by Katie Julius

I’m big on traditions. It could be because my parents established strong holiday traditions for us each year. It could be because I want my daughter to have memories of our holiday traditions that she can pass along to her children someday. However, while traditions are important, I’ve learned over the years that it’s okay to miss or change them–sometimes making the experience even better.

A Christmas Tree Catastrophe
Growing up, our family would trek to the Christmas tree lot in the parking lot of our local Home Depot and search for the perfect Christmas tree. My mom was particular about her tree. Once we found the perfect one, it was loaded onto the top of our car and we made our way carefully back home. My dad would then trim off the bottom of the trunk before securing it in the tree stand. We’d help hold it while mom made sure it was straight.

The lights, garland, angel tree topper, and golden bells around the bottom always went on first. Then each of us kids would dig into the boxes of ornaments my mom had been collecting each year since she was pregnant with us and begin decorating the tree. My childhood Christmas memories include daily trips under our tree with a pitcher of water, shooing the cat who was hiding under the tree out of the way and brushing fallen pine needles off my stomach when emerging, task complete.

I was in college when I came home one weekend to help decorate our tree. I opened the door to find a fake, pre-lit, plastic monstrosity where our beloved fresh tree had been each year before. I was in shock. How could this fake tree possibly replace a real tree and become part of our family traditions? While I still dutifully returned home each Christmas to help decorate, I remained slightly bitter about that fake tree; that is, until my first Christmas as a married woman.

My husband of three months and I ventured to our local tree lot to pick out our evergreen. He held up tree after tree as I tried to pick one that would rival the ones of my childhood. After we had paid what seemed like a lot of money for a tree that would sit in our house for only a few weeks, we tried getting it into our car to take home. But we didn’t have a station wagon or van like when we were kids. We had a four-door compact sedan that my husband didn’t want to scratch. How do you manage that, with the tree tied to the top? We somehow, finally, secured the tree and headed home; home to our second story apartment. The two of us carried the (very heavy) tree up the stairs, trimmed the trunk straight in our living room, and got the tree secured. I don’t even think we started decorating it that day. We were both exhausted, frustrated, and angry with each other as we had exchanged some not-so-kind words during this process. I joke now that if our young marriage survived that day, we can survive anything!

I was glad to finally get that tree out of our apartment after Christmas, vacuuming up the the last remnants of its fallen needles from the carpeted floor. When Christmas rolled around the next year, instead of driving to a tree lot, we drove to Costco and picked out a “fake, pre-lit, plastic monstrosity” that has stood in our living room for the last eight years. And I love it. The day after Thanksgiving our tree goes up in about ten minutes (including the lights) and our family first puts on the star tree topper, golden bells along the bottom, and the new ornaments selected for the year. On the night of December 30, it transforms into a “New Year” tree with colored crepe paper streamers, balloons, noisemakers, and party hats replacing the ornaments before it comes down for that year . . . without any vacuuming.

Christmas Cookie Changes
My mom loves to bake and is very talented in the kitchen. Somehow that gene didn’t get passed along to me, but once my daughter was born, I wanted to make sure that cookie baking became a part of our family traditions–if for no other reason than I enjoyed eating the cookies we made as kids. Each year, we plan a date with all the girls in our family and we gather at my mom’s house. We each pick a favorite type of cookie or two that we would like to make and bring the ingredients with us. At the end of the day, each family gets a large tray of assorted cookies to take home along with the memories from that day.

My daughter was only nine months old for her first Christmas, but she still came along and watched from her high chair and played with grandpa while we mixed, rolled, baked, and decorated. By her second Christmas, she was very interested in “helping.”

Unfortunately, the morning we were supposed to head to Grammie’s house to bake, our daughter was wheezing a bit and not her normal, outgoing self. Instead of packing up sugar and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, we were packing up a diaper bag as we drove to Urgent Care. After a long wait and a nebulizer breathing treatment that our screaming toddler fought for an hour, we knew we weren’t going to baking any cookies that day. Grammie still had us come over the following week when she was feeling better to make our cookies, but after just one year, we already missed our tradition!

Last year, we picked the date for our baking day when everyone could make it and like many years, it was the only date in all of December we were all free. However, God had other plans for us that day. We lost my dad to cancer just a week before Thanksgiving and since we were all available on December 16, the original date we had planned to make cookies, this was the date we chose for my dad’s memorial service.

Obviously, a much more important event than making cookies, it was a wonderful celebration of his life on earth, and fitting since he always crashed our cookie baking days anyway. He had one of the biggest sweet tooth I know! For those of us who could, we got together on a different day to make our cookies. While I’d like to be able to continue this family tradition with extended family, my brother and his little family moved out of state earlier this year and likely won’t be able to make it for our cookie baking days anymore. Those of us who are still here will carry on the tradition, even if it’s not quite the same.

Traditions any time of the year are an important part of every family, no matter how elaborate or simple they might be. They give us opportunities to create memories. They link us to our past. They connect us with each other. However, we should never be so tied to a tradition just for the sake of tradition. If it begins to cause conflict, let it go; allow space for new traditions to take its place. We should never feel bad or guilty if we miss a tradition, even one that’s deeply regarded. Life happens and while our kids may remember “that one year we didn’t,” the memories they have from every other year will be that much sweeter. And the memory of “that one year we didn’t” will also hold a special place in their heart–a reminder that there is a time for everything.

We at CHEA pray that you are able gather together this Christmas season to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior, savoring the traditions (and break from traditions) that are unique to your family.