“Christmas cards?’ scoffed my friend when I told her I wasn’t sending any this season. “I haven’t done them in years. They end up in the trash anyway.”
This conversation transpired in her kitchen, as we commiserated about all that we needed to get done in the mad rush of the season. Since then I’ve felt guilty about closing down this tradition, guilty that I had somehow raised a white flag in the frenzy. Besides, I enjoy getting cards myself. Especially welcome are the holiday letters packed with the comings and goings of friends. Some are hilarious, others touchingly thoughtful, and I so look forward to reading them. To not reciprocate seems … I don’t know, selfish? Lazy? Or … or … practical?
Tis the season of traditions, of comforting rituals that remind us of halcyon childhoods and cherished loved ones, so my decision to stop the decades-old practice got me thinking about family customs. This, after all, is the time of year when we make a concerted effort to bond and bound or, at the very least, to like each other.
Without traditions, the holiday would feel less like a time for peace and goodwill and more like one gigantic sale. Not that it hasn’t become that anyway.
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Tossing out the tedious duty of Christmas cards is not the only tradition I’ve abandoned, but it’s certainly one of the few forsaken in my effort to prioritize what is important and what is superfluous. As some customs have fallen by the wayside, victim to geography and lack of energy, others have arrived to replace them, a sign that, as social beings, we still long for connection.
When my children were young, Los Tres Reyes Magos always left them a book on Jan. 6, Three Kings’ Day. It was a way of incorporating my love of reading with a cultural custom from childhood. But with jobs and families of their own, my kids are no longer around to receive these tokens. So I adjusted: Now each grandchild opens a book on Christmas Day at Abuela’s house instead. For me, an inveterate reader who hopes to pass on this passion, spotting little faces scrunched up in wonder of the written word has become a highlight of the holidays.
Traditions, I discovered, are malleable and the ones that survive technology and distance are those that adapt to changing times. This is especially true after marriage, when old customs blend and new ones are shaped and established. My daughters-in-law dress their girls in fancy outfits for an annual portrait: ruffled shirts, lacy dresses, hair bows that demand their own Zip code. It never occurred to me to do this with my five.
Some traditions remain stalwart practices. Every December, as predictable as the tides, my neighbor whips out a secret family recipe and bakes his famous Riley Family cookies. Other traditions, though, are destined to a short lifespan. A relative used to dress the entire family in Christmas-themed shirts she spent long nights sewing. Not surprisingly, that practice lasted only a few years. By the time her daughter hit puberty, coordinated outfits were considered embarrassing. Too bad, because embarrassment tends to make for hilarious reminiscences.
Crafted over time and burnished with meaning, traditions are baked in hot kitchens, stitched in Santa Claus-inspired fabric, and written in the pages of books lovingly chosen by a grandmother. They form the layers that give heft and shine to our lives.
In the case of Christmas cards, however, not so much.