Posted by: Sarah | December 21, 2009

Christmas Traditions

The word brings to mind Tevye the milkman:“Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as, as… as a fiddler on the roof.” This is said just before he launches into jaunty melody, pumping his fist heavenward. Yes, it’s ironic that I’m evoking a play about Jews in this Christmas musing, but hey, Jesus was Jewish so maybe it all makes sense.

Out of all the seasons of the year, this is probably the most woven with traditional threads of generations. Every family has their customary this or that. Some go to midnight mass and open presents in the candlelit hours that follow. Some wake before dawn when the air round the tree still feels crisp from Kringle’s snowy boots. Some read the Christmas story from the Bible’s book of Luke. Some read the poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Some holiday breakfasts are eaten, some brunches, instead. Whatever it is, there’s a good chance it’s a “tradition” and done the same way year upon year. Trust me, I understand. Traditions are wonderful things, all glittery and downy with memory.

Back home in Virginia, my family has its own set of traditions. One is that on Christmas Eve, we play Monopoly. I’m not sure when or how this started. We didn’t do it as children. It came about when we were older, teenagers, college kids home on break, married couples flown in from various cities. After Christmas Eve service, we come home, change out of our church clothes, and cozy up in pilled sweaters and sweatpants. Then we congregate by the tree and pick our player ornament from the branches. We’re free to pick any we wish, but for years mine’s been the same—tried and true, and guaranteed to stand up on the game board. She’s a little clay angel with a gold star in her hands. Once married, my husband’s panda bear joined the lineup. These are our token ornaments. Each of my family members picks one as a representative of themselves in that year’s game.

Round the board we sit, our pieces on ‘GO’, plates of rich foods nearby, drinks on hand, colored bills rainbow-ed across the table. We rarely finish the games. It’s not the winning or losing that matters so much as the doing—the tradition of being together, laughing, loving, remembering.

And while I cherish this and all our merry traditions, there comes a day in every family when traditions are broken. I hate using that turn of phrase, “broken,” as if the practice is forever shattered and destroyed. Lately, I’ve been mulling over this idea, mostly because of a couple significant changes this Christmas.

Let me pause here to explain that the term “creature of habit” is cross-stitched in my DNA. I like things to be as they always have. I love that we live in a world where the sun rises every morning and the moon every night. No hesitation or uncertainty. It simply is. I love that my dog Gatsby likes to sleep in his nook on the stairs and greets me each morning with a kitty-cat yawn. I love that my husband calls me on his drive home from work every day to chat his way over the Franklin Mountains. I love that when I go home to Virginia, the air smells exactly as I remember, like new dirt and rain and leaves. I love schedules and rituals and have quirky habits that my friends jokingly say are diagnosable. Surprises are not my cup of tea. Disorder and chaos, spontaneity and risk, change and the impromptu: I do not thrive on these things like some. They make me anxious. They break my traditions.

Though we live in a world where the changing of seasons is perpetual, humanity, by its nature, does not provide lasting stability. Life is transfiguring. We are in a continual flux of becoming better and worse than what we are at the moment. Our bodies grow strong and weak; our minds sharpen and dull; our souls celebrate and grieve. And thus, it’s logical that traditions made by changing men must change too.

I’ve witnessed the opposite—the consequences of not adapting. People who cling so desperately to their traditions that when those traditions are inevitably broken, they are broken. The customs become more meaningful than the human emotions which established them. Never is that more evident than at Christmastime when so much of the beloved practice—the buying of gifts, singing of songs, eating of foods, and participating in specified events in specified order—could very easily corrupt the soul. We forget what the holiday is really about. Our minds are too full of red bows and wreaths, star-topped trees and gingerbread houses, stockings and Santas. These festive rituals collect like dusty attic treasures, dear trinkets pulled out once year though we’ve long forgotten their original purpose.

This Christmas, my younger brother Jason will not be with us. He’s stationed in Iraq. Our Monopoly board will stay packed in the basement, our player ornaments hung on the tree. Change is inevitable. While I’ll miss him and our family game, I recognize that reinventing our traditions is equally meaningful. We’re going to Skype with him on Christmas Eve, laugh at his sandy Santa hat and Charlie Brown-sized tree and forget the miles that separate us. No, it won’t be the same, but I’m learning that sometimes you must let go of revered practices, open your mind and heart to new ones, in order to grow, in order to experience all the miracles of life, in order to believe that love exceeds all our human traditions. Isn’t that the real spirit of Christmas?

I pray you all have a marvelous week. Enjoy your old traditions, break a few, start some new, and most importantly, take a moment to appreciate all your blessings.

Yours truly, Sarah

P.S. I’m headed to Virginia where the snow has turned my family home into a true winter wonderland. I can’t wait to get there. I’ll post again after the holidays!



  1. i just finished your book “The time it snowed in puerto rico” and loved it so much i read it in a few days time. You mention working on another book; is it in print yet?

  2. Dear Cynthia,

    I’m thrilled you loved THE TIME IT SNOWED IN PUERTO RICO! My publisher (Shaye Areheart/Random House) has my second novel in hand. I promise to post an announcement as soon as I have its release date.

    Have a marvelous Christmas week!

    Yours truly, Sarah

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