This post is by Sarah Powers, Happiest Mom contributor and Managing Editor, and blogger at Powers of Mine.
I can hear it. Can you? That little voice that begins with a whisper just after Thanksgiving dinner every year.
This is the year, it says. This year, you’re going to get it together for the holidays. This year the decorations will be up by December 1st, and all the gifts bought and wrapped – from locally-owned Etsy shops, of course – by the 15th. This is the year you’ll nail it – creating a season filled with the perfect balance of anticipation, wonder, spirituality, and altruism. But also simple and frugal and scaled-back! Don’t forget those. You can do it. Probably. Maybe…
There’s a part of the voice that means well, I think. When several weeks remain before the end of the year, the season does feel full of promise. I do, in fact, wish to be a little more intentional each year, find my groove as a mom-in-charge-of-the-holidays, and deliver to my family an experience that is both fun and also consistent with our values. So that part of the voice that challenges me, that acts as a motivator and cheerleader, is okay.
But in that whisper that only I can hear is something less uplifting, and more poisonous: pressure.
Pressure to create a holiday season worthy of these kids of mine who morph into new people as fast as they outgrow their Christmas pajamas. Pressure to make it meaningful to them, something they’ll remember, a foundational image with soft edges and bokeh lights that they draw upon years from now when they look back on their childhood. Pressure to do things that make their eyes sparkle with the wonder of a thousand Santas (and then capture those starry eyes and share on Instagram, naturally).
Pressure to orchestrate experience, to manufacture memories, to create tradition.
Tradition. (Tradition! do you not hear Fiddler on the Roof? No? Just me?) Traditions are a holiday staple, we’re told. Kids need them. And as all-powerful moms it’s our job to curate them, passing on those from generations past and developing new ones that will be passed along to future grandchildren. In the lead-up to the holiday season “be intentional about family traditions” somehow gets added to the same checklist as “buy teacher gifts” and “find replacement bulbs for tree lights”.
But here’s the thing about traditions. By their very definition they evolve over time, softened and well-worn by repetition and adaptation. They aren’t launched with fanfare, shiny-new and thoroughly tested, like an ad campaign or a themed cruise ship voyage. Traditions don’t begin by looking forward into the future; they become, and only after looking back and realizing that the way we do things has become The Way We Do Things.
I have a hard time picturing our foremothers in a time before Pinterest and parenting experts sitting down with their sewing circle and remarking, “You know what we should do? We should start Christmas traditions for our families.” I’d like to imagine that they just did what they knew: Made the same dishes every year because the ingredients were available and the recipes memorized; followed the same rituals their grandmothers had because the internet didn’t exist to tell them anyone did it any differently anywhere else; let the calendar and the season and the weather and the rhythm of their families lead them into a familiar annual experience that shifted imperceptibly over time and generations without anyone ever having to put a label on it.
I sort of doubt that these mothers who came before us set out to “be intentional” about their holiday traditions. My guess is that they did the best they knew with what they had and began it all over again the next year.
I know that my own most treasured Christmas traditions happened this way, organically over time. For a period of several years when I was a kid a friend of my mom’s gave our family a beautifully illustrated Christmas story as a gift every year and my mom read it to us on the night we decorated the tree. I don’t think it was until we were much older – capable of reading to ourselves and surrounded by many books to choose from – that we stopped and thought “hey, I love how we read a new Christmas story on this same night every year.”
Intentionality is a mindset, not a checklist. I feel drawn to the children’s section of the bookstore every year in anticipation of finding a new storybook to grow my own little family’s library because the pull of that memory is warm and familiar – not because I feel obligated to carry on the tradition. And more important to me than whether my kids recognize or remember this particular ritual is the way that it makes me feel in practice: connected to my childhood, connected to my children, connected to this season and those before and yet to be.
So when I start to hear that little voice tell me I’m not doing enough to make the season memorable for my kids, here’s what I say in reply:
Shhhhhhh. I’m watching to see what happens. Where the push and pull of December takes us. I’m witness to the magic, not the sole provider of it. Traditions are important, yes, and they are happening without my puppeteering them. They’re happening in the way I always put Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” first on every playlist, and in the way we talk about listening to Dylan Thomas’s recording of “A Child’s Christmas in Whales” but never actually do it. They’re being born of last year’s new experiences that we feel called to repeat because we want to, not because we ought to. Traditions are happening, and I am going to sit back and let them happen.