Unpacking the past (and future)

December 01,2008
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

Even though all the evil super mega stores and malls everywhere decide each year to decorate for Christmas the day after Halloween, we pride ourselves on managing to hold out until a day or two after Thanksgiving. When I was growing up, we never decorated for Christmas until about a week or so before Christmas Eve. Every year as a child, I thought I would spontaneously combust on the spot from sheer impatience. I have always loved Christmas and decorating the house for the holidays. And while I really do think we need to give Thanksgiving its moment in the spotlight (it is also one of my favorite holidays--good food, family, being thankful for what you have--how does it get better than that?), I also firmly believe in milking the Christmas decorations and traditions for all they are worth.

One of the many marvelous things about having your own family is that you get to recreate some of your most beloved traditions with your own children, and establish new ones as well. Our Christmas decorating always begins with setting up our Christmas village on the dining room buffet (every year we alternate who gets to pick the new village building--L. picked this addition this year), accompanied by all the requisite bickering and mini melodramas about how it should be set up, and ends with lugging out the three big bins of decorations from the crawl space and, of course, the giant tree box. As we fluffed up the tree limbs and tried to match color-coded branches to the corresponding slots on the main trunk (we never had THAT tradition when I was a child), I thought about how important these holiday rituals are for so many people--perhaps they are some of the few ways we can actually reach into the past and bind ourselves to moments that have long since passed us by. Holiday decoration bins are like time capsules--you open them up and a little of the past escapes into the air, making you remember exactly how your kids looked the last time you pulled them out.

I also realized this year, from a parent's perspective, that as your kids grow older, the traditions take on an almost desperate quality. You want your kids to take just as much interest in the holiday preparations as they did the year before, even if they somehow turned eight in the summer and have created a new tradition of their own: one that requires them to spend the whole Thanksgiving break holed up in their bedroom watching a flight training DVD, and not taking a single interest in the Christmas tree. Or when your almost five-year-old no longer accepts your directions on where to hang the best ornaments, but decides to take matters into her own hands and lump them all together on one single branch of the tree. What happened to my my dimple-handed three-year-old? you ask yourself. Or my seven-year-old who couldn't wait to get the tree up? You suddenly imagine them at 13 or 14, shrugging off the magic of Christmas, and see yourself hanging the ornaments alone, the ghosts of all the past Christmases clinging to the shaggy balls and Christmas cats you bought at Woodward & Lothrop before they went out of business--long before you even imagined having a family of your own.

But I know from my own experiences that if you create enough traditions, they will always be there--a strong safety net for your kids to fall back on when they finally really do grow up and Christmas becomes important to them again. They'll reach back into the past just as you did, and find the threads of those traditions waiting, ready to be woven into their new ones.

T. and I had a crafty Sunday and made paper snowflakes--a tradition we started two years ago. I was going to write about it here, but today's column took on a life of its own. Check back tomorrow for some glittery results!