Decades ago, my great-grandmother started a tradition of hosting both Christmas Eve and Christmas at her house. Brave woman.
Every year since then my family has gathered together for dinner and laughter, taking a few hours out of the busy holiday season to eat good food and just relax before the parents jump back into last minute wrapping and outlasting the kids to stay up and make some magic happen. In the morning we would get together again, open gifts, eat more good food — priorities! — maybe play some Scrabble. We’d take turns napping in Dad’s easy chair, big and squishy and comfy. The unspoken rules were simple. No drama. No arguing. Gift bows must be stuck to someone’s head. And gift wrap must be balled up and thrown at each other.
Five generations have participated in this tradition at the same house my great-grandmother built. Where my grandfather lived. And my father. Where I grew up. And where my daughters have spent vacation days and holidays with their grandparents.
Last Christmas was my grandmother’s last year with us. This Christmas we celebrate with her held tight in our hearts. And this year we celebrate Christmas Eve at the house my great-grandmother built, carrying forward her memory and tradition, but we celebrate Christmas at our new house. Building a new tradition from the old.
Places can act as a locus. They carry memories in their woodwork, in the penciled-in growth charts on the inside of the kitchen closet, in the emotions called forth by certain angles and lines and falls of light, in the knick knacks and ornaments that have meaning only to the family. But the ties that bind lie within the people, not the place.
The house will be new. Things won’t look the same. The seating is different. The light is different. The smells are different. It will also be easier for my remaining grandmother to reach. The walk to the house from the driveway is shorter, and flatter. Our kids will wake up and celebrate in their own living room, rather than getting in the car. My parents won’t have all the set up and clean up to do, with the big tree and the weight of traditions. It’s a change, but it’s not bad change.
And the ties that bind are still there. They are the shining, shimmering magic that makes the holiday special. My sister will make the mince tarts our grandmother always made, with the special mince tart pans Gram learned how to use in her childhood home in Wales. Not quite a muffin tin, not quite a pie pan. The tarts are dusted with confectioner’s sugar on top, and every kid in the family has learned how to eat mince tarts without inhaling the sugar and choking. It’s a skill.
We’ll still be throwing wrapping paper balls at each other, though now the dog will probably join in the game. She’ll also likely get decorated with bows. My parents will join us, and I imagine they’ll get a little thrill when the dishes pile up in my sink instead of theirs. The Scrabble board will come out, and naps will happen on whichever piece of furniture is deemed the comfiest.
The holiday season can be crazy, but it’s my favorite time of the year. All of the running around, the prep, the cleaning, the budgeting culminates in a couple of days where the rest of the world fades out and we focus on the core of what’s important to me. Making my kids happy, spending time with my family, eating good food (priorities!), and remembering fondly those who created these weird little family traditions of ours even though they aren’t with us any more. That’s what I remember from year to year. Not so much the stuff, though that’s awfully fun. I remember the people and the things we do together, the food and the Scrabble and the silly rituals, and how they make me feel. We’re kind of cheesy, we’re kind of goofy, but we have a good time.