Christmas traditions come and go and that’s sometimes hard

Holiday traditions are all temporary and can change many times in one’s lifetime.

Mom by the family Christmas tree in 1979

Major life changes, like growing up and moving away, a central person in the family passing on, a marriage, or a divorce, are likely to end traditions and add new ones.

When Mom’s parents passed away, the big family Christmases passed with them, as the next generation didn’t want to gather anymore. Christmas celebrations involved just my nuclear original family until I married.

My first wife made an outstanding standing rib roast for Christmas dinner every year, a huge expense for us. But that dinner became the centerpiece of our holidays and a lasting memory. After we divorced, I was broke and made spaghetti for Christmas dinner the first year. It became a surprising new tradition. It ended after I remarried, as we tried to figure out how to blend the traditions of two very different families. Along the way, attending Christmas Eve church services became a tradition for me, and happily my new family already had that tradition so we now do it together.

Last year, a tradition changed that I didn’t see coming. Mom decided not to take part in family celebrations anymore. She wouldn’t explain beyond saying that she felt it was time for my generation to do its own thing. She’d be happiest if we came to see her individually when we could make time.

I took her choice hard. There was no part of me that liked this. If I responded in that moment, I was probably going to say something really unkind. I kept my feelings to myself so that I could process them a little before I spoke to her about it.

But then the last year of Mom’s life turned out to be all about caring for her and driving her to appointments and talking with her about it all. And then she died. This open issue never got to be closed, and I’m left to wonder.

Here’s what I’ve been wondering: Did Mom tell me all of her reasons? Did she decide that she didn’t want to adapt to my new family?

My parents and my brother were very good about adapting as I married the first time, and then divorced, all of which led to a lot of traditions changing. We even had to be flexible about when we celebrated our holidays, thanks to the parenting-time schedule. One year we ended up celebrating Christmas on New Year’s weekend!

We Greys are a formidable family. We have our ways and we are convinced they are best. Both of my wives told me that they found it very difficult to feel like they were a part of the Greys because it was clear that we expected them to fit in fully with us.

My first wife and my stepson finally adapted well enough. It helped that my first wife wasn’t close to her parents and sisters, and we lived far away from them. My parents and brother adapted, too, to my new wife even though (as I learned much later) my dad and brother couldn’t stand her.

After the divorce, I hosted our family Christmas at my house every year. I went all out and worked very hard to create as wonderful of an experience as I could for everyone. We all really enjoyed it.

My second wife and I married in late middle age, when our children were all young adults. We tried to introduce the Grey family Christmas to Margaret’s family, and Margaret’s family’s Christmas to the Greys — and it didn’t work. Nobody seemed very happy with any of it. I think my parents and brother in particular very much missed what we had. We wound up having separate celebrations. I made the most of it and we had some lovely times, but deep down I wished it were different.

It would have been so much easier had my first marriage made it. We would have been married 27 years this year, and all of us would have long ago settled into our holiday traditions. But my first wife and I were a disastrous pair, and we did enough damage that our marriage was never going to recover. My parents and my brother supported me all through that horrible time. Then they adapted again and again over the holidays that followed.

Maybe this is part of why Mom had had enough. I can’t get past the strong feeling that Mom’s choice was a rejection of my new family. It hurts a lot.

Or maybe it was just like she said, she was ready to step aside and let the younger generations form their own traditions. It’s not a choice I’ve seen earlier generations make, so I don’t get it.

Or maybe she was just tired, thanks to her serious health issues.

Either way, it makes this Christmas a lot more emotionally complicated for me.

One longtime tradition is fully in my control: hanging the red plastic bell on the Christmas tree, the one my Kindergarten teacher gave me. It’s a warm reminder of a happy time in my life, and a physical object that reaches back 50 years this year – 90 percent of my life.

I’m trying to radically accept what I’ve gained and lost, and embrace the good in it. I have a lovely blended family and I love everyone in it. We get to make our own traditions now.

And I get to remember with fondness the traditions that have passed. I loved going to visit Grandma and Grandma on Christmas Day as a kid. As a young adult, going home for Christmas felt like an anchor when everything else in my life was changing and uncertain. My first wife’s Christmas dinners were amazing. Singing Silent Night with the little congregation in that bad neighborhood on the west side of town was a highlight of my holiday every year. Having my parents, brother, and children in my home while I cooked up a storm for days generated more warm memories than I can count.

It’s always helpful to take the long view. At the same time, I’m going to let my difficult feelings be this year. But after this, I’m going to get on with building new traditions with our children, enjoying the present and moving into the future.


22 responses to “Christmas traditions come and go and that’s sometimes hard”

  1. J P Avatar

    Change can be hard, and changes in holiday traditions can be the hardest. Moving on is all you can do.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      You’re right. I’m in the process of trying to do just that.

  2. Andy Umbo Avatar
    Andy Umbo

    Coming from a family that uprooted when we were young and changed cities to follow my dads employment, I can say that the only thing that remains constant is change. After my dad passed, my mother got to the point where she told my brother, the only one that had kids, that if he wanted a Christmas Day (and Thanksgiving day) extravaganza and dinner, it was up to him because she was done doing it. Wasn’t a big deal for anyone. At any given time, since we became adults, most of us weren’t living within hundreds of miles of the homestead, so we weren’t coming home for the holidays. A few years of my older sister, the first of us to leave home, being stuck in frozen cars malfunctioning on the highway, or getting penalized at work from missing days due to canceled flights, and she said “see you in the summer”.

    Being as nosy as I am about how people function, I always ask total strangers at coffee shops and stores, who I happen to be talking to, what they’re doing for the holidays, and I have to say, most people tell me they really don’t have any long term tradition, and it’s reimagined almost every year. Maybe that’s the tradition….

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’ve had a lot of change since my divorce and I’m tired of it! But perhaps now things can settle and we can have some years of stability in our traditions. I know they’ll change again one day, though.

  3. Johanna Rothman Avatar

    I did not know how difficult everything was for my dad the last year of his life. He finally told me that being with more than two people at a time was very disconcerting. (He had congestive heart failure and was 92, so he was old.)
    Given what you’ve said about your mom, I strongly doubt she rejected family or traditions. Instead, I suspect she was more like my dad, where her physical condition affected everything about her life. My dad was determined to be stoic. That stoicism unintentionally disappointed and hurt us, his family. (I only knew because I finally bugged him enough that he told me.)
    You and I can only learn from this and decide what to say and what to do as we age.
    In the meantime, and especially with my physical challenges, my husband and I continue to build new traditions with our children. I’m enjoying that.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I come from stoic parents as well. I don’t think Mom really told me (or my brother) fully about her experience and needs in her last couple of years. It is very likely that some or all of her decision was related to what she was capable of doing.

      I do know, however, that my mom found my new family to be challenging — she made that clear to me. I told her my honest impression, that she (and my dad and my brother) really wanted them to be more like us, and they just weren’t. She allowed that I had a point.

  4. brandib1977 Avatar

    Jim, I can relate to every word of this. My childhood holidays were always busy as we would sprint from one grandparents house to the other 90 minutes away. There were always lots of people, laughter and home cooked food. Most everyone is gone now and those left just do their own thing. As an only child with no kids, my parents and I have quiet holidays. Very quiet.

    Your questions about your mom are all valid but, sadly, unanswerable.

    But I will say this. My maternal grandmother had ten kids and lots of grandkids who gathered together for big potluck celebrations at her home. It was a lot of work for an elderly lady to prepare for. Then, on the big day, she had no quality time with anyone. Yes, it was raucous and fun and probably lovely to have a full house again but it was hard to have a conversation.

    In her last years, she seemed happiest having just a few people at once. She could hear them better and keep up with the conversation.

    People change as we age. Even moms. Maybe she didn’t want to admit to you or even to herself that she needed something different for Christmas.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Yes, I’m sure Mom didn’t want to admit everything to me. Maybe she didn’t even want to admit it all to herself.

      Because I did the family Christmas for 12 years, and the family Thanksgiving for 5, I know very well how much work that is, and how it keeps you from really interacting with everyone and relaxing into the holiday! On that tack, I’m happy my time doing that much work is over.

      1. brandib1977 Avatar

        Yes! Let’s focus on the positive! Less work, more relaxation.

        I really do understand your questions and worries. It’s a quandary but I’m guessing whatever the reason wasn’t about you or your family as much as you fear. Enjoy your new traditions, Jim. You have a beautiful family to celebrate with this year and wonderful memories to help keep you warm.

  5. sonny rosenberg Avatar

    Such a thoughtful reflection, it forces me to be introspective about my very dysfunctional family’s complex history. I wish you great success and joy in building your new traditions!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Sonny! My family wasn’t perfect but we weren’t full-on dysfunctional, so I should count my blessings.

  6. Ben Cotton Avatar

    My newly-blended family is having our first Christmas under one roof. It’s been a challenge trying to preserve some consistency for the kids (who range in age from eight to 16) and ourselves while also coming up with things that are uniquely ours.

    Like you, I have an ornament from my childhood. Mine’s of Captain Picard standing in the corridor of the Enterprise D. The captain is the first ornament to go up and the last to come off.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      This is a transition for sure, and it’s hard to make it smooth and happy for everyone. Good luck!

  7. Suzassippi Avatar

    As a long time former social worker who did my share in the trenches before I starting teaching, I can really appreciate what you have shared here. What I learned over the years from families, including my own, is that people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t. Lots of folks have advice and it may be well-meaning, but it can also be the worst thing we can do for anyone–telling them how they should feel or how to handle something. I doubt there are any families where some of the experiences you describe have not occurred–I know they did in mine. Yes, there were many wonderful huge family gatherings, and there were family gatherings that to be tactful, did not turn out so well, and a few that severed relationships for a long time.

    What you are doing: reflecting, grappling, asking yourself questions, being open to the possible truths and the obvious unknowns is an essential part of the developmental process. It is okay to want things that reflect stability; it is also necessary to cope with and tolerate when that does not happen, and be open to new ideas and new traditions which can lead to additional growth or else we can stagnate.

    That reflecting and thinking about your thinking is what I see you doing in this family story. “Moving on” occurs (in my experience and based on the research) when one works through, has grappled with the emotions and meanings, and either accepted or re-framed in a way that gives us peace. For each person, that takes as long as it takes and it is unique even though we share many universal experiences and emotions.

    May you continue to grapple, reflect, and move in the directions that work for you.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you so much for writing this. Yes indeed, I’m working through my feelings and thoughts on this. In case you can’t tell, I use this blog as a way of doing that! It’s my form of journaling. I know I won’t journal if I don’t publish it here, so I just go ahead and publish it here. I’ve also been in therapy since shortly after my daughter died at the end of last year, so I’ve had plenty of time to talk it all out.

      1. Suzassippi Avatar

        That is good to hear, and I have also appreciated the posts about your daughter and mother. I wrote a lot on my earlier blog (same name, just on blogspot where I initially started) about grappling with issues–largely from the culture shock of moving to Mississippi, but also through the Alzheimer’s years and death of my dad. I found many folks who understood and sometimes shared, but mostly just acknowledged and supported me as I grappled with it. One of the best things for me was the woman who said “We do the best we can and most of the time, it is enough.”

  8. Joe from The Resurrected Camera Avatar

    Jim you’ve brought up a take on Christmas that I hadn’t considered, I always find something unique in your perspective, especially as it is comes from increasingly greater maturity. What you haven’t mentioned is that you are now (at least on the way to becoming) Grandpa so not only to you Get to create your own traditions, but it is of course your right as the Patriarch of your own little clan.

    I had lot of aunts/uncles/cousins and when I was growing up we’d start on our Christmas lists months before we were anywhere close and ship or email them to the extended family; there were massive amounts of presents bought and shipped all across the Eastern half of the US. For a kid it was wonderful. As I was going into college my oldest cousin (rightly so) decided to retire that tradition as she had several children of her own, plus her two brothers and their growing families, and it was time to separate her own clan with my uncle as Grandpa. Since then Christmas has morphed into something a lot less materialistic for me as I’ve gained perspective and gotten away from the whole consumerist culture. Honestly traditions and rituals have become a lot less meaningful in my current life, probably because I have no one to share them with except my brother and his family. But they’re eventually going to have to build their own traditions and it probably won’t include me all the time which is fine.

    1. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      Joe, since I was working in retail advertising a lot of years, the whole gift buying exchange thing with my sibs was getting ridiculous. A terrible time of the year for me, and not fun in any sense. I’m telling you, my grown, female sibs in their 40s would get their nose out of joint if they didn’t get something! My brother and I finally put the kibosh on it by telling them you can do whatever you want, but your not getting stuff from us. Were busy! It still took a few years to get them out of the habit. Im68, and don’t need or want anything, I’m trying to get rid of everything! I have a standing order with relatives and friends, if are still so inclined, I have to be able to eat it, smoke it (a cigar), or drink it (whiskey), otherwise contribute to the local mission or human society!

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        I’ve let all of my kids off the hook on buying me gifts ever again. Dads can be hard to buy for, and I really don’t need things from them anyway. I tell them just be here when we celebrate Christmas and my birthday and I’ll have everything I need.

    2. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m definitely a grandpa; our granddaughter is 3½. She has a 1-year-old sister who isn’t related to us by blood, but we just count her as a granddaughter as well anyway.

      I very much had a dream of a big blended family, and it’s hard to have this dream not come true. I’m working through it, though, so I can be at peace.

  9. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    Ah yes, Christmas….many changes for me over the years too, now it is just my wife and I and we have moved to a tiny village in a remote part of the country. Our new traditions are about to start! Curiously, since we came here four weeks ago today, it has been like Grand Central Station, more visitors than we ever had in town! It is a wonderfully scenic part of the country, perhaps that is the reason. Both of my wife’s adult children have turned up for Christmas, the first together in several years, so it looks like Christmas in the Country is going to be a success! I will just go with the flow, it is the easiest thing for me to do! In another four days it will be just us again!!! Merry Christmas Jim :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I should learn to go with the flow someday!

      Happy Christmas to you, Steve!

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