Creating and adhering to family traditions has been significant to our life as parents. Joe and I both are people who treasure tradition, so it came naturally to us to anchor our family holiday celebrations in meaningful practices. The word “tradition” seems synonymous with “unchanging,” but as I look back I see that our customs have evolved with the children’s ages. We no longer take a drive as family to look at holiday lights in surrounding neighborhoods as we did for many years, for example, and we long ago ceased to create a December calendar of events to mark the countdown to Christmas; the Advent wreath alone now suffices. Those changes happened rather naturally, almost without notice, but now we have reached the time when our children’s lives are becoming increasingly independent, and the question of how to handle traditions must be addressed more deliberately.
Such an instance occurred for us this Christmas because Kieran, our daughter, took advantage of a wonderful opportunity by joining a group from her university in a service trip to Lesotho, South Africa. She departed Dec. 14, returns Jan. 5, and resumes classes on Jan. 7. Christian, the youngest, and I joked for weeks about “Who is going to put up the Christmas trees without Kieran here?” but as Advent came to a close, the question took on real urgency. For quite a few years, we have put up two trees, one upstairs and one down, a habit that began because we have a lot of ornaments and had unexpectedly acquired a second artificial tree; it continued because we enjoy the cheerfulness of a decorated tree in both family gathering spaces. Kieran typically assembles one or both trees and assists with putting on lights, the most time consuming parts of the project. Finally one night when Joe and I and both boys were all together for dinner, I broached the subject in a serious manner. Shall we put up both trees? If only one, should it be up or down? The consensus to set up a single tree upstairs, where we entertain on Christmas Eve and adjacent to where we eat our meals, was easily established. There was something very freeing about this choice. Why had it seemed so complicated? I think the idea of cutting out a tradition initially feels like a loss and generates fears of a diminished future, but my experience here indicates that it’s possible to have continuity of meaning without absolute conformity of practice. Putting up the one tree, we went through our full collection of ornaments and selected the ones we wanted. A significant number were purchased on various trips or outings and elicited the usual fond reminiscences; considering them all together was a powerful evocation of our shared history. And hanging up ornaments made or chosen by Kieran or given in her honor seemed to bring her close in spirit. I am reminded of the wise words of St. Angela Merici: “If according to times and needs you should be obliged to make fresh rules and change certain things, do it with prudence and good advice.”