One year when I was in high school, my mother and her sisters decided to mix things up. Instead of our traditional Christmas dinner of turkey and all of the trimmings, we would just have “a bunch of appetizers” which people could eat at their leisure while opening presents and watching TV and playing games.
My grandmother was horrified.
For Grandma, this was not Christmas. I probably didn’t mind eating the seven layer dip or the artichoke dip or the chips and dip, but it was a little odd. Most uncomfortable was Grandma’s visible displeasure at it all. Her pursed lips, the disapproving glances at the buffet… Had she taught her daughters nothing?
It was the only time we ever strayed from tradition.
Of course, time goes on, people change, children grow up and get married and start traditions of their own. My brother and I still want turkey on Thanksgiving but happily mix things up on Christmas. This year we had roasted game hens and risotto, and it was delicious.
But still it didn’t feel like Christmas, and it had nothing to do with the food.
My mother’s presence, either material or in the form of phone call and a box packed with thoughtful gifts, has been for my entire life the foundation of Christmas. As an adult I have not been able to spend every holiday with her, but she was always there, in her presents, on the phone, in the box of decorations she put together for me to use in my tiny apartment, her handwriting on old gift labels or the little “B” penciled on the bottom of an ornament designated to be mine since I was very small.
“It’s going to be a small Christmas this year,” she said every year, a little disingenuously.
This Christmas was a small Christmas. Not for lack of presents, but for lack of Mom. It is a new tradition that we didn’t choose, and I will never get used to it.
It was another milestone on the road of firsts without her. First weeks, first Thanksgiving, first months, first Christmas, first February 6th (her birthday), first sailing summer, first year. There is some relief, getting through these things, but moving on means moving further away from the time when she was alive, and that is a distance I do not enjoy.
At the dinner table the other night we all counted plenty to be thankful for: Each other, our health, our friends, our relative security in precarious times. But no one got what they wanted for Christmas this year, not even my nephew who, at 14, still gets the lion’s share of what’s under the tree and the bulk of familial affection. It was sad. We miss her. We want her back. We want to love her and take care of her the way she has us.
In the meantime, new traditions seemed to be sprouting. My nephew insisted (again) on apple pie for dessert, my niece expertly stuffed the stockings, my brother and sister-in-law’s Christmas Eve party was bigger than ever, and I made Christmas dinner. These practices, unlike the all-appetizer menu of 1990, may take root. Time will tell.
One thing is certain: Christmas will never be the same.