I'm not going home for Christmas this year. My husband and I and our 16-month-old daughter are staying in Boston and not taking the two-stop flight on Christmas Eve to our parents' homes in the Midwest. We're doing this for a few reasons: money, my husband's work schedule, the lack of quality grandparent-to-grandchild time when we're rushing between homes and relatives trying to see everyone (briefly) and juggle expectations (always). If we can only make the trip once, we said, it'd be better if we visited in February, when there's more time.
Given that, I now find myself one week away from my first Christmas with a family of my own, but away from the family I grew up with. If there was ever an emotional crossroad into full-on adulthood, this is it.
Here's one bittersweet fact about growing up: There may come a day when you talk about your "family" to someone and you will no longer be referring to your mom, your dad, your brothers, or your sisters — in other words, the people you grew up with; the unit that defined your childhood, surrounded your adolescence, supported you through college, and remained a backbone through your 20s.
Of course they're still your family — by blood, by tears, by years — but it's like cell division: You were all one, and now you're your own thing. (Like this.) For years, talk of your "family" meant your parents and siblings; now it means your spouse or significant other, your kids. There are freshly inked lines jutting out from your name on the family tree. You've started a whole new section of history.
Like I said, bittersweet. What joy that there's so much life around and ahead of you! What sadness that you can never go back. (Have you seen "Inside Out"? Watch it. Watch it now.)
All that to say — this Christmas feels particularly meaningful to me. As the first solo Christmas for our little family of three, it's the first time my husband and I get to decide how we want to celebrate, instead of following the celebrations of our extended family. It's the first time we get to think about the Christmas traditions we'd like for our family — traditions we hope our daughter (and any subsequent kids) will look forward to every year. It's the first time we get to craft a family narrative. How can we make this ours? What do we bring with us? What do we leave behind? What do we begin?
Just to clarify: I'm not advocating for an isolationist Christmas! Not at all! Big family Christmases are wonderful, and I hope my daughter gets plenty of them with her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But I also know, given the far-spread reach of my family, the days of that happening every year are behind us. That's why I think establishing our own traditions is so important.
So how do you do it?
5 Questions to Help You Start Your Own Traditions
It may seem silly to ask yourself how you want to celebrate the holidays. Isn't it obvious? Not always. Our holiday traditions are often intimately tied to certain people and places — like our childhood home — so it can feel unmooring (and a bit depressing) to think of doing things any other way.
But it's also a great opportunity to step back and think about what matters to you, how you'd like to experience and focus the season within your own home and life, and what you'd like to pass on to your children (if you have them).
Here are five questions to help you discover personal and meaningful holiday traditions. These are the questions I asked myself this year. (A note: My prompts focus on Christmas traditions specifically because that's my personal experience, but the questions themselves are applicable to all holiday celebrations.)
- What was your favorite holiday tradition growing up? You have to know where you came from in order to know where to go. Did you always open presents on Christmas Eve? Did you decorate the tree as a family? Did you always wake up on Christmas to the smell of cookies and pancakes? Did you go caroling? What holiday memories stick out to you? What do you remember absolutely loving as a kid? Start there.
- What are you grateful your parents did around the holidays? Some traditions are only fully appreciated when we become adults. The notes your mother put in the stockings. The Advent candle lighting. The years you helped shop for toys to give away because they wanted to teach you compassion. The years there wasn't a lot of money and presents were few, and you learned to be grateful.
- What do you want this season to be about? When you're thinking about celebrating the holiday on your own terms or with your kids, what do you want it to be about? Is it about giving back? The birth of Jesus? Magic and imagination? In other words, what do you care about that can be best shared and taught through the structure of this season?
- What do you not want it to be about? Equally valuable is to ask yourself what you don't want the holidays to be about. Over-consumption? Stressful travel? Santa?
- What do you want to eat? Yes, the food thing deserves its own question!
The Traditions We're Starting This Year
So, as the first Christmas of what I hope are many wonderful Christmases with my little family, here are a few things we're doing that we hope become annual traditions. (And this is just a start. My daughter is still so little, I'm sure new family traditions will reveal themselves as she gets older!)
- A celebration of Advent: My husband and I are Anglican, so we want our daughter to fully experience the anticipation of this season of the church as she grows up. We have Advent candles and daily readings, and next year I'd like to get an Advent calendar. Our Christmas Eve church service is also important.
- A real Christmas tree: One of my favorite childhood memories is going with my dad to pick out a real Christmas tree every year. We definitely want to keep this tradition alive.
- Cookies and hot chocolate while decorating the tree: My mother made decorating the tree an event when I was little, and I've always loved that. I'd like to do the same with cookies, hot chocolate, and music.
- Carnitas tacos for that evening! I made a pork shoulder in the slow cooker the day we bought the tree, and we had carnitas that night for dinner after decorating. It made me think we should do that every year!
- Italian food on Christmas Eve: My mother is Italian, and it was her tradition to make Italian on Christmas Eve. I actually don't cook very much Italian during the year, but I love the idea of having homemade spaghetti and meatballs with fresh-baked bread as our traditional Christmas Eve meal.
- Driving around looking at Christmas lights: My husband says one of his favorite childhood memories was when his family drove around looking at all the Christmas lights after the Christmas Eve service.
- Opening presents on Christmas Eve: This was also my family's tradition, and I've always loved it. Christmas Eve was a long, late night, made all the cozier by the fact that it was dark outside and we were warm and surrounded by sparkly Christmas lights. My dad handed gifts out one by one, so it felt like the presents lasted forever (in a wonderful way).
- Stocking on Christmas morning: I was never disappointed come Christmas morning, however, because I knew there was still some celebration ahead! After a big family breakfast, we opened the stockings.
- A four-part gift-giving philosophy for kids: I read this somewhere, and I really liked it. When buying Christmas gifts for kids, give them four things: Something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read.
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What about you, readers? Has your definition of "family" changed? Are you celebrating the season in new ways?