“Always Ready” Holiday Style

Welcome to the December Carnival of Natural Parenting: Let’s Talk Traditions

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama.

Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.

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My family has always had strong Holiday traditions. About a week or two after Thanksgiving, we would go to the tree lot and pick out a “misfit” tree to foster at our house. I always loved hiding the tree’s imperfections with lights and ornaments and careful shaping; singing and dancing to Holiday tunes while decorating the tree with my parents, and staring in awe at the beautiful spectacle our smallish, “misfit” tree had become by the end of it. Practicing with the choir and bell choir at our large Catholic church all throughout December, the tradition of Midnight Mass, and of course, the magic and silliness of Christmas morning – always in PJ’s and riddled with giggles, taking turns opening presents and shooting wrapping hoops style into trashcan across the room.

My family also had a twenty-year strong Thanksgiving tradition, until this year. Same people, same food, same schedule, same crazy hectic, yummy wonderful loving Thanksgiving since I could remember.

“Daddy. . . ” I said, speaking to my father this year on Thanksgiving morning, “. . . it’s thanksgiving, at 9 o’clock, and there are no caramel rolls to eat, no overnight buns overtaking the dining room, and no parade on the TV. It’s all changing, and I’m kind of sad.”

I told him how my cousin had called me the night before, and left me a long voicemail about how the “whole family was breaking up” and “Thanksgiving just wasn’t the same anymore.” The same tradition had taken place year after year at my aunt and uncle’s house, and the fact that it was over was breaking her heart. I didn’t even listen to the whole message. I didn’t call back. I just didn’t know what to say.

I was sad, too. So the last thing I wanted to hear was more sadness about the destruction of the Thanksgiving tradition. With my family moved across the country for hubs’ military duty, my brother and sister in law decided to have Thanksgiving with the other side of the family this year, and my parents were invited along. We all knew that this would happen eventually, but I guess when it comes to tradition, change is hard for everyone. I felt compassion for my cousin’s pained voice, pining for the age of Thanksgivings past, when all 10-15 of us would gather around the same table at the same place, eating the same recipes, sharing the same prayers, turning on football, taking a walk, watching a movie, and spending ten minutes hugging everyone goodbye. I just wasn’t sure what to tell her.

My dessert trays always sat in the same place. The same peach tea and water were poured and distributed by my cousins, and we always had the same unspoken rules about what to discuss and not to discuss at the dinner table. Everyone always praised my mom’s yearly rendition of grandma’s overnight buns, and devoured my aunt’s southern ambrosia fruit salad, alongside a delicious turkey, cooked and carved by my uncle and all the side dishes you could ever want. We would talk every year (and sometimes even vote) about whether the cornbread dressing or bread dressing was better (and why). We would laugh about the gravy boat shaped like an elongated toilet, and enjoy my dad’s comedic effect with his priceless humor (that always tip toed way too close to the forbidden dinner topics). Every year. For 20 years.

We all miss it. It was tradition.

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You know, technically, everyone had months to prepare for a change in Thanksgiving tradition, as our military move was announced before the summer. But still, it seemed like it was a bit of a hubbub for everyone to figure out what they were going to do for Thanksgiving and with which subset of the family. And I was left feeling pretty darn lonesome, knowing that if we were still within driving distance, that we would have the same traditional Thanksgiving again this year, and that then, I, too, wouldn’t have to figure out what in the world I was going to do on Thanksgiving with absolutely no family for hundreds of miles.

Thinking back on this Thanksgiving, I realize that it caused me considerable emotional stress to not know what it was going to be like. It seems a little silly, considering that it’s only one day out of the year, but I was seriously stressing about it. The week before Thanksgiving, I shamelessly mentioned to everyone and anyone I knew in my new home that Abbey and I had to clue what we were doing for Thanksgiving. . . until I finally got invited to someone’s Thanksgiving meal by another guest, not even by the hostess. The Sunday before Thanksgiving, I broke down in tears at church, not only because of the stress of parenting a toddler single-handedly, or even my holy raging pregnancy hormones, but because in a fall season that was quickly tapering toward the holidays, when I should feel excited about Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions. . . I was in a new place, with no traditions to follow, experiencing some pretty steep culture shock, with my husband deployed, feeling so very alone.

Thanksgiving turned out fine. The food was not the same, but it was good. The company was not the same but it was welcoming, and Abbey’s experience was not the same, but she didn’t seem to mind. My family back at home reports that their days were not the same, but that they had a nice Thanksgiving, too.

So if everything turned out fine, despite nothing being the same . . . then what were we so darned worried about in the first place?

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One of our priests at my new church here in NH made a very compelling statement about the holiday season this past week in his sermon that absolutely answers this question. Advent, starting after Thanksgiving, is the time of preparation that we Christians celebrate in the days leading up to December 25th. It’s supposed to be a time of quiet reflection and prayer, where we wait . . . pregnant with the hope of salvation in the birth of Christ. But in our modern, consumerist society . . . the atmosphere of buzzing shopping malls and Christmas pageants, peppy Holiday music, and fairs and festivals . . . makes it kind of difficult to find a quiet and prayerful experience.

But in the weekend paper, our priest had run into a very interesting study from 2008 where the researchers concluded that the very most effective commercials run during the Holidays were NOT commercials that bragged about steep discounts, best quality, or highest popularity ratings – the most effective commercials were those that marketed positive emotional experiences – like one in which a grandfather receives a webcam for Christmas and can now connect with his grandchildren who live in Africa . . . or two preteen sisters unwrap wireless microphones on Christmas morning and throw an impromptu musical recital to the delight of the whole family . . .

It totally clicked. Jeff definitely got an Amen out of me that Sunday! Because during the holidays, it’s not the specific place we are or the people we’re with, or the food we eat, or the presents we give or receive. It doesn’t matter if everything is the same or everything is different. What we as a culture most identify with during the Holidays is the emotional experience that we have.

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So, yes, I’m excited about making my own Holiday traditions for my family. But I’m going into my “Freshman” season of Holiday parenting with the understanding that it’s not so much the traditions themselves, but the experience we get from them that matters. This year, daddy isn’t around for Abbey’s Christmas. Next year, she’ll have a baby brother added to the mix, and it’s possible that daddy will be gone again. The year after that, who knows? We may have moved on to a new duty station, somewhere different. For a military family, standard traditions aren’t really all that practical. Our homes are always changing, our surroundings and our climate and our friends are always changing. Our daddy’s schedule is constantly changing, and we never know whether he’ll miss a birthday or anniversary or Holiday.

I’m constantly telling myself and consequently teaching Abbey that change can be scary, but not all change is bad. It’s something you have to come to terms with as a military family. Semper Paratus (“Always Ready”) is the tagline of the Coast Guard’s mission statement. You can’t get away from change, and you just always have to be ready to flex with it.

So for me, someone who simply can’t commit to giving my children year after year of the same holiday traditions, no matter how hard I try . . .

. . . the realization that specific activities don’t really matter – that it’s the emotional experience, not the activity – that creates our love of the Holidays . . .

WHEW . . . let me tell you . . . that’s a real relief.


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Comments

  1. I’m a military brat, so I can relate to some of your post. It was nice having traditions that could follow us, that didn’t depend on where we were or what our house looked like. Things like Christmas music while we opened gifts, opening stockings last (and finding the fun stuff), a new set of PJ’s on Christmas Eve. You’ll get in the groove mama! And you’re right – it’s not the repetition so much as the emotion behind it. Wishing your family a very merry Christmas!

  2. As a international, European/American who has lived all over the place, I can relate too! We are in much the same situation, actually. Still, there must be some things that we can always do, wherever we go, and each year? We can prepare similar dishes, have the same Christmas tree decorations, perhaps always take note of local, if any, Christmas traditions?

    Olivia

  3. Wow – that sounds really hard.

    I agree with Dionna that finding little things that CAN stay consistent even in the midst of larger changes could be key.

    I’m glad you’ve been able to find some peace in your situation. It will only get easier.

  4. Yes, Olivia, for sure! I just haven’t figured out what they are yet for our little family! :)

  5. when I was over in the US once, and feeling home sick, a wise person said to me, home is wherever you choose to make it, it’s wherever YOU are…

    Having had Christmas in many places and especially remembering the first time away from home, the oddness of it, I really relate to what you are saying.

  6. What a beautiful post. I miss the traditions of my childhood as well – the ones with large family dinners and playing with cousins. We don’t have that at all now that I have my own kids. My brother doesn’t want kids and my husband’s family lives so far away our kids have never met their cousins. I really wanted that for my kids, but I am glad to have other traditions to lean on.

  7. Wow, I really relate. My family has had different traditions through the years, but Thanksgiving has always been with family. In college, I had Thanksgiving with a professor’s family because I couldn’t go home. His adult daughter told me that they have had students over for Thanksgiving as long as she could remember.

    That was what gave me the idea for our “orphans’ Thanksgiving” the first year we were married. We were far from family and couldn’t get home. So we asked among our friends to try to find people who didn’t have any family to go to. In the end we celebrated with an older, bachelor friend and a woman who had recently been divorced. We had an amazing time, and from then on I’ve resolved to invite “orphans” — people with no family or who are too far from family — for Thanksgiving every year. It makes it way more fun. My grandma does a similar thing at Easter time.

    I find that what seems like “an act of charity,” reaching out to a lonely person, soon turns out to be mutually beneficial for everyone. Aren’t we all lonely sometimes? But just because someone is lonely doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot to offer.

  8. That was a beautiful post. I love that you had such strong traditions for 20 years, even if they suddenly broke. It’s nice to know that you found the core of what could remain the same — the emotional experience — even as people move on and apart.

    I was a military brat, too, though thankfully my dad was never deployed away from us. As Dionna said, having consistency in whatever place we were was such a thread of connection and comfort. To know we’d see the same ornaments on the tree, that my mom would play the same music on the stereo (record player!!), that we would make the same foods … I’m sure for them, especially, having grown up in one place and then being charged with making traditions for us kids as we moved around, it was a relief to have some sameness each holiday, too.

    I wonder if at the holidays you could search out some other lonely people and have a military spouses’ dinner or something. It could become a new tradition!

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