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Christmas cookies... and other holiday tradtions that may not happen

Tommy's Park in Old Port shines bright
I sat frantically on the phone this afternoon, refreshing my browser page in an attempt to purchase tickets to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens "Gardens Aglow" exhibit this weekend. The website kept telling me that there were no times available -- how can this be? There aren't possibly this many people in mid-coast Maine who need to see holiday lights as badly as we do. Come on! If this doesn't work out, what will we do this weekend that will make us feel cheerful and special and holiday-ish? Once I got a voice on the phone, I felt even more frustrated as she told me of the parking problems and crowds; not helping my cheer levels.

Holiday traditions! We all have them. Or at least we think we do. Recently I've been feeling awful about the lack of Christmas traditions in our household. Yesterday afternoon, for instance, as we walked home from school, I asked the kids if they wanted to go to the mall to see Santa. I anticipated "YEAH! Woohoo! I can't wait!" from two glittery-cheerful little kids. But what I got was, "Nah, not really." From both of them, even the littlest one who still believes in the Big Red Jolly Guy. We haven't baked cookies this year because Honey can't eat them. And now we won't see any big light displays.

When I as a kid, we definitely had holiday traditions, and there was a lot of pressure around them. My dad is a traditions guy, like Clark Griswold. Every year, there were things that HAD to be done in order for the Mellos to enjoy the holiday season: Picking a tree from the farm, hauling it home and letting it sit in a bucket of water for a couple days before setting it up on the 2nd weekend in December, so it didn't dry out too soon before New Years. Driving around in the evenings to look at lights, usually in the same neighborhoods because the same people put up the same beautiful displays each year. Attending our friends' neighborhood dinner on Christmas Eve, then walking to church as Santa came by on the firetruck. Baking hundreds of different kinds of cookies to make baskets to take to neighbors and tins to mail to friends. Visiting Santa at the mall or local garden store, long after I weighed more than Santa wanted on his lap. Hot wassail simmering on the stovetop, Christmas CD's on shuffle in the giant Sony stereo. Gramma and Grampa arriving on December 23rd so we could take them to The Carriage House for a fancy anniversary dinner. Every year the same routines...ahem, I mean, traditions.

The Hess trucks come out at Christmas time!
We did have beautiful Christmastimes, it's true. My dad loves Christmas so much that what made our traditions special was the love and hope he shined through them. But you know the holidays that stand out most in my memory? The ones where family traditions veered slightly off course. Like the year my dad was in the hospital with a kidney stone, or the year Mom was laid out awaiting the birth of my sister; we all climbed into the big sofa bed with her big pregnant belly covered in bows while Dad handed out gifts. One Christmas we had a giant squirrel in the house, which meant no candy or cookies in the cabinets, and we came down Christmas morning to find Mr. Squirrel raging in the Have-a-Heart trap; my brother and I were convinced Santa had lured him in there for us.

One year we were in a fender-bender while on our annual drive-around-and-look-at-lights sojourn because Dad jammed his brakes on to see a particularly brilliant display. And the time he drove the van into the garage with the fresh-cut tree on the car roof...which bent up the garage door frame and scraped up the car and sent all of us into fits of laughter.

Or there was the Christmas that my Muslim friend spent the week with us, and we ran to Kmart to buy him boxes of candy and socks so he'd have things to unwrap Christmas morning like the rest of us. There was also the Christmas after Mom passed away, when we couldn't even see the tree through the mountain of gifts Dad had purchased, trying to fill the biggest hole that ever was.

As I hung up the phone today and regained my cool, it struck me: Are the best memories intentional, planned "traditions" -- forced! -- or do they just happen? Why do we put so much pressure on ourselves to make everything so frigging magical? Why can't we just let it be, find the magic in each and every small moment?

I look around now and think about some of our current beautiful, memorable in-the-moment traditions:
  •  Realizing after 6 years that the Mr. Christmas ornament actually plays music and syncs the lights on our tree in time... amazing!
  • Zippy putting on the green Eagles Santa hat immediately upon walking in the door after school each day, then wearing it all night, every the happy little elf he is
  • Shitty pop-music holiday music in the background everywhere we go, until someone says "I really hate this song" and we realize we're humming along anyway
  • Hearing the incessant sound effects from the fleet of Hess trucks that came down from the attic with the decorations, mixed with giggles and singing while two brothers who are five years apart in age play together
  • The glee on Honey's face when he comes home from the mall with armloads of gifts for me and the boys...and the way he looks forward to the Black Friday circular in the Thanksgiving newspaper every year
  • Naming our favorite light installations every time we drive through town, as if each time is the first time we've seen them
  • Two cats snoozing side by side on the tree skirt, glowing beneath the colored lights...they so rarely tolerate one another, but the tree skirt is magical
  • Building gingerbread fortresses out of graham crackers on a whim after school, then playing flashlight tag outside to burn off that frosting-induced buzz
  • Little boys who get excited when they find a toy for their brothers at Walgreens or Target or Hannaford when we're out running errands
  • A civics lesson at the dinner table when Happy asked us about why so many people are freaking out in our world these days, which lead to more talk of peace and love and tolerance, which is what I truly wish this season could be about
Tradition-shmadition. Christmas is fun when we're not making ourselves nuts. We're all here together. We're healthy. We're happy. Our toes are warm and our bellies are full. I want my children to remember the moments, not the routines. I want them to have a sense of peace and calm, a season of love and giving and gratitude. And two parents who haven't exhausted themselves forcing it to be all perfect and magical all the time.


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