One of my mother's favorite memories of Christmas was when she and my dad took me to my first Christmas Tree Lighting just short of my 2nd birthday. It was my first time seeing something so spectacular, and she says that looking at the lights and the beauty through the eyes of someone seeing it first time made her really realize what this whole parenting gig was all about.
But do you know what I remember from that first tree lighting? Nothing. Nada. My favorite "joy sparkers" for the holidays were things like the Noel train candle holders I'm sure were a "white elephant gift" and the stupid 10" porcelain geese dressed in red and green sweaters that we would set out every Christmas on top of the built in bookshelves. The way our first (and longest running) pet would climb onto the dining room table to sleep in the middle of the pinecone and red-ribbon wreath as she herself were the centerpiece of the Christmas table.
My first Christmas as a mom, I was so tired from recreating my favorite Christmas memories that I fell asleep trying to put a coat on my oldest who was at that point, 6 weeks old, as we attempted our own local tree lighting. In subsequent years (when we actually made it out the front door) they complained about being too cold, too hungry, the line to see Santa was too long. Not because our kids aren't amazing, but because THEY'RE KIDS. They're tiny humans with their own feelings, agendas and memories, and they don't care that I'M TRYING TO MAKE BEAUTIFUL MEMORIES FOR THEM, DAMMIT.
The best holiday memories and traditions aren't the ones you plan. They're spontaneous. They're often a bit ridiculous. They're about the people you are with and often what you are giving, not really what you are doing. They are the unplanned rituals, the things that can't be planned or scheduled. My favorites? Running amok during our Christmas Eve open house each year. Playing with the player piano at the tree farm where we bought our Christmas tree while my parents shopped for ornaments upstairs. The way the flour felt on my hands as I kneaded the dough with Grandma to make her special pecan rolls. Squinting across the room to see if the lights on the tree had been disbursed evenly (try it, it works!), and laughing about how it made my dad look like my grandpa when he did it. These are the things I remember most vividly about the holidays.
You know what doesn't determine my nostalgia for Christmas Time? Details. We had just as much fun, life was just as special whether we used fine china or paper plates for the family meals, and no matter if it was just us or the whole extended family. What we had for dinner on Christmas Eve didn't matter as much as if there were cookies to be eaten all Christmas day. What color the wrapping paper was or which kind of cookie we made were the details I'm sure seemed important then but don't make up the memories or traditions now.
As I head into my 7th Christmas as a parent, I aim to remember that I don't get to determine what my kids remember or the traditions they hold as important. We won't be able to do all of the things, and they surely won't be done perfectly, according to my own childhood memories, which have conveniently erased any of the hard work and chaos that often leads up to the Magical Moments.
My new strategy: I try to soak in the quick memories for myself. How our oldest lights up as he practices for his big line in the Kindergarten Christmas Play. How our middle child loves to take time wrapping presents for others. And how our youngest will take off every ornament he get his hands on, and put them UNDER the tree, like little gifts for us to find later. These are the things will turn into their traditions, without my guidance or planning or effort.
So whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, or Festivus, as you head into the holiday season I urge you to *watch* as traditions are established, rather than expect to continue or even establish them anew. The beautiful memories happen without us trying, anyway. Do the things that only bring and spread joy, let the obligation and demand of past traditions go, and you too will create memories of your own, as your babies (of all ages!) discover the beauty of this season and their own important traditions.