When our sons were small, my husband and I invented our own customs for Christmas, because my parents and his lived hundreds of miles away. Making the holiday special was up to us. We missed our extended families, but we were free to do whatever appealed to us—there was no other schedule or tradition to consider.
We read “The Night Before Christmas,” filled stockings with candy, assembled big toys like the play kitchen, and added batteries to toy guitars and handheld games. We took a bite out of the cookies left for Santa and scribbled “Thanks!” on the notes our sons wrote (Santa has good manners).
As our boys got older and Santa became a sweet memory instead of an actual visitor, our habits changed. The four of us began cooking elaborate meals together—three days of them. Christmas Eve Eve’s dinner would be whatever the group craved—maybe Southern BBQ or cassoulet. An Italian feast (calzones, fagotch*, and homemade pasta) became a required ritual for either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and the third meal might be something fancy like Beef Wellington. Later we welcomed our sons’ girlfriends (now wives) into the kitchen.
When they married, we understood some traditions would have to flex; after all, our daughters-in-law and their families have traditions, too. Changes have already begun. This Christmas the six of us will be together on Christmas Eve. My husband and I will miss our three-day extravaganza, but believe this is the right way forward.
If we have grandchildren, I envision more changes on the horizon. I’ve watched and learned from friends and family who have married children and grandchildren. They’ve all had to adapt and invent new approaches to holiday gatherings. My brother and sister-in-law spend either Thanksgiving or Christmas with their married child and her family, but not both. Other relatives get together after Christmas, because their child’s divorce means accommodating two separate parents and three sets of grandparents. A friend doesn’t see her children and grandchild until New Year’s Day—scheduling the group at Christmas has gotten too complicated.
My friends and family don’t relish being alone on Christmas, but they accept the situation and make the best of it. As grandparents, they are no longer the center of holiday celebrations—their adult children and grandchildren are. It’s their turn now.
I expect changes will continue for my family. As my husband and I age and grandchildren arrive, we’ll adapt again and again. Gracefully, I hope. After all, this is how life is supposed to go. One generation gives way to the next. Inherent in raising children is the assumption they’ll become independent adults, and as a parent, I will be less central. One day, they’ll be responsible for arranging (and cleaning up!) our holiday celebrations, and eventually their children will do the same for them.
That’s as it should be.
*The family’s phonetic spelling for a form of focaccia in which ground meat, tomato paste, fennel seed and other spices are spread on bread dough, rolled up, baked, and sliced into pinwheels.