Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Tradition? Tradition!


For the past fifteen or so years, our family has been building holiday traditions. We incessantly listen to the same music (the Roches' "We Three Kings") and put up the same questionable decorations (I confess, the illuminated lawn penguins were my idea). Everyone gets new pajamas on Christmas Eve. We've always held a gingerbread-house party for the girls and their friends. We bake up divine sugared pecans to distribute to friends, coaches, and teachers. My husband and I break out a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream, which we don't touch the rest of the year. We often host a "New York New Year's" party (ending at 9 p.m. for us West Coast folks who can't stay up until midnight), featuring board games and pots of soup. These things, so often repeated, now feel indelible.

When I was growing up, my small family had its own traditions. I always went to pick out a Christmas tree with my father, while my mother stayed home and made hot chocolate for us to drink when we returned with cold red ears and noses. It never occurred to me to wonder, or to ask, who bought the tree when I went away to college. Did she go with him? Did he go alone?

For most of my childhood, my extended family -- cousins, aunts and uncles -- came to our house for Christmas dinner. My mother fixed a huge turkey with bacon stuffing and a sweet potato casserole with marshmallows. After dinner, the relatives would tromp down the basement steps to pick through my traveling-salesman father's sample boxes. He represented a dozen companies at a time, and sold everything from miniature antique dollhouse furniture to Rainbow glass to silver and turquoise jewelry to wicker baskets to Peanuts items. Whenever he "discontinued a line," the company would let him keep the cartons of samples. Then it was time for the free-for-all. At Christmas he'd open the basement door and let our relatives and my neighborhood friends gleefully take whatever they liked.

When I was in my late teens, a family rift left my parents, grandmother, and me on one side of a chasm, and Everyone Else on the other. We didn't have anyone over for dinner anymore. The basement door stayed shut. We ate on everyday plates at the kitchen table. It was way too quiet for comfort.

To build a set of traditions can be a joyful thing, but to dismantle them can be heartbreaking. And yet some shifting and evolving of tradition is necessary as children grow up, and families change. Isn't it?

For the past few years, our family has gone to Las Vegas the day after Christmas. A brief but very festive and flashy vacation, filled with Cirque du Soleil shows and good meals. But this year, I didn't make the reservations. We've seen all the shows now. We've eaten a lot of food. We'd been there. We'd done that. When I tried to suggest that maybe we stay home, or go someplace closer, confusion broke out. Where could we go? We couldn't agree on a destination.

And then my attempts to plan the gingerbread-house party were met with downcast eyes and, "We don't need to do that this year." Whaaaaat? I suddenly felt as if all of the children in my home had sprouted wings and flown away to Neverland. I felt like Puff the Magic Dragon, forlorn and alone in his cave.

I was sad for a few days. Then my daughter said, "We can do the gingerbread thing, Mom."
I looked at her suspiciously. "But do you want to?"
She hesitated. "Wellll . . . "
I shook my head. "No. We're not doing this for me."
"But you really want to!"
The idea of my daughter grimly sticking peppermint candies onto an icing roof for my sake was too depressing. And just like that, poof, another tradition gone.

I went down to the storage room to break out the decorations. They just looked too ugly all of a sudden, too tacky. I climbed upstairs empty-handed. On December first, my daughter hung our Advent calendar - a polyester affair with small fabric decorations in numbered pockets that you Velcro onto the form of a tree, day by day. "I hate this Advent calendar!" she declared. She was used to sharing days, odd and even, with her sister, and with her sister away at college, the whole thing felt wrong. "Plus. I like the kind where you get chocolate -- or something nice -- every day." Hmph.

This holiday season feels like something brand new, wobbly and ungrounded, as we abandon some traditions and take others on. Our children are growing up, and the things they used to treasure are not nearly as dear anymore. I'm trying not to mourn the passing of the old, but it does feel like a major sea change from what felt like an endless era of childhood.

I bought a cute new advent calendar, a knitted laundry line of numbered stockings, hats, and mittens, which can indeed hold chocolates and other small treats. I'm firing up the oven for a marathon baking session of sugared pecans. My college girl just texted me with the urgent request to FedEx a box of pecan gift bags that she can give to her professors and coaches. Some traditions do live on.

Instead of Las Vegas, we're going to a Northern California beach in winter, to take bundled-up walks along the shore, to soak in the hot tub and look at the stars. The vacation will be over on New Year's Eve day, but we won't be hosting the board game party. The girls have been invited to more exuberant parties with their friends, and it will just be my husband, mother, and me, who will no doubt go to bed long before midnight, maybe after watching a rented movie, with a nice glass of Bailey's over ice.

Susan Ito has served Literary Mama as a Fiction Editor, CNF editor, and columnist of “Life in the Sandwich.” She edited the literary anthology, A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption. She is the author of the SheBook, The Mouse Room. Her work has appeared in CHOICE, Hip Mama, the Bellevue Literary Review,, Making More Waves, Growing Up Asian American, the Kartika Review, and elsewhere. She is a former Fiction Editor, Columnist, and Creative Nonfiction Editor for Literary Mama.

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this made me tear up, Susan... thanks for writing it! g
Beautiful, Susan. Happy holidays to you and your family.
lovely, Susan.
Susan, That was beautiful. I'm wondering if we both are at a time in our lives when there are so many changes coming that each year will bring something new. Maybe that's life "in the sandwich."
You write such engaging essays, Susan. Love this one...I can so relate. This year Jesse's partner and (5 already) son are at her parents' in Ontario for Christmas. If the weather calms down a lot I'm going to be driving to Vancouver a few days after The Day, so I didn't bother putting up the fibre-optic tree (quite pretty, but the motor that drives the lights, like many of us, snores louder every year). However, I did bake, started 3 days ago and most of it has disappeared already. Ted has been making ice candles, a thriving venture this year as we haven't seen the plus-side of zero in days. A new tradition! Have a wonderful Christmas as you re-invent yourself. It seems that's what we humans do. xo
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!
Wonderful, wonderful writing! Thank you!
Susan, as always, a tear jerker. I am transported by the detailed descriptions of your words. Your family stories are paving the way for what is to come with my own family as we grow up and it reminds me to relish these days of sleep deprivation and no time alone. Hard to imagine that some day I may miss this! Hope you are enjoying your time at the coast, sounds delicious. -laura
As always, Susan, I love your ability to capture the emotional resonance of these passages.
"Major sea change from what felt like an endless era of childhood" is exactly what i've been feeling this season, and now with words to express it! Susan, your eloquence is pure magic.
Hi Susan, Very engaging to read ...and of course parallel universes for many of us. You put it all so well...was right with you the entire time. thank you for forwarding your writings our way. Tavi also really enjoyed reading this. After she said, " Wow she is a really good writer! I really liked it!" Blessings and love to you and your family this Holiday time and into the New Year. Tavi says hi to Emma also!1 Love, Bonnie
This is beautiful, Susan. It struck home for me, too. I was so relieved this year when our 14-year-old woke up at 4am to sneak downstairs and open her stocking.
Dear Susan, Thanks for encapsulating the many layers & emotions that the holidays develop over the years. This year we did get a tree but only decorated it with lights. Not the boxes of varied stuff accumulated from different families & craft projects. We've had great gatherings with friends & I am amazed that Molly at 15 y.o. is still wiling to hang with family parties. I treasure these days when our very busy high schooler can sleep in, watch TV & just hang out with friends resting, growing & restoring herself for the new year.
A moving piece, Susan, as usual. Thanks for sharing it. Makes me aware of time passing... Yes, change can be hard, but it can be good too, I think. Anyway, I hope your family enjoys new year's eve--in all your various ways. (And don't worry, all the holidays past are INSIDE your girls!)
Thank you Susan. I am so glad I found you. You've said it all and it made me tear up as well. This Christmas has been very hard for me. My kids are not little any more--my son is 13, my daughter is 16. No more Santa, no more sneaking presents under the tree as if Santa left them, no more cookies by the fireplace. It's been a couple of years of no Santa, but this year it's really hit home. I hardly felt like decorating. Almost all the decorations came out (and I feel I'm the only one that even notices some of the stuff), but we put it all away just yesterday. Another xmas come and gone. At least I'm not the only one feeling like this. THANKS.
Dear Susan, Another beautiful column but this brings many memories of Christmas traditions at your home in New Jersey. How everyone was together for the big meal and then anxiously waiting for the time to go "downstairs" for the goodies!! It was so much fun, so good to be a "big family" when most of the year we were a small one. One of the memories that stands out as I relive those days was how you and David never got to talking until we were practically ready to head home, then the two of you wanted us to stay. I would give all that I have to see Bill, Mom and Dad and my Uncle Mass again, someday I will be with them, until then keep writing, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Love, Carol
I love the honesty of this piece, Susan, and it really helped me think about the way our family too has shed traditions. I had to confess to myself that I felt bereft on Christmas Eve night, when none of my children (ages 15, 21, and 26!!) wanted to listen to The Polar Express (how did this take them so long!) or to leave out the cookies and milk for Santa. Ach!! And yet, how wonderful to have them all home, and to be able to watch them open stockings at a relaxed 9:30 a.m. instead of the crazy early risings of their early childhood. I especially love your final image of the Bailey's Cream you enjoyed and shared with your mother and your husband.
I love the Roches--thank you for reminding me of them. Perhaps because I am known in my house for throwing things away, I am also not so sorry to see old traditions end and new ones begin. And someday, when it's time, your girls will create their own, in an ever widening gyre of ritual. It's okay to be wobbly, and even more okay to take a trip somewhere new. Thanks for the great column.
Thanks, Susan. I love keeping up with your family and your life in this way. I love you all. You are the best people. I, too like the honesty in your writing. It's going to be fun to watch the new rituals evolving in the coming years. Sorry I missed the Penguins. Maybe I'll get to see them next year?
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