Last month I took advantage of a mid-week fall holiday, dressed Leila up in a smocked turkey dress and ventured to the pumpkin patch yet again. She was such a sweet sport, and she loved hearing the story of her first time taking photos amongst the pumpkins. I love our little pumpkin so!
Before Advent began I was invited into thoughtful, nourishing preparation. But the writing of a meditation and the quiet of a retreat were not enough to fill in the cracks where my anxiety began to seep in and leave its sticky presence. A deluge of perfectionism drowned the gentle pursuit of a more sacred season.
I temporarily found distraction in the busyness of the days leading up to Thanksgiving and the brief chaos of the days following. Sunday was set apart – the first day of Advent, a fresh start. We would drive back early, settle into the quiet fellowship of making a wreath and the service that followed. I would take a yoga class and teach a class. And we would buy a tree. The bags would be unpacked and the Christmas decorations would start to infuse our home with holiday spirit.
Instead life happened and the little inconveniences grew from a dull buzz of anxiety into a crescendo by the time I found myself in the pews. I could not stop thinking about our Christmas cards or the unfinished Advent wreath in our car or the work I needed to squeeze in before Tuesday morning. After church we drove to the yoga studio, but classes were cancelled. With no other outlet I raced around the house unpacking and cleaning and setting up until finally Ben left for ultimate and Leila settled down with her “new” Christmas books and I began to relax into the preparations. As I set up the nativity Leila asked about the shepherd and I felt the knot in my throat as I shared about the angels summoning the shepherds to worship Jesus. While I dusted and hung the stockings my heart began to swell with hope for all the good in this world and the belief that God is bigger than the brokenness. Then Wrigley began to bark persistently, and I cautiously opened the door to find our neighbor’s sweet grandkids delivering the package they’d picked up for us, lest it be taken before we got back home. I expected it to be something I’d ordered, but then I saw the handwritten address. I could hardly imagine what was inside. I unpacked it to find three Christmas mugs filled with socks for Ben & I, along with hot chocolate, pajamas for Leila and a new copy of the The Polar Express.
Do you ever have those moments where you feel overwhelmingly loved?
That’s how I felt.
And so the Advent anxiety was dispelled, at least for a moment.
That night I drove to Whole Foods, sweaty from teaching a yoga class, ignoring the cold and rain and dark and size of my Prius to pick up a tree bundle I’d seen advertised. They were sold out. I drove home.
We have been working to create our holiday traditions, to establish the continuity that breeds anticipation. This year I thought we were set. We’ve had a few years of life with child as a trial run for the long stretch where memory starts to take root and provide annual accountability. As much as I like to think I measure expectations, life has a way of reigning things in ever more.
This year our family was forced into keeping ancient liturgical tradition in spite of ourselves. Between a book I was reading, a simple comment made from the pulpit, the chaos of managing a store during the high holiday of retail and the busyness of wrapping up a semester, Ben and I both arrived at the same conclusion. Advent was too full to do anything other than wait. The Christmas tree and iced cookies and festivities would have to be relegated to Christmas. We would celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, more or less.
Four days before Christmas Eve, between me teaching a yoga class and a training I had that afternoon, we bought a lush Fraser fir for $20 from Kroger’s. I made a batch of America’s Test Kitchen gingerbread cookies and gave Leila free reign with icing and sprinkles to decorate a few each day. We played the Barenaked Ladies and Sarah Mclachlan Holiday soundtrack from morning to night. On Christmas Eve we went out for pizza and an early mass. On Christmas morning we let Leila open her first present from us, I made Eggs Benedict, and we went to a crowded service in our church’s tiny Morrow chapel. On New Year’s Eve we went out for Chinese food, bought fancy, individualized desserts and later loaded our wrists, necks, ankles and dog’s collar with glow sticks to go on an evening family walk and look at the Christmas lights. Instead of getting one present, we spread out family and family friend’s gifts along with a few other things from us that would typically be given without the distinction of wrapping paper and ribbon throughout the 12 days. Ben was inspired and gifted me 12 thoughtful gifts.
Last night we disassembled our Christmas tree after bedtime. Leila woke up and told me we needed the tree one more day. I explained our tradition flexes with trash pickup and pointed out the stockings as a sufficient landing place for the final day’s gift. There was no Nutcracker, I picked up my camera all of one time, I worked almost every day. It was not fancy. It felt shaky and barely done, especially as I rushed to Walmart tonight to pick up construction paper and a coloring book to serve as Leila’s 12th day gift. But it worked for us. I feel like I can do this imperfectly every year. And for me that’s a beautiful tradition.
If you ask my husband, he’ll say I balk at traditions. I disagree. I just pick and choose. For our wedding I picked a white dress and waiting to see each other and keeping the cake topper for our first anniversary. I gave into a few others. I gladly chucked the rest. I like traditions that bring comfort and joy. I like ones filled with quirk and fun. I do not like obligation.
Now that we have been married for over eight years some family traditions have evolved in spite of me and some most definitely because of me, especially with a little one in tow. I take pumpkin photos in the fall and bluebonnet shots in the spring and I use our Christmas card as an excuse to wrangle the entire family into a photo sometime in November. We go to our neighborhood Halloween Festival and Easter egg hunt and our Rector’s Open House each December. I make a batch of shrimp etouffee for dinner the night before Thanksgiving, these sweet potatoes the next day and Eggs Benedict on Easter morning. We do Christmas Eve, just us.
Now that we have an-almost-three-year-old I need to watch myself. Traditions are sticking to this family faster than a fly to honey. Today Leila said something about it being dress up day (we usurp a lot of Daniel Tiger phrases around here) and how she was going to wear her Dorothy dress and red “parkle” shoes to “Panish” class today. I’m starting to wonder if the Dorothy ensemble is an unwitting tradition I started. We had some good practice years. Now it’s time to get serious. We have a little someone perfectly capable of reminding us what was done before, so keeping it simple is more important than ever.
Biscuits and gravy seems to be our Christmas Eve morning favorite, Ben always brings home some tamales for us to enjoy and I just whipped up a batch of hot chocolate ice cream last night that is sure to make an appearance in upcoming years.
We gift Leila one thing for Christmas, I try to pick out some thoughtful gift for Leila’s teachers and our wonderful, amazing families now BOTH draw names, so our Christmas list is gloriously short.
We hang our stockings from the built-in with care and put out the nativity and bring out the Christmas books and hang the advent calendar and even have our little tree, this year at least.
Thanks to, If You Take a Mouse to the Movies, Leila wants to string some popcorn. We’ll see.
Next Sunday Grandma is taking Leila, Mamani and I to see Madeleine’s Christmas at Main Street Theater. The Sunday after that I’m taking Leila to the Nutcracker in a brand new red “parkle” dress she picked out herself. Tomorrow night I’m going to pop some popcorn, and we’re going to watch a Christmas movie together (I’m extra excited about this because Leila came up with the idea all on her own before I told her the plan. If a toddler sees some popcorn kernels…) I’m also hoping there will be one evening spent strolling around the neighborhood, sipping homemade hot chocolate, taking in the lights.
We might even let Leila stay awake for the Christmas Eve service this year.
What are some traditions you’re going to continue or try on for size this holiday season?