Tradition and the Individual Christmas

Tradition is a fluid process, not a fixed point. And so it is that we put away the remnants of another Christmas past, burdened by our efforts to please both tradition and present reality. The one sure thing about family is that it changes. The bigger the family, the more rapid the change. Deaths, births, marriages, divorces, job losses, lost and found pets, aging, illness, career opportunities…so many factors mean that no two holiday celebrations can even resemble each other. Yet tradition demands of us determination to try.

In my family, buying presents for all became a physical and financial impossibility for everyone other than my mother, who defies natural laws to do her part in whatever she does, around the time my older siblings took on their first marriages just as I was reaching my preteen years. That didn’t stop the nicer and more guilt-ridden among us from trying from time to time. I gave gifts like fingernail polish and dime-store bubble bath to my sisters.

I must have bought something for my brothers. I know I skipped lunch so that I would have my lunch money to pay for gifts. This probably didn’t occur to me until about a week before school let out for Christmas. That would have netted me about $5.00 to spend on 5 siblings, my parents, my friends, and the cousins who would reciprocate. I never bought presents for cousins who didn’t first buy for me, and I still today hold firm to that rule. At any rate, I can’t remember any specific brother gifts from my preteen years, but I know I must have done something nice for them. Real nice.

Later, when all of us were grown up, we drew names for a few years. In theory, it is far better to receive one nice gift than a basket load of crappy ones. In reality, it is as well, but drawing names only works if you know who is coming for Christmas. But what if someone extra shows up? What if your brother forgets to tell his wife one year which names they drew? What if your brother shows up unexpectedly divorced one year? What if he has a new girlfriend another year?

Alas, if the family is big enough to require name drawing, it’s big enough to be completely unreliable in terms of knowing who to expect for holiday dinners.

Name drawing had to go, but it did not go quietly. We sputtered around with a few years of Dirty Santa after that. You know the deal where you draw numbers on the spot and pick a present from the pile or challenge someone else for their present in the order of your randomly drawn numbers? Yes, well, you sort of have to know who is showing up for that to work too. Your grownup niece might have told a boyfriend about Dirty Santa at the grandparents’ house, but she didn’t tell the one she brought, nor did she bring a gift to go with him.

Thus, we declared no presents for the siblings or for the grown grandchildren. We only really care about buying for my mother who is the only one who really cares about buying for us anyway, right?

Ah, but then there is the holiday guilt that sets in, and so it is that these our years of no presents are really our years of buying for each other the kinds of things we bought when none of us had any money to spend.

Next year, they’re all getting painted snowflakes made out of baked playdough from me.

This year, as I bagged up Hershey’s Kisses for my brothers and sisters, I thought about the people I’d heard lately complaining that Christmas had been stolen by non-Christians, and the other people I heard pointing out that most of our Christmas traditions come from pagan festivals for the Winter Solstice rather than Christianity anyhow.

Relax, I thought. Christmas doesn’t belong to any one group of people. Everyone is part of the extra traffic, the office collections for office gifts and parties, the tacky decorations all over town. The fun parts of Christmas are about children, and they make it all worthwhile. The religious parts are personal. They don’t have anything to do with the frenzy we make of the holiday itself.

Everything else is about the guilt and stress, and that is freely available to all whether they want it or not.

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