was served that evening. It was a lobster casserole. But it was delicious; a family recipe they enjoyed every year. After dessert, we headed to the family room where the gifts were set out in sections based on the recipient’s name. I had never seen anything like it. They actually had a Christmas process.

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We began with the stockings. They were kind enough to have created one for me. It didn’t look the others, but it was a warm gesture. My stocking was primarily filled with toiletries, not candy: Colgate toothpaste – I’m a Crest-kind-of-girl – and dental floss. Seriously? I glanced around the room. No one else looked surprised. Another family tradition I supposed. There was a small blue ice scraper at the bottom of my illegitimate stocking. It reminded me of the cold winters I knew all too well from New York, but I doubted I could find much use for it on that balmy Christmas Eve in Chantilly, Virginia. Looking outside, there was not a single flake of snow. No one else seemed to notice. They all embraced their norm.

When the gift sharing began, not only did I come to understand that they opened all of the gifts on Christmas Eve, but they did so one person at a time; one gift at time. I tried to follow this unfamiliar tradition as we went around the room, each opening a gift and then holding it up for the requisite photograph. This was the hardest part for me to cope with. I have never liked having my picture taken. I clenched my teeth together in a manufactured smile while holding up the white lace Peter Pan collar which was contrary to my sense of style. I longed for the comfort of my own family and our way of celebrating what I considered my favorite holiday of the year.

Many years down the road and countless holidays later, I am happy to say that we have achieved a balance of combined traditions. With marriages, births, and the changes that come with living life, our diverse families have figured out ways to keep much of what mattered to each family alive. Despite varying views of religion and ideas of what makes the holidays special, we have come to understand that different isn’t necessarily objectionable or impossible. It can actually be unexpected fun if you allow for wiggle room. Today we share Christmas Eve with his family, Christmas morning with my family now that they live in the area, and Christmas Day dinner with everyone.

It didn’t always come perfectly or easily. One year the prime rib was a bust. We ended up having pizza. We readily gave up on opening gifts one at a time once we became outnumbered by little ones. I have not received another Peter Pan collar. Instead, I receive wonderful gift certificates to Nordstrom. We always get a fresh tree and pack it with favorites. Our four kids argue over who will put the tiny apple ornaments on the tree. It’s become a tradition. The fake tree at my in-laws is holding strong and always looks beautiful. They still try and take my picture much too often, but I have learned to duck more quickly than I did when I was younger and unfamiliar with their holiday quest. I have also accepted that snowy-white Christmases are a rarity in Northern Virginia. My personal family memories of holiday traditions are still well kept in a corner of my mind, but I have opened up a whole new room for the rest to grow.

I left my holiday measuring stick in a snow bank in New York long ago.

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