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The painful reality of family holiday traditions: Nothing stays the same


“I saw one,” my son said, while walking in the front door after school. “How many is that?”

The that in question referred to our yearly attempt to count how many Christmas trees we spot in transition, the real and the spectacular ones strapped atop vehicles making their way through the holiday season. We keep a running tally, all four of us reporting our car-top additions in as close to real time as we can.

Last year we counted more than 50, a record. This year we often take the long way home, hoping we might beat that total.

Some traditions are easier than others, and some are built upon a foundation of generations.

At the intersection of holiday and family lies the cornerstone of tradition, where relatives and recipes rise to the annual occasion. It is the real time of memories in the making, the now that we will remember fondly. And yet, nothing ever stays the same. Life goes on as hindsight in a montage, taking family traditions with it and creating new versions in their stead. Tradition, it turns out, is a fluid thing. It only seems static from a distance.

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If there is any pressure associated with maintaining family tradition, then I blame nostalgia. It mocks me with fondness for my childhood, time smudging all but the highlights, and insists that it could be just so for my own kids, only better. From this angle it looks as if my past were painted by Norman Rockwell, brushstrokes for smiles and a palette full of promise; and yet, I can’t help but feel that reality may have leaned slightly more toward Jackson Pollock. Life, like art, is always subjective.

Experience has shown that tradition is hinged upon the repetition of happiness. It swings back and forth because it works, and if a thing is not broken, then it need not be fixed. Life, of course, has other plans, and there are factors — both good and bad — that can alter traditions accordingly. Those factors can include the addition of new family members, the loss of a loved one, marriage, divorce, moving, the occasional scandal and arguments you can’t put a bow on.

It is only now, as a father of rapidly growing boys, that I can appreciate how my parents were able to maintain grand illusions of holiday sameness despite the magic fading everywhere.

Tradition, I have realized, is only as strong as those who hold it together.

For years I wasn’t the one in that role. There was an intermission when I moved away from home, married and lived three states away. I was too burdened by airfare and the demands of shift work to make it back to my family for Christmas. The holidays changed from Christmas Eve with my grandparents to bottles of wine with our childless friends, good food and tree-lit laughter. But then, that too, could pass for tradition.

Once we had kids, though, the game was back on, for who were we to deprive our children of festive grandparent spoiling? At that point, we were living a couple of states closer, and tradition started with a car ride.

Eventually, we decided to turn the holidays into a movable feast. Tradition became destination travel, the years split between our place and the respective homes of my parents and sister. It worked as a concept, and we penciled it in forever.

Then four years ago, on Dec. 23, my mother died in a car accident while driving to our house for the holidays. The pain and heartache, obviously, made that year nearly unbearable. Her grandkids opened the last thoughts from her, lovingly wrapped and handwritten just days before, each package still remarkably intact. She had been the only precious cargo broken.

The next year my sister and her family came to our house, along with my dad and stepdad, and we spent Christmas together on the anniversary of my mother’s death, first in the sands of the beach that she had loved, and then in my living room as she once intended. Now that, too, is our tradition.

Other, less monumental life changes can also effect change. We used to get a real tree and decorate it with ornaments that we as a family collected, but our cats have made that inadvisable. So now we have a fake tree, sans collection, and the promise that maybe next Christmas we will be able to hang the trinkets again.

As it is, the counting of trees that we find between lots and lodgings will remain a pine short, minus ours (thanks, cats). But the fake one at home is starting to grow, at least on us. It is lit by lights and the glow of laughter, and beneath it there lives an unwrapped gift, signed four years ago in the crayon script of two little boys who have grown so much bigger, and a tag always addressed “For Nana.”

Tradition, for the most part, is the promise of not forgetting.

Whit Honea is the author of “The Parents’ Phrase Book” and co-founder of He’s on Twitter @whithonea and Facebook.

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