For the first thirty years of my life, my family held fast to the same Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions. Grandma’s warm, pink applesauce passed around her crowded oblong table. Bundling up and trudging through the Christmas tree field the day after Thanksgiving, rain or shine. Mom’s inevitable outburst when she got fed up trying to string lights on the prickly branches. “Silent Night” in a dimmed sanctuary on Christmas Eve while handheld candles slowly lit up the worshipful room. An orange in the bottom of each stocking on Christmas morning.
I could go on. My mom engrained certain holiday traditions into the fiber of my being—and for me, they defined home.
Then, in late September 2011, Mom died.
And all my desires to carry out family traditions died right along with her.
That first year, I had absolutely no desire to do any of the things I typically associated with Christmas. I didn’t want to see a decorated evergreen, smell the frosted sugar cookies, hear the familiar carols.
I wanted nothing. It hurt too much.
My kids balked. They wanted to celebrate Christmas the only way they knew how—the same way we’d been doing it since I was born.
But I felt paralyzed.
I knew if I attempted to roll out Christmas cookie dough or unwrap my childhood ornaments from their wrinkled tissue paper, I would burst into another ugly cry. I teetered on the brink of an emotional breakdown, and had no idea which glimpse or sound would remind me of Mom and push me over the edge.
It was a precarious, exhausting place to live.
My kids continued to nag. They wanted to decorate, sing, read the Advent book, light the candles. My stomach ached at the thought. My heart palpitated. The wound was too raw.
Guilt crowded in from every side. People had expectations of me, of the season, of the past and future—and I couldn’t meet them.
I felt like a failure.
I wanted to rise up, pull myself together, brush it off. I wanted to pretend I didn’t care. Pretend the traditions meant nothing to me.
But that would be a lie.
I decided to compromise. Instead of punishing my family with my grief, I stepped gingerly around a handful of traditions. I pressed cookie cutters into floured dough, wiping my tear-stained cheeks with the back of my hand. I let the kids turn on the Christmas music, but usually shut myself behind a closed door while they sang and danced.
I said “Fine” to some traditions and “I can’t” to others, and by some miracle, I made it to January, albeit worse for wear.
I wish I had known then that it was okay to give myself grace. To be gentle with myself. To let more things slide.
If only grief had a pause button. It holds no respect for time, season, or circumstances. The worst part is that life doesn’t have a pause button either. It charges on with no regard for my physical or emotional state.
When I can’t press pause, I’ve learned to say no. When it stings too much, I’ve discovered it’s okay to lay some age-old traditions aside and maybe—just maybe—take a deep breath and muster up the bravery to forge new ones.
This year will be my fifth Christmas without my mom, and it’s still tender. The tears still well up when I unpack the tub of ornaments and pull her ceramic Christmas village out of its tattered boxes.
The past two years, we’ve forgone the tree in favor of a decorated manger in front of the fireplace. We still do cookies, but not stockings. We’re at a new church where they don’t sing “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve or light handheld candles.
And you know what?
It’s still Christmas.
Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether we dip peanut butter balls into chocolate or pass the drippy candle to the person on our left in the pew. It doesn’t matter if we choose the tree precisely on the day after Thanksgiving or even if we have a tree at all.
Traditions are sweet, but they’re not everything.
I’ve started to ask myself, “Why am I doing this, anyway? Is it because we’ve always done it this way and I can’t imagine anything else? Or is this tradition actually helping me to worship God born in a stable?”
Because sometimes it’s in the simplifying, in the giving up, in the change that the deeper meaning and purpose are revealed.
When I feel paralyzed by grief, maybe stillness is exactly what I need.
So this season I’m asking questions. I’m asking questions, and I’m seeking wonder. I’m saying yes to the traditions that lead me to worship, to community, to delight, and I’m saying no to the ones that bring no joy.