Christmas is so steeped in tradition that it’s difficult to change anything. I mean anything. When you’ve been doing Christmas the same way for umpteen years, you get comfortable. You dig your heels in. You resist even the idea of change.
The Christmas meal at our house had been the same since the days of Methuselah. Wait, he didn’t have Christmas. Maybe, since WWII. Then I got married. Beth brought a little bit of Selma. I brought a little bit of Hampton. Her dressing was different. My sweet potatoes were different. They opened everything on Christmas morning. We exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve and had Santa the next morning. We changed it up a little bit, made up a few new traditions of our own, and Christmas survived just fine.
It seems crazy to put so much stock into a tradition, but once expectations are set and memories are made, we hold on to that. Traditions define the holiday.
One year, Beth suggested that we change up the meal completely. This was not just a simple, “Hey, let’s cut the Cranberry sauce up into cubes rather than round slices.” This was like saying, “Hey, let’s invite the Devil over for Christmas.”
I hate to admit it, but I was the one that cringed the most. She wanted to eliminate the Ham and Turkey. “We just had that at Thanksgiving”, she contended. “Let’s do a seafood extravaganza.” Somehow, shrimp and dressing just didn’t fit in my little Christmas world.
As it turned out, it was one of the best Christmas meals I think we ever had. Shrimp and Grits. Fried Grouper. Hush Puppies. Crab cakes. Cole slaw. Just about anything you’d expect from Captain Anderson’s down in Panama City.
When we told my Dad what we were having, he said something like, “Really? But it’s Christmas.” He ate everything in sight anyway. And it gave us all a story to talk about for years. It might be time to do it again.
The fact that traditions are so strongly attached to the soul is part of what makes Christmas special. You look forward to the break from work. You anticipate the sleep over at your parents’ house. The familiar tree in the same spot. The fireplace. Sitting around in your PJs in a room turned upside down by the tornado of little people tearing at paper and screaming, “Look what Santa brought me!”
That’s why one year when we announced that we were not going to make the usual trip home for Christmas, I thought my Mama was going to come unglued.
“You’re going to do what?” She was confused.
“We’re going to load up the kids and have our own Christmas in a cabin at Veterans State Park. Just the five of us on Christmas Day.” The kids were way past the Santa Clause thing. We wanted to do something adventurous. Step on the wild side. You would have thought that we told her we were moving to China for the next 10 years.
“So, does that mean you’re not coming home for Christmas?” she asked. “But when will we see y’all? What will happen to Christmas? Why are you doing this?”
I admit, it was weird to think about pulling out and not seeing our folks on Christmas Day. Part of me felt like I was ruining Christmas. That we’d get home from our little trip and find the house burned to the ground. Zen justice for being the worst Grinch family in the world. We dared to change Christmas, and it would serve us right.
There was certainly not going to be any snow in Cordele, GA for Christmas. It wasn’t like we were in search of a winter wonderland. A cabin on the lake. Cypress trees draped in Spanish Moss. Ducks and Geese on the water. A strange place that felt completely out of whack and completely right all at the same time.
We loaded up the kids in the minivan. Luggage. Bags of presents. And three strands of lights with a drop cord. That was it. We stopped somewhere along the way and bought a Christmas tree and tied it to the top of the van. And about every 20 miles or so we kept second guessing ourselves.
“Are we doing the right thing?”
“Do you think our parents will ever forgive us?”
“Do I look guilty in this Santa Hat?”
The thing about “different” is that it can be as exciting as tradition. The kids thought we were the coolest parents on the planet. We stood the tree up by the window and put the lights on it. The fireplace was roaring and cheerful. Think Hallmark movie. We made popcorn, ate some, but threaded most of it in long strings to decorate the tree. And we took construction paper and made old fashioned red and green chains to hang on the tree. We were like the Walton Family on Lake Blackshear.
We were only there a few days, but it turned out to be a perfect Christmas for us. Probably the one Christmas that the kids have talked about the most. Every time I see a Christmas tree tied on top of a minivan I think about that trip. Something different. Some new and untried. A break from tradition. And, surprise, nobody died or needed serious psychiatric therapy as a result.
When the kids were little and we lived on the other side of the solar system from home, we used to make these crazy 11 hour and 13 hour trips home for Christmas. We’d ship boxes home and ship them back. We tried riding the interstate at night. We tried it on the weekends. We nearly killed ourselves trying to keep the traditions alive. Trying to make it home for Christmas.
We are now at that point when it will be just the two of us here on Christmas morning. We’ll make the rounds to see what Santa brought. Some that day. Some over the weekend. We’ll have a meal at the house, but not all of us will be together.
We have settled in on another wonderful season of life. Watching our kids build their own traditions. Watching from a close distance and remembering some of the best Christmas times we’ve had together.
I say to my wife, “We ought to do something different for Christmas next year. Reckon what the kids would think of us if we just packed up and went to Montana by ourselves?”
“Your awful,” she said, “just plain awful.”