Christmas Traditions Undone

Early last December I went fishing for blog topics on Facebook and a few friends asked about our Advent and Christmas traditions. There is a “tradition anxiety” among parents of young families: they look at established older families’ traditions, or think about the traditions their own family took years to establish, and wonder what’s wrong with them. The children are crying, everyone is cranky, parents are overwhelmed and nothing feels like the warm-and-fuzzy they see on the Internet or remember from their childhood. This is especially true with young Catholic families who have Kendra Tierney (bless her heart) to look up to. I really envy people like Kendra who have a skill set that dovetails nicely with being the mother of a large family. Kendra Tierney is amazing at homemaking, hosting and getting her kids to wear matching outfits. I’m amazing at writing, reading, and learning new languages and instruments. All skills that are not only useless in case of a zombie apocalypse — beyond being eaten first — but make me a worse parent because they don’t respond kindly to constant interruption. They require practice and introspection and probably a governess too.

“This year, traditions have been canceled for cause of New Job,” I wrote back, hoping to avoid showing the world how lame we are, tradition-wise. Then the CBC called to ask if they could talk to me on the radio about our family traditions and I thought “Can’t avoid it now…” (you can listen to the clip here).

I learned over years of trying to #makememories that memories aren’t made. Memories happen. They grow organically from the things we do over and over again, like the footpaths that appear between sidewalks, showing the shortest point between A and B. If you break down crying every year over your children’s Christmas outfits and yell at everyone to get in the car dammit we’re late for church, it will become the Christmas tradition your children remember, you can quote me on that. I try to keep my eyes on the overarching tradition of enjoying our time together, especially now that my older children are leaving home and returning for holidays. What flows from that — cooking, special outings, crafts and activities — is always up for grabs.

I like to keep traditions to a minimum. It’s a survival mechanism in a family that spans 18 years from oldest and youngest. It’s one thing to get all excited about the Elf making snow angels in a pound of flour when you have two children born two years apart. The window of time during which you have to one-up yourself Elf-wise is relatively short. I’ve had young children in my house for almost 23 years. Not only is that a lot of years to keep up a charade, but things also happen during those years: new jobs are started, bugs are caught, friendships are created and lost, babies are born and lost, pregnancies are announced, fortunes are made and undone. Because traditions are made on the sod that is repeatedly trodden, the ones that survive must be hardy enough to thrive in dry and depleted soil.

Over the years, I have tried to uphold traditions that are rooted in our Catholic Faith. We are practicing Catholics, which means different things to different people. For us, since having Sarah almost 10 years ago, it has meant something like the absolute minimum required by the Precepts of the Catholic Church (whip your catechisms, flip to #2041-3). Since we are so lame faith-wise, I try to make the most out of the feast days of Advent and Christmas. We light-up the Advent wreath at meal times, we celebrate the Feast of St-Nicholas by leaving a small religious item and chocolate money in the children’s shoes on December 6th, we have Jesse Tree ornaments (although we have never finished a Jesse Tree ever), we celebrate the Feast of Mary Mother of God on January 1st and the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th. This year, we did none of the above.

In past years, I was leading music ministry during Mass and it forced me to follow the liturgical calendar and Mass readings carefully. I realize now how much this Ministry was nurturing my own life of faith. You may not get on your knees and pray every evening but when you have to practice a psalm or two every week, you eventually learn them. And guess what? In your times of need, the words will come to comfort you. When you have to read the readings, pick the songs, practice the songs and deliver the songs to a congregation, the liturgy becomes part of the rhythms of your life. And the rhythms of a mother’s life become the rhythms of the family’s life.

I had to give up my music ministry responsibilities last year after Easter and while I miss it every week, I didn’t appreciate how much it anchored our families’ traditions. It put me in the Advent spirit of waiting and the celebration of Christmas. This year, we missed the boat entirely, like the Spirit of Christmas passed over our house. On Christmas morning, Éloïse and Clara were taking McDonald’s breakfast orders and I asked “Is that new? Drive-through McD on Christmas morning?” and they looked at me sheepishly and said “Well…. you usually have a whole brunch spread out…” Which is true. Usually.

The 12 days of Christmas are not over yet but in our family it has come and gone quiet as a mouse. We spent time with our older children, who are home from University, and with our parents and siblings. We caught up with cousins and friends we had not seen in a long time. We celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary on the 30th and Marie’s 17th birthday on New Year’s Day, and I was back at work on January 2nd. We watched a lot of movies and drank a lot of coffee. But if I can be perfectly honest, while I am quick to roll my eyes at people’s elaborate traditions, missing out on them reminded me that they serve an important function in breaking the ordinary, in forcing us to become completely engrossed in something different than our every day routine.

A change is as good as a break, they say. Keep changing.