This essay originally appeared in our monthly newsletter for The Mom Hour podcast. To get our emails, subscribe here. –Meagan
My oldest son Jacob just turned 21, which means that this year will mark my 22nd Christmas as a mom. I remember Jacob’s first Christmas well: though he was just a month old, I took my role as “mom at holiday time” seriously, carefully decorating our little apartment with gold bows, white lights, a 3’ hand-me-down artificial tree, and a small array of ornaments and decorations, also handed down or given to us as wedding gifts. Jacob watched contentedly from his swing as I buzzed around the apartment, doing my twenty-year-old best to make the season merry and bright.
Growing up, I always loved the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas better than any other part of the year. Most of the year my mom was busy, distracted, and often depressed; but before Christmas, things seemed to shift. She seemed energized by the season, and after the last little one was picked up from the in-home daycare she ran during the day, she’d shift enthusiastically into decorating, baking, and ornament-making, with Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby crooning in the background. We got out the “good” linens and dishes for Christmas Dinner, which felt special even as the cloth napkins, in shades of 70s rust and avocado green, grew undeniably dated. Our holidays were never over-the-top, but I remember them as some of the happiest moments of my childhood.
Looking back, I think there was another reason I was so attached to the holidays: they were predictable. My parents separated when I was five, and there was a fair amount of upheaval in the ensuing years, as my dad moved a day’s drive away and both parents remarried – and re-divorced – by the time I was 10.
But in the midst of all that change, the holidays remained more or less the same. I always spent Christmas Eve and Day at home with my mom, and usually with most of my siblings. We were always allowed to open one gift on Christmas Eve, and saved the rest for the morning. We always went to the same church for the Christmas Eve services, and the services always ended with the congregation singing “Silent Night” while passing a flame through the pews with white candles with cardboard guards to keep the wax from dripping on the holder’s hands. Even the candles were the same, growing shorter from year to year. In our house, Mom filled the stockings, and Santa always left his gifts wrapped in red and green tissue paper to differentiate from the other gifts. And we always, ALWAYS, got Hershey’s Kisses and those sugar-crunchy, stick-to-your-teeth gummy spearmint leaf candies in our stockings.
I suppose it’s no wonder that, as an adult, I wanted to preserve that continuity – both for myself, and to create the peaceful, secure feeling that rhythms and traditions can pass on to kids. And so, for twenty-two years, our Christmases have looked very much the same. They were neither exact replicas of my Christmases growing up, nor replicas of my ex-husband’s; but a sort of amalgam of both with a few inventions of our own thrown in. But they were ours, and considering all the changes our family went through – new babies, new jobs, new towns – they remained remarkably the same.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of change. How I’m a person who both embraces and pursues change – new work, new challenges, new scenery – and resists it, too, particularly when the status quo brings me some comfort, or represents something bigger that I’m not quite ready to give up yet.
In reality, though, things always change. Sure, in my imperfect memory, those growing-up Christmases were all exactly the same…until I start poking holes in my recollections. There was the year someone got sick (was it me?) and we missed Christmas Eve services. There was the year my older brother joined the Army and couldn’t come home; there was the year my older sister was…elsewhere, I guess, doing what young adults do. Certainly my mom didn’t make new ornaments every single year; I just remember the years she did and retroactively apply that memory to All The Years. And those special, cloth-napkins-and-white-tablecloth dinners may only have happened a handful of times, after all.
Even if those Christmases had been exact, cookie-cutter replicas of one another, year after year after year, it was still a finite period of time in my life, and represented just one chunk of many in my mother’s. And so will it be with me. Divorce or no divorce, kids stop believing in magic the same way they did, and sooner or later, they all grow up. The holidays as a mom-of-littles were incredibly fun and satisfying, but represent just one chunk of the holidays I’ll experience while on this earth. And I want to find magic and satisfaction in all of them.
This holiday marks my third since my ex-husband and I decided to separate, and from the outside looking in, you’d hardly be able to tell the last two Christmases from the ones that came before. But while I think it’s been comforting for us all to transition gently out of the way “things used to be,” it wouldn’t be good for any of us – least of all me – to keep doggedly trying to replicate holidays from the past. Sometimes, we hang on to things because we aren’t ready to let them go yet, but at some point, the hanging-on takes energy away from creating something new, merry and magical in its own right.
Changing doesn’t always mean having to do something new. Sometimes it just means letting go and allowing change to happen around you (it always will, if you let it). Sometimes simply choosing not to do something can leave space for a new experience to fill its place. And sometimes, it’s a matter of proactively filling your time with something new and different so the lack of the old and familiar isn’t so keenly felt.
Even if your little ones are still in the throes of little-ness, maybe there’s something you’re holding on to that no longer serves you and your family. A commitment that’s turned into more obligation than joy? A tradition that’s stressful, not that fun, or just doesn’t fit anymore? Maybe it’s a long-standing resentment or expectation that’s no longer serving you?
While you’re working your holiday Mom magic this year, I hope you keep in mind that, as the keeper of that magic, you are allowed to change things as needed. As hard as it can be to remember when every decision you make (and cookie you bake) feels so fraught with importance, this holiday is just one of many both you and your children will experience in your lives. And your children, looking back through the hazy glow of nostalgia, will remember how you made them feel more than they’ll recall where you moved the Elf today or whether you make cookies from scratch, from a box, or not at all.