Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
On Tradition


In the past year, my family has endured an enormous amount of change. The good: our younger daughter's adoption was completed and she came home; we built a new house; we moved. The bad: my grandfather died, devastatingly. In my memory, so much of the last twelve months is ablur with lists, tasks, and extreme emotions. And so, when I look forward, into the new year, I can imagine godsend or calamity, but not so much what it might look like, the quiet, contented returning to specific routines and rituals.

The day after Thanksgiving, my husband and I deck our halls. We put up three Christmas trees, two advent calendars, one wreath; we light up the yard with a respectable amount of lights and three animatronic deer. In one of the shelves of the bookcase leading upstairs, I put up el Belén, the nativity from Spain I've had since I was little. My fingers touch the clay figures as I place them, one by one, into the manger. And because I want to have more opportunities with my children to talk about the baby Jesus, I place him between Mary and Joseph early. The next day, I teach my son and older daughter how I've always done it: kiss the clay figurine, lay him onto his pillow, and make the sign of the cross.

My mother reminds me of how, when we lived in Madrid, we'd buy a new figure for el Belén every year from the many stalls selling them in the Plaza Mayor. We'd go to the local nursery, too, which either we or the owners nicknamed a "Fairyland" for the Holidays. I remember the color and glitter and scent of the place, and the ilusion I'd feel when choosing something to take home. After our move to the US, my mother would still put out the decorations we collected through these traditions, and then, after she minimized her Christmas trimming and my husband and I expanded ours along with our family, all the decorations came to us.

I'm reminded, too, of the way traditions can evolve as I prepare for our Christmas Open House. Ever since I can remember, there's always been a gathering of family and friends somewhere in anticipation of the holidays: my abuela's house, my grandparents' country club, my mother's dining room . . . but this year, for the first time, it's my husband and I hosting the party. We invite family, friends, and neighbors, and serve a buffet of appetizers, including empanadas marujinas, turnovers made with tuna and pisto, Spanish cheeses, and tortilla de patata, and desserts including mazapan and polvorones. Should we run out of food, I have tamales, the traditional Guatemalan Christmas food, waiting on stand-by to be steamed. Our kids play with their friends in the basement playroom and, all afternoon long, Spanish and English mix and rise up the steps. We've never experienced such a seamless combination.

This year, like we have for the past eight years, we also visit the annual Pittsburgh Celebration of Lights. It's a local benefit with just over three miles of light displays which people traditionally drive through while listening to Christmas carols . . . but one I never participated in until my husband took me while we were dating. We've gone every year since that first time: by ourselves, with our dogs, with one, then two, now three kids. Like every year, I sit on the passenger side of the car, holding my husband's hand and staring out at the way the lights twinkle against the darkness and the fallen snow. My favorite display is towards the end, a tree, probably a small, wide oak, but with a shape that could also easily be an olive, my favorite tree, that lights up in sections. I find it again this December, set off as always in a field apart from other displays, but this time, something about the familiar sight of it makes me want to weep.

I've never felt the hunger for tradition that I do this Christmas season. I've been obsessive about it, actually. Mid-December, our holiday cards are mailed, the Christmas shopping finished, the playlist of villancicos on constant repeat for already a week; I'm also rallying to have a Christmas movie marathon, and a present-wrapping session. When my husband asks what's fueling my zeal this year, I shrug it off and explain that it's the first Christmas in our permanent home, the first Christmas our children will really remember, the perfect time to really establish our multi-culti holiday traditions. And it's true, it's because of all this, but really, it's because it's been a rollercoaster year. I need the opportunity tradition offers me, to control a sense of return to certain memories, places, people; to give my home and my family offerings of stability, joy, and hope for the holidays.

Violeta Garcia-Mendoza’s poetry and fiction have recently appeared in Kestrel, Coal Hill Review, and Cicada. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, son, and two daughters.

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This came together beautifully Violeta, well done!
Dear Violeta, You know, your column was a direct inspiration for mine. We are at opposite ends on this one... it made me feel so wistful. Love the gorgeous detail here, and what you are building for your sweet family. oxo Susan
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