For years, I was my family's resident Scrooge.
I couldn't cut wrapping paper in a straight line. Frankincense made me sneeze. Midnight Mass was past my bedtime. And sure, the presents were great and the confections plentiful, but the gauntlet of traditions I had to go through to reach them sometimes felt insurmountable.
In my family, our traditions begin the day after Thanksgiving and last through Christmas Day — some years, that means we spend a whole 32 days locked in some familial obligation or another. From picking a tree in the rain to watching A Christmas Story for the thousandth time to taking a photograph with Santa long past when I stopped believing in him, there were no ifs, ands, or buts with my parents. When it came to our traditions, you participated. Whining was optional.
So, I whined. I protested. I cried. All up until Christmas Day, which was stuffed with the longest and most obligatory traditions of all. Double-buckled in the backseat of the car with my cousins, I would caravan with my family to each of the older relatives and friends' houses on Christmas morning to bring them our festive (and in my case, grimly forced) salutations. I was skeptical of our dubious relations (does my dad's cousin by marriage really count as my relative?) who lived in dark houses that smelled distinctly of old people.
The culmination of Christmas morning was my Great-Aunt Jean's ice cream social, when all the cousins and aunts and uncles and step-relatives and half-relatives and in-laws and "outlaws" (the divorcees we liked and kept inviting anyway) swarmed into her old kitchen, which was seemingly decorated exclusively in Elvis décor, and ate ice cream. While this might sound endurable, I somehow always got stuck with Rocky Road in my bowl, despite my loathing of nuts, and my shyness kept me pinned to my parents' sides in the crush of people claiming to remember when I was yeigh big.
As I got older, I whined and protested and cried less. That's not to say I started to enjoy our Christmas traditions, just that I'd finally been worn down by more than a decade of my complaints being summarily ignored. Around third grade, my parents had also gotten divorced, and I realized in that detached childish way that the traditions I had with each of them became more important after that. And as the years went on, those traditions — to my dismay — multiplied.
I have never known life without these routines. Our traditions began when I was literally a month old, with my parents taking me to the same tree farm year after year. Some of my earliest memories are of tromping over roots in the light, wet snow of an early winter in Washington state, when the river that ran adjacent to the farm was just beginning to ice over, as my parents debated and reevaluated and doubled back to consider every darned tree on the entire 12 acre lot.
After I left the state for college, I had, for the first time, a great excuse for why I couldn't participate: I wasn't there. The annual day-after-Thanksgiving-Christmas-tree-hunt went on without me while I stayed tucked safely in a warm bed more than a thousand miles away. After my Great-Aunt Jean died, my dad carried on the tradition of her ice cream social at our house, but I could dodge the rendezvous with Rocky Road if, in my limited time back, I strategically spent the morning with my mom instead.
But tradition found me again. My first year with my boyfriend, we bought a disposable CVS camera and visited the Rockefeller Christmas Tree in New York to take pictures. In the intervening years since, it's always seemed like we've accidentally found ourselves going by the tree again and, half-teasing, insisted to each other we take another picture. Heck, we're here aren't we? Without even realizing it, it's become our thing.
How embarrassing — had I, in all my Scrooginess, somehow tripped onto starting my own tradition? But customs are funny like that. They are not something you decide to do because they're fun. As my dad observed on the phone during one of my rants, tradition is about choice. As much as you might complain and roll your eyes, you show up because it's important. Tradition sews together the passage of time, and the people who come in and out of our lives, with a thread of something as old as humankind: ritual.
This year, when my mom texted me a photo of the Christmas tree she and my step-father had squeezed into a corner of their home in Arizona, I thought about how it had been almost a decade since I'd helped her decorate it. "We watched the Pee-wee's Playhouse: Christmas Special tonight," my dad told me on a recent phone call and I was surprised my heart hurt a little to have not been there. "Oh boy, you'll have to do it again when I get home," I said sarcastically, but also hoped he could hear the tiny little way I really meant it.
I think it surprised us both. I'd once gotten mad that my dad made my boyfriend sit through the dorky special, oblivious to the fact that inviting outsiders into your traditions is the most tender way to tell them they're family now, too. And suddenly, here I was, 26 years old, getting misty-eyed on the phone about missing Conky the Robot and Chairy and Charo.
I came back for Christmas early this year, and found myself asking my mom if we could put on A Christmas Story. Not because I ever need to see it again, but because it felt weird that we hadn't watched it together yet. And when my dad texted me, "You guys won't be back from your mom's early enough to do an ice cream social, will you?" I paused.
Not quite, I wrote back. But wait for me.