For some, it brings happy memories of times spent with family. For others, it is triggers anxiety as they remember holidays gone wrong, family fights, the anniversary of the death of a loved one, and sometimes an overwhelming sense of loneliness if the close losses have accumulated for a variety of reasons.
Me? I’ve always loved the holidays. Growing up, Christmas was everything I ever wanted, even when the gifts under the tree were too small or the list was left incomplete. When I was really young, we hosted a few Thanksgivings, my parents’ small Detroit bungalow overflowing with grandparents and aunts and uncles. For Christmas we visited my grandparents’ farm in rural Michigan and when my paternal grandparents moved back to Ontario, we visited them in Toronto for at least one Christmas. When we lived in Wyoming, my mother’s aunts and uncles in the Denver area became our destination for Thanksgiving, and Christmas was spent with just our immediate family, except that last Christmas when we traveled all the way back to Michigan shortly after my maternal grandmother died, my mom’s need to be with family for her first Christmas without one parent trumping all logic that travel across the United States in December with six family members might be less than reasonable. But it was a good Christmas, and one that my parents needed, more than my sisters and I understood at the time.
Despite our family’s changing traditions with each move and change in life stage, I never fully comprehended the complicated nature of the holidays until I was dating my now-husband.
We met the summer before we both went off to college, discovering within a week of our high school graduation that we were actually high school classmates and that our parents lived less than half a mile away from each other. While many of my college friends struggled to decide which state they were going to celebrate Christmas in if they wanted to be with their significant others, I struggled with the constant push and pull of deciding where to spend the holidays when they were being celebrated literally minutes apart.
It never got easier, especially since we only lived an hour away from “home” during the first three years of our marriage. Moving to Indianapolis gave us the distance we needed to start making our own memories and traditions as we looked forward to what life would be like once we had kids.
During the years that we first lived in Indianapolis, holiday celebrations became times with friends. Thanksgiving and Easter dinners were held at our house or the houses of others as we enjoyed being young adults without children of our own, refusing to feel guilty for not spending part of our short holiday breaks to travel to visit parents and our own siblings. We created our own sense of family and community with the people we chose, not the people assigned to us at birth.
While moving two hours away from those friends when we left for Fort Wayne changed those traditions, we opened up our home to family and became the halfway point for my parents and sisters and occasionally my in-laws. During a five year dry-spell where friendships remained difficult to develop, we focused inward on our growing family, on our daughter and then our son as we created new traditions fused with visits “home” to Michigan when the timing was right.
And then our move to Texas changed everything. The move across the country and at least 1000 miles away from family in every direction meant that we didn’t have much of a choice in developing new traditions. Our second Thanksgiving in Texas my husband suggested that we take advantage of the warmer winters and go camping, and so Campsgiving was born. For five years we traveled all over Texas and one year to Louisiana, where we met my husband’s family for the only Thanksgiving we had all celebrated together since all four siblings moved out of the house. We spent our Thanksgivings cooking a full traditional dinner outside and our Black Fridays hiking and exploring the great outdoors. For the last three Christmas breaks we have attended Christmas Eve services between packing up our camper and preparing for a week of camping and exploring in the cold deserts of west Texas, visiting Davis Mountains, Big Bend, and Palo Duro Canyon, all beautiful locations which are intolerable in summer but risky to visit in the winter. We braved the temperature drops and potential snow each time and were rewarded with stunning views and perfect outdoor explorations. Those six years growing and bonding as our small family unit made surviving the upheaval of the last year possible, as it helped us develop foundational relationships with our children that we hope and pray will get us through the turmoil of adolescence and young adulthood.
And now we’ve moved back to the Midwest, less than 20 minutes from one sister, less than five hours from another, and less than four hours from both sets of parents. This year we weren’t ready to brave the cold to find a reasonably “close” and tolerable place for Campsgiving and we decided it was time to open up our new home and celebrate with family. We ended up with both sets of parents, two sisters and their families, which meant eleven children under the age of thirteen running around our house for two days. Our home was full and despite my still messy kitchen, it is the cleanest that it’s been since we moved in. After years of celebrating with parents and occasionally friends and a few other family members over our years of Campsgiving, our kids once again experienced a house full of family for the holidays and the chaos that comes with it. And it was good. Exhausting, but good.
This year signified just one more shift in how we celebrate the holidays. We haven’t been “home” to Michigan for a Christmas in seven years. This was the first year in seven years that I celebrated Thanksgiving with any of my sisters or my parents. While I don’t regret those years that we were away, I always admitted that it pained me to watch my family discuss their holiday plans, as I’m sure it pained my youngest sister who won’t make it home from Idaho this year. The holidays have always been a difficult balance for us, a careful act of trying to keep far too many people happy with every decision that we make, fully aware that we are going to disappoint someone. It is something that we have escaped for almost seven years by virtue of geography. But now we are returning to the dance, careful to not step on anyone’s toes while ensuring that the choreography is right for our immediate family unit. It isn’t easy, but we are determined to make it work.
Holiday traditions change because we change. Some of those changes are within our control and others are changes we have to learn to accept as changes that have nothing to do with us. While some of those changes can hurt us, when we find a way through those changes, we can continue to make the holidays are own, celebrations that capture where we are in a given moment, even if those moments are painful.
And so, as my favorite podcasters say, over the next month leading to the new year, may you have the best holidays available to you. May you have the courage and be given the grace to celebrate the holidays in the way that is best for your family, whatever that may look like.