Traditions. We all have them. Children demand them—“We did that last year—we have to do it again!” I was fortunate to grow up in a home where holiday traditions were carved in stone. For 25 years I knew exactly where I would be and when and with whom on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Life intervened—divorce, marriages, kids, estrangements, death. Even as my husband, five children, and I began to develop our own traditions, we always had to be a little more flexible—never knowing for sure who would host the Christmas dinner, or where we would gather with extended family to open presents.
When my oldest was only a baby I started a treasured Christmas Eve tradition of giving each child a Christmas book to unwrap and have read to them before bedtime. Our collection of Christmas classics grew and grew, leading to additional Christmas story evenings, reading to the kids’ classes at school, even a Christmas bedtime story party for my youngest two and their classmates for several years.
Other favorite traditions centered around the decorations we collected over twenty-two years of marriage: the nutcrackers which covered the piano, part of a collection originally started for my husband by my grandmother and continued in later years by my mother; my less-planned collections of Santas, including my favorite of Santa kneeling by the manger; the crèche that belonged to my grandmother and then to my mother, still in its original box from a long defunct department store.
Tragedy struck on Labor Day. Our house burned nearly to the ground.
The books are ashes. The piano is reduced to its metal innards. Here and there among the ruins you can spot a piece of some treasure, beyond repair. Fire doesn’t just destroy, it consumes.
Several years ago our Christmas tree fell over right after we decorated it, crushing several irreplaceable ornaments, many of them heirlooms from my husband’s German grandfather. The children and I stood around the fallen tree and cried. Every year since as we hung the remaining and replacement ornaments we have remembered and missed the ones that were broken.
This loss is so much more immense that we haven’t even shed tears over it. To lose everything you own is indescribable. What will it be like this year, putting out new decorations in an unfamiliar house? How will it feel not to hang any ornaments commemorating “our first Christmas together”—we had FIVE! or any “Baby’s First Christmas” balls or handmade (childmade) decorations that their makers looked sheepish about but continued to hang all the same?
We believe in celebrating Advent before we move on to Christmas, so we haven’t had to deal with decorating yet. We cling to the traditions we can, so we started the season by attending the Advent Workshop sponsored by our church, where we made an Advent wreath that we will light each evening as we listen to a special reading for the day. We’ve begun to attend the holiday celebrations—the downtown tree lighting, the Fantasy of Trees—that we have gone to every year since we’ve had children. The Christmas Parade, the Living Christmas Tree, the Nativity Pageant, and the Walk through Bethlehem will provide continuity with other Christmases.
At home we will put up new decorations. We’ve already collected quite a few –some from a Christmas thrift store, some from Target, many from family and friends. The question of whether to try to replace missing items or do something altogether new is something we still don’t have an answer for—and that applies to other lost belongings, not just Christmas decorations. So far, it seems we know what we need to replace when the time comes. The nutcrackers, for example—they seem to be important to everyone and we’ve already bought a few, including two big ones to guard the front door.
We don’t really need decorations to remind us of the true spirit of Christmas this year anyway—we are surrounded by the proof that there really are people who “honor Christmas in [their] hearts and try to keep it all the year.” If Christmas is about love and giving, we’ve been experiencing it since the day our house burned, when the offers of assistance started pouring in, shortly followed by donations, clothing, toys, gift cards, and enough furniture to completely fill our new home.
We are planning a holiday open house the weekend before Christmas, so that all our family, friends, and even strangers who shared what they had with us can come celebrate with us and see how their generosity helped us make it through the past few months. Who knows? Maybe it will become a tradition.