With the passing of Halloween, the holidays are upon us. I have struggled over the last few years with feelings of nostalgia and sadness starting with Thanksgiving and continuing, especially, through Christmas.
You see, in our family, we had strong traditions that defined the holidays for us. Being in the military, our Thanksgiving table was always populated with the four of us and others that didn’t have any family nearby or place to go. The menu was the same every year – turkey with cornbread stuffing (baked in the pan because you know a turkey doesn’t have room for enough!), mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, cranberry sauce, corn casserole, that awful green bean casserole (you know the one, with French’s crispy onions on top :)), rolls, relish trays, pumpkin pies, etc, etc, etc. We had to go around the table, telling everyone what we were most thankful for, ate waaaaay too much and “watched” football while trying not to show some of us were napping at the same time.
Christmas was an even bigger deal. House decorating began the day after Thanksgiving. (No stinking’ Black Friday shopping here!) I decorated every public room in the house, to include the powder room. And hubby was responsible for the outside lighting. On cold years, he would try to get the lights up before Thanksgiving (no fear, not to be turned on until the day AFTER Thanksgiving!)
Choosing the tree was always an all day affair. The four of us would traipse from Christmas tree lot to Christmas tree lot, searching for the perfectly shaped and sized tree to decorate. Once all four of us finally decided on one, off we’d go home to pull out the tree ornaments. Every ornament in our box has a story behind it and we had a lot of fun retelling each and every story as each ornament was hung and re-hung. Remember decorating with little children? The ornaments would always be bunched up down low in one spot and would have to be redistributed when we were done.
Christmas Eve would be a simple supper, then bundled up into the car to drive around the neighborhood, looking at all the lights. One year, our youngest (he was about 4 at the time) saw “Santa Claus” in the garage of someone’s house. It was so funny, he hurried into the floorboard of the front seat (this was before seat belts and car seats were mandatory!) and said “We have to go home and get to bed or Santa won’t stop at our house!”
We didn’t indulge our boys with many toys or treats during the year but, come Christmas, we did because we could, I guess. When the children were younger, the day usually began around 5:00 am. After the coffee was on and we had our eyes mostly open, the kids were allowed to come in and the present unwrapping began. The rule was that only one person could open a gift at a time, so sometimes our unwrapping lasted until noon!
Then, every year, we had home-baked cinnamon rolls and fresh squeezed orange juice made from the oranges one set of grandparents sent from Florida as a family present. This sufficed for breakfast and held us over until I loaded the table with the hors d’oeuvres buffet that became our tradition after I finally realized that I was spending the whole day cooking a meal that no one really ate, thanks to all the candy that Santa stuffed in our stockings! Then, Christmas night meant open house for pie and coffee with whatever neighbors happened to drop by.
Anyway, the traditions continued in the same manner every year, even when the boys were teenagers and to this day when they can come home with their wives. But they all live in Oregon and we live in Colorado, so most years it’s just me and the hubby around the holidays. And, IT’S NOT THE SAME! And since the possibilty of grandchildren any time in the near or distant future is slim to none, I don’t expect it will EVER be the same again. So, a couple of years ago, I decided that since it wasn’t the same, we wouldn’t do any of the holiday stuff (you know it’s a lot of WORK) and treat Thanksgiving and Christmas days as just another day.
BIG MISTAKE! Did you see that coming?
We were usually invited somewhere for Thanksgiving dinner, so the impact on that holiday wasn’t to hard to take, especially since there were usually leftovers to take home with us. But Christmas was another story. For the record, my husband loves to give gifts! And he’s really pretty good at listening for clues and picking out personal gifts that hit the mark just right. Since I had also decided that we wouldn’t “waste money” on gifts we didn’t really need, he was like a poor fish out of water!
Fast forward to this year and my pledge to examine every aspect of my life for the “third act.” I did a bit of research and learned about nostalgia. Nostalgia is defined as a sentimental longing for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations. Originally, this was determined to be an actual physical ailment observed in soldiers away from home for the first time. By the mid 1800s, however, this “homesickness” came to be classified as an emotional condition and interest in it as a physical ailment declined although soldiers in wars as late at WWII were still being diagnosed with nostalgia. Now days, nostalgia is identified as something that can be triggered by a feeling or experience from one’s past and can invoke a positive or negative feeling.
Generally, nostalgia can hit a person any time there is a major change in their lives. It can be a positive experience by giving you a sense of self-worth. But holidays are notorious for causing people to feel nostalgic in a negative way, probably because of the sheer amount of emotion that is connected with holidays. Traditions give us a sense of who we are and remind us that someone loves us. We make our lives increasingly apart from extended families, the children grow up, we grow older, divorce happens – events that leave us yearning for what used to be. Many people begin to have grandchildren at this point in their lives and are able to begin new traditions. But what about the rest of us?
So the big question becomes “How can I be part of the holidays in a new way?” There’s lots of advice on the internet on how to do this. Some say shift your perspective. Not “there’s no one to cook for” but “We can do a simple meal, with simple cleanup.” There’s the “Consider new possiblities” viewpoint. Not “the children are gone” but “the children aren’t here, we can do anything we want!” And the “Give Back” movement that turns your focus outward to helping those with less.
But I’ve decided that, for me, it means bringing back some of the traditions of the past and doing new things with the hubby that will become our new traditions for this next act of our lives. This years’ Thanksgiving was again full of food and friends. Mom’s sweet potato casserole and Aunt Jo’s corn casserole were on the table. (the green bean casserole, though, was conspicuously absent!) Yes, it was a lot of work, but it was worth it to make the holiday more than just another day. And the Christmas decorations have made their appearance again, inside and out. I will be shopping for him, just to have a few small things wrapped and under the tree. Come Christmas day, we’ll sleep in but we will have our rolls and juice and then I think we’ll go to a movie.
I’m going to bring back the joy of the holiday this year and all the ones to come because I’m not dead yet and joyous events are part of a life well lived.
What about you? How have your traditions changed as you’ve gotten older?