merry christmas: thoughts on tradition + what comes after seasons of waiting

As a child, I was militant about holiday traditions. The music we played when we decorated the Christmas tree, the dishes served on Christmas Eve, the snack we chose when we drove through neighborhoods at night, looking for lit-up houses. My mother, survivor of a sad childhood and painful Christmases, worked hard to create a whole season of warmth and love and the familial familiar. She did far too good of a job. I looked forward to the month of December with an anxious longing. There was so much light for us to bottle up, so few days to do so.

I remember waiting for the nights to grow so long the bus would drop us off in the dark. I’d run down the hill towards home, looking for the straw star, hanging in the kitchen window, gold against the deep blue of winter night. As an eight year old, it stirred in me something too deep to name. Family or home or some form of safety so fundamental, so elemental it strikes against our evolutionary code.

Last year, my grandfather died two days before Christmas. A sudden, cruel phone call that cut through all the tinsel and lights. Grief and then illness cut Christmas short. I pulled all the decorations down on the night before his funeral, and boxed them hurriedly. My grief was dark. I needed lights off to feel it, sit with it.

I wonder if it’s the coming anniversary of his death that has tempered this holiday season, or if it’s simply, as I’m finding in different ways all across my life, that I don’t need the rhythms to give me comfort this year. I decorated a tree, sweet and small and a hand-me-down from my grandmother, but not on the pre-appointed date (day after Thanksgiving, always, so the short season will be as long as possible). I’ve watched some of the movies, listened to some of the music, but have done neither with the same kind of strategy. It sounds silly, but I had a schedule — this movie, at this point in the month, to accompany this activity. I baked cookies, both alone and with people, but I haven’t baked what I always deem “traditional” yet. At this point, I likely won’t get to them at all.

At some point in my teenage years, my mom had to talk to me about my traditions-stringency. It was too much for the rest of the family, too much for her. I had so many expectations, so many demands. I took the joy out of our customs when I required they be performed, and I removed from our family the ability to relax into the season, adapt to our always-changing selves.

I mellowed out after that. (Thank God. I remember the anxiety I used to feel to try to squeeze! it! all! in! Even as a child, I worried about how fleeting the holiday season was, and how long it would take to get back to it again. In high school, I faked sick to give myself an extra day to bake cookies, and sit under the lights of our tree). But even with my mellowing, I was still careful to perform my traditions. This song, first thing on the morning of Black Friday, as I unpacked the decorations. Thinking about it now, it’s no wonder I always cried as a child, silently and without understanding, on the drive back home from my grandparents’ house. I was so desperate to stock up on joy; I couldn’t stomach it all ending.

This year, I feel mellower than ever about Christmas. Two days from the day and on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death, I don’t feel desperate or giddy or anxious or panicked about what the season was or what the next few days will be.

When I decorated my Christmas tree, I turned into a child again. I cleaned my apartment, organizing corners and dusting off shelves, to prepare for the tree, and when I unpacked the ornaments, I did so with the explosiveness of a toddler — everything out so I could see it. Then I hung each ornament with extraordinary care, tracking down the memory that accompanies each one. When I drove home, one night in the dark, I nearly wept at all the lights on houses and trees. Every single decoration tickled something young and enchanted inside of me. One of the first pieces of writing I ever had published was a short essay about Christmas wonder that my dad sent in to the Twin Cities newspaper without me knowing. I re-read it this year, and even though I shudder at my use of adjectives (people, who, other than 16 year old Torrie, uses words like dulcet and cordiality), I resonated with the idea that Christmas is a season of “anticipation,” of “the beautiful, unrestrained and determined faith of a child.”

I don’t observe Advent, but I do think about what it means to wait. Last year at this time, I was sad and angry, and, although I didn’t know it at time, on the brink of some of the deepest soul-searching and self-building I’ve done yet. I was waiting for something hidden inside me to come to bloom. Out of the darkness of my grandfather’s death, out of the ensuing grief and the shattering loneliness that marked the first months of 2018 came something really beautiful: a life I was happy to be living.

This Christmas, I’ve felt less beholden to a performance of Christmas and more childlike about Christmas than I have in years. I feel mellow and happy and glad for the season. I baked a cake on Wednesday, and plan to frost it before we leave for a Christmas party today. My mom said about Thanksgiving that she likes how our family is at ease, but doesn’t want us to sacrifice tradition. I don’t see it that way. I’ll spend Christmas Eve at my parent’s house, with the people I love. We plan to bake cut-out cookies, the kind we baked when my brother and I were young, but who knows how much of the family will actually participate. We’re going to be together. We’re going to sit in front of an actual fireplace (my parents heat their house with burning wood). We’ll have stockings hung, and trees lit, and I’m sure I’ll get shouted down when I suggested we watch a Christmas movie together. (At this point, that’s happened enough to call it tradition). I’ve done about half the Christmas “stuff” I usually do, and have enjoyed all of it twice as much. After Christmas day, I’ll have some time off work. I’m looking forward to rest, to New Year’s Eve, to 2018 beginning. I’m so grateful for all of it.

I wonder if this is what it’s like to be, at least for a little while, at the end of the waiting. To just, for a little while, be.