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