I have always understood the dangerous dual nature of tradition. Songs that we sing, games that we play, dresses that our mothers chose for us — they entwine our heart strings but also cut deep into our psyches.
I raised my son with a diluted version of my childhood traditions. Steeped in the vestiges of my Roman Catholic upbringing, the Christmas that I concocted for him must have seemed as weird as it felt wonderful. Santa got cookies and Mary with her babe got a candle. I didn’t explain why the first visitor on Christmas morning symbolized the Christ child welcomed to the manger. We just celebrated and fed whoever it was a generous helping of our Christmas schmarren, a breakfast delight handed from my great-grandmother all the way down to my son.
Each year, I took Patrick shopping for a single new ornament. I invented that tradition just for him, along with the tree elf who brought a present on the night we decorated the Christmas tree and the letter from Mrs. Claus. The new piece could be from a local shop or a big-box store. It could be cute or sentimental. Once selected, Patrick got to find the perfect branch and shroud it with tinsel.
Shortly after my son turned five, my health deteriorated. I had no idea how many Christmases I would see. Tension settled on our front lawn, lurking, pouncing each time a friend arrived for the trip to the emergency room or to take Patrick for a few days to give me respite. Christmas changed. I could no longer tolerate the heady fragrance of cedar, so we purchased an artificial tree. The metal tips of its branches had different colors corresponding to the order in which you inserted them into the metal trunk. The paint faded after several years. We agonized over collecting each group and remembering the sequence. Patrick and his friend Chris would spend an hour or two on Thanksgiving weekend getting the tree assembled. When their patience wore thin, they would take a break, drink hot chocolate for a while, then return to finish the job.
One year, Patrick got the idea of writing the branch order on the Christmas tree box. That worked, but the box finally fell apart. I salvaged the corner on which he had written the color sequence so we wouldn’t forget. When I moved to California, the Christmas tree went into to trash, having served nearly twenty years’ duty. I donated most of the ornaments, gave a modest boxful to Patrick, and brought a small selection to California. I decorate my tiny house with them, as well as adorning the very small tree that Patrick ordered for my first Christmas here.
This weekend, true to tradition, I hauled out the Christmas box and set about making things festive. But I found myself feeling lonely instead. I persevered. I put out the little Santa mugs, and hung the wooden stocking ornament from Patrick’s First Christmas on a hook at the edge of my loft. Draped strands glowed amber, blue, and red. Fancy glass ornaments dangled in the windows. I stood in my galley kitchen gazing at the splendor: Wooden santas, crystal angels, stars, metal birds, and the paper dove that Patrick made in kindergarten. I wrapped my arms around myself and cried.
On Sunday, a friend came over to help with the outdoor lights. We worked for several hours, rearranging the plants and hanging lights on metal decor pieces that I had found at Goodwill. Later, one of my neighbors cruised to my lot on his golf cart and handed me a box from his wife: A brand new glass ornament, a Macy’s Santa train. I held the lovely thing in one hand while the other gripped my walking stick and I inched my way back inside. I gave it pride-of-place between Patrick’s dove and his favorite Christmas horn. New for 2022.
It’s the twenty-eighth day of the one-hundred seventh month of My year Without Complaining. Life continues.