Monday, December 19, 2016

The Things We Can't Plan

When our daughter Josephine was about eight-years-old she revealed a family tradition to us that we didn't even know we had. At the time we had a living room with a 15-foot ceiling and we tried each year to find a Christmas tree that reached the rafters. This involved traveling out to the Eastside to first locate our own (no easy task even on the tree farms), then lash it to the roof of the car for a trip back across the I-90. As the one responsible for securing the tree to the roof of the car this was nerve wracking for me. I mean, that's a big tree on a small car and I was never completely confident that my tying abilities would handle freeway speeds for the better part of an hour. And then there were the visions of the disaster that would transpire should the tree actually blow off, especially on the bridge itself.

Field trips to Seattle Center to play and see the winter wonderland train exhibit are one of our school's traditions. I wonder if climbing on the orca sculptures will be what these kids remember most.

That year we had already enjoyed our ritual cups of hot cider and stacks of pancakes and were preparing the merge onto the freeway when Josephine said, "This is the dangerous part."

I asked, "What do you mean?"

We made our own lanterns and took a night time lantern walk around Fremont, based on northern European traditions, followed up by hot chocolate and stories. 

"This is where you always say, 'If the tree falls off, we're not stopping and we'll just have to go to Chubby & Tubby's for a $4 tree.'" It made me laugh, albeit nervously, because in that moment I realized this had become one of our most reliable family traditions, one we came to call the "annual cursing of the tree," a name that would make even more sense to you if you could have been present throughout the whole day long process of getting the thing into the house, set up, and then decorated from atop an extension ladder.

We have other more conscious traditions, but none was as meaningful as that one, even as I was happy to let it go when we moved to our downtown apartment seven years later. Traditions and rituals are important to all of us even if we aren't particularly conscious of them. And indeed, most of us value the smaller, personal things, the ritualistic parts of our traditions that make them unique to our families or communities, more than the gala and grandiose.

It was probably 20 years ago now that the adults in our extended family decided to place not only a $5 limit on holiday gifts, but to put a special value on those that were hand made. We still buy toys for the kids, but the idea was to stop spending hundreds of dollars on things that people may or may not even want and instead spend the lead-up to our holiday making things rather than looking for parking at the mall. A few years back, Josephine asked if she could join the adults. And now my brother's oldest daughter has done the same as if moving up to expecting less has now become a rite of passage in our family. What an unexpected thing.

We may try to do it all, to match our celebrations to the wider social norms, to have a holiday like one sees on TV, and that's all well and good, but in the end it's the things that we don't expect, the things we can't plan, that give them meaning.

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