White lights, in yellowing plastic candle stands, will be taped to window sills. Jingle bells hung from the back of the front doorknob, too ugly to display but too festive to leave in a box, will welcome guests. The tree will be fatter than it is tall. Carefully preserved Mr. and Mrs. Claus ornaments will perch on the uppermost branches, their jolly faces adding warmth to the evergreen needles. The living room will feel dark and it will be hot. It’s always hot at my parents' house on Christmas Eve. Everyone crowds in the living room because there really isn’t anywhere else to go. (Except downstairs, but the kids will have taken over, and none of the adults will join them for fear of missing something.)
Not that there will be anything to miss. I could recite a nearly minute-by-minute script of the entire holiday season at my childhood home. It plays out the same each year, like the film “Groundhog Day.” It’s comforting if also a little maddening. In early December there will be a trek up a (maybe) snow-covered hill to saw down a tree. The saw, edged with duct tape, is from 1864, so there will be blood. By Christmas Eve my parents' house will be filled with stockings from the 1970s, a manger from the 1980s and music from Bing Crosby. But not me. I won’t be home for Christmas.
I will be home in California with my husband and two kids, looking for the best corner for displaying our tree in our new house. My parents, sisters, brother, nieces and nephews will be in Connecticut remarking about how spicy the cocktail sauce is, or isn’t. My family will be here and there. Home is here and there.
We try to tame sprawling families by neatly categorizing relatives: immediate and extended. But it doesn’t quite feel adequate or accurate. Now that I’m married, is my brother, by virtue of also being my husband’s brother-in-law, now extended? Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to these distinctions because I am the one who has sprawled far and wide. As my own family has grown and moved, my definitions of home and family have grown and changed. The holidays, with all their expectations and traditions, only complicate navigating the chains of DNA that bind us. We are expected not to disappoint our family — especially not at Christmas. We expect family members to fall into their familiar roles, even if those roles no longer fit.
When my oldest son was a baby, I made crepes on Christmas morning. At the insistence of my husband, I was trying to find a tradition our young family could call its own. But I wasn’t great at making crepes. I had been out all afternoon and evening on Christmas Eve with my (once immediate) family, and the batter I made in advance may have sat too long. The next year I tried, but the crepes were too thick, then too thin. Nobody ate them. It felt forced, like I was adding more ornaments to an already full tree.
My oldest is now 8 — old enough to have opinions about where and how we spend the holidays, and skilled at pretending to be watching his iPad when really he’s listening to adult conversations.
“Will we still get a tree this Christmas?” he asks. My husband and I have been talking about our Christmas plans.
Of course. And Santa will know where to find us. We’ll make cookies, hang our stockings and open an advent calendar. I answer questions in much the same way I’ve been answering all the questions since our most recent move: things that are the same; things that are different.
“Okay. But Nana and Papa will come to our home?”
“Yes, the day after Christmas.”
“Well, that will be different.” With that, he gets up to play.
Growing up, our Christmas Eve meal was hors d’oeuvres and oyster stew. After years of crackers-and-cocktail-weenie dinners (the only acceptable options to us kids, who wouldn’t touch the steaming bowls of creamy broth), my mother reluctantly retired the stew. It always seemed that for my family, tradition was part of a larger equation, the sum of which was closeness and strong bonds.
Maybe this is why the only traditions my kids know are those I’ve taken from my childhood and tried to fit around them and their father: Chex mix only some of us eat; white lights, never colored; one present to open on Christmas Eve. My foray into crepes was a subconscious admission that we haven’t found a perfect fit.
I feel like I should be sad that for the first time in 43 years, I won’t be at my childhood home on Christmas. But I’m not.
I’m on the couch, typing away while my 8-year-old lies next to me watching YouTube. I stop to run my fingers through his soft spiky hair while his lanky limbs hang off the side of the sofa. He’s too big now for me to keep his hair as long as I like, to carry to bed, to hold hands in the school parking lot. So I take my time in these moments, collecting them before time washes them away.
Maybe traditions are a way to try to preserve time. A way for us not to think, remember the time 10 years ago I tried to make crepes? Instead we think, here we are eating crepes again! What year is it? How long have we been here? The rituals are comforting because it doesn’t matter how much time has passed.
Until it does.
My parents will come the day after Christmas with presents and stories of the annual Christmas tree hunt. We’ll serve two kinds of cocktail sauce, have candles in the window and maybe establish new traditions that my kids can carry forward — until they can’t.
When that time comes, I hope they’ll feel as I do: Traditions are a gift, but the real comfort comes from knowing home isn’t a place you go but a space you never really leave.