Yesterday I placed a single candle in each of my front windows, removed the summer wicker from the front porch, and brought out the antique sleds that provide our winter décor. I think back over the countless years I have gently untangled the electrical cords and replaced lamps in these old candles. This is part of my holiday tradition, and lighting them for the first time yesterday brought a deep sense of joy and anticipation for the season ahead. However, this has been a tough year for our family, and my holiday traditions will be necessarily adjusted in the coming weeks.
For the first time in almost forty years, we will not gather for Thanksgiving dinner with my in-laws. My mother-in-law is suffering from dementia and is completely housebound this year, and their house is not large enough nor her emotional state strong enough, to host a dinner with so many loved ones. For years now, I have looked forward to dinner at my sister-in-law’s warm and inviting home, but this year, she will instead prepare a smaller dinner at her mother’s house, and we will gather at my son’s house for dinner. A new tradition is being born – one my little grandchildren will come to cherish. This is a difficult transition for my sister-in-law and me – for so many years our holidays have revolved around her parents – as we make our new plans, our hearts will be heavy. I am looking forward, though to dinner at my son’s house. His wife is a wonderful cook, and the view from their dining room table is of the distant Berkshire Mountains – a sight lovely even on a misty, gloomy day. Our smaller gathering will include all of my children and grandchildren – who could desire more than that.
My sister’s death this past summer will cast a shadow over my joy this season. Even now, as I walk past a display of nutcrackers, I hold back tears, remembering her penchant for nutcrackers. In fact, she cherished her huge collection of Christmas decorations and spent days unpacking them and placing them around the house. Knowing she is not here to enjoy her favorite season is difficult. For several years now, she has invited us for a peaceful meal during the week before Christmas. One of my most treasured memories is of a quiet lunch at her home one Christmas Eve – the day when I am always frazzled with preparations. The delicious food and warmth of her home, with its well-loved decorations and quiet beauty soothed me deeply on that long-ago afternoon. I will miss her.
For thirty-five years, I prepared our family Christmas dinner at my house – a gathering that has varied from year to year through births, deaths, and circumstance. There have been as few as twelve and as many as twenty people crowded into the dining room for this most beloved holiday. The memories flood my heart as I picture the faces that are no longer with us, as well as the ever-changing bounty of friends and family that have graced us with their presence at the table. Our Christmas plans are in flux this year. We will celebrate Christmas Eve with my daughter, and one son and his family, and my other son and his family will share Christmas Day with us. Once again, I will miss our traditional dinner with my in-laws and extended family, but these smaller celebrations will certainly be much less tiring for an almost-sixty woman. For the past couple of years, by the time I had dinner on the table and my father-in-law had given the Blessing, I was too exhausted to taste the meal. I will have more time now to savor the spirit of the holiday, and to focus on my grandchildren.
Traditions are an extremely important touchstone in our lives. They give us a sense of continuity and family cohesiveness. However, as circumstances change, we must be able to revise these traditions. We must hold them in our hearts and cherish the memories of other times and other holidays. It is necessary that we let them go with grace and begin to create the new traditions that work for us now. There will always be a measure of grief for those who are no longer with us, and a sadness for what once was, but we can move on to embrace the reality of our new circumstances and find joy and contentment in the newly-created traditions.
I do hope, though, that I never have to give up my candles in the windows – they quietly spread the joy of the season to the world without and to the soul within.