Eight years ago, my husband and I met my parents and my brother and his now-husband at The Culinary Institute of America (C.I.A.) for the start of a new Christmas tradition. We recognized that as our family dispersed from our home state of New Jersey, it had become harder and harder to hold onto the holidays as we’d always known them. Even though we don’t share the same beliefs about Christmas, we wanted to make time and space for each other during the hectic holiday season. For us, the seasonal dinner became the new tradition that drew us together even as our lives moved in different directions. My parents said they couldn’t imagine leaving New Jersey, the state where they’d been born, raised, and then raised their own family. My brother and I, however, couldn’t imagine staying, and neither of us has lived full-time in New Jersey for about two decades now. No offense to the Garden State. It’s still got my favorite beaches in the world, not to mention the best bagels and pizza. Seriously: our bagels are real bagels.
Of course, I missed more than the bagels. And for years, I went back regularly, especially when my parents still lived there, along with lots of old friends, my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But time changes families, and it changes family traditions, too. As one generation grows up, the branches on the family tree stretch in new directions. All of my grandparents are gone now. Family members who’d lived in New Jersey for decades moved for retirement and warm climates and the needs of their own growing families. Friends’ families followed the same patterns. We all scattered.
It’s not a religious event, per se, but it buoys my spirit to love and be loved, to place myself within a tradition of ever-present love.And as we scattered, the locations and makeups of family events shifted. For most of my childhood, my parents’ house was the center of our family’s Christmas. Both sides—and, really, I didn’t understand “sides” of a family for a long time growing up—descended on our house in the early afternoon. The rest of the day maintained a revolving door and a steady hum of talk and laughter as guests streamed in and out for the day. My Nana used to spend the night, and I’d put candy and love notes under her pillow to pretend she was staying in a hotel instead of my room. She died nearly 12 years ago, and it’s been much longer since we played that game.
I miss her and her chocolate chip cookies and her uncanny ability to guess the puzzles on Wheel of Fortune. She never met either of my children. Only one of my grandparents ever met my children or saw my first home. Really, things started changing before that dinner eight years ago. I guess if I look at Christmas through a longer perspective, not just of my own life but through my lineage, it’s been changing for a while. Maybe therein lies the truth—that families are always changing incrementally, but we can’t see it until the big shifts occur. Maybe traditions carry so much weight for so many of us because they serve as our ballast in a sea of change that is life and time.
We started the tradition of a family dinner for Christmas to prioritize togetherness. My brother and I, both partnered off, divide our obligations because we now belong to two families. I didn’t know it at that dinner eight years ago, but I found out about my first pregnancy shortly afterward. Since then, my husband and I have added two children to our family, and my parents have left New Jersey to be closer to my brother and me. None of us could know that future as we sat around the table, slowly savoring a multi-course menu over several hours. Our tradition began as it has continued, with an emphasis on leisure and lingering. In the midst of a busy holiday season, we make the time to be present with each other for one luxurious meal.
This is a splurge meal for my husband and me, something we anticipate for weeks in advance. All of us agreed to the meal in lieu of gifts for each other, because it gets too hard to exchange presents as the years go by. We don’t need more stuff, but we appreciate that each family present sets aside the time for a sit-down meal. The cost is a precious weekend evening in the midst of a packed holiday calendar. It’s worth it. As the years have passed, we’ve committed to our new tradition. As the years have passed, it’s become less of a new tradition and more just, well, our tradition. We’ve only repeated restaurants once, and for a few years when my children were very little, we met at my house and ordered fancy takeout. We didn’t want to subject the little ones, or the unsuspecting patrons of a nice restaurant, to children who’d struggle through a long, sit-down meal. Always the tradition changes even as it stays the same.
My girls still don’t have the stamina to make it through a meal at the C.I.A., though we’re trying to train them to appreciate such experiences. In the last couple of years, we’ve roamed the Hudson Valley, feeling thankful for the abundance of amazing restaurants in the area and grateful for the chance to share these events with the people I love most. We’ve visited establishments in my neighborhood and in my brother’s and places in between. We cross the Hudson, sharing some of our favorite places and discovering new favorites together. It’s not the tradition of my childhood, but the tradition of my children’s childhood.
I can’t say what will follow. The purpose of tradition is not predicting the future but anchoring us in the present through the past. It’s an act of remembrance that asserts the value of what we’re doing and whom we’re sharing our lives with. The way we celebrate Christmas has changed, with some generations and some practices passing away. They are gone, but not forgotten; their influence and warmth direct the traditions that we establish moving forward, ever changing. My grandparents didn’t get a chance to know my children, but my children can know my grandparents through the stories and the love that my family and I pass on. My parents’ house was never really the center of Christmas, though it felt that way to me as a child. The center is love. It has always been love. It will always be love.
I have felt, for most of my adult life, a responsibility to the elder generations of my family to live in the faith that rooted and established them in love. My husband, children, and I are the only practicing Christians at this annual feast. We are the ones who invite the others to see the girls in our church’s Christmas Eve pageant. We are the ones who profess that the love at the heart of Christmas is embodied in Emmanuel. The beauty inherent in the Nativity story is that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again; we worship in a cycle that recognizes this most central mystery of our faith, and as we circle back to Advent and Christmas in each liturgical calendar, we remember God’s relational commitment to us: Christ is coming! Christ has already come. Christ will come again.
My understanding of Christmas has changed over the years. On those bustling days in my parents’ house, I was mostly in it for the presents. Also the cookies. Always the cookies. As I’ve matured in my faith and borne children of my own, I appreciate more of the vulnerability of the Christ child. I realize he submitted to diapers for my sake. I wonder at the faith and courage of Mary, the steadfast presence of Joseph (who never seems to get enough credit). For God and each of the actors He called forth in this Christmas spectacle, the story is fundamentally relational and the message never changes: God is with us.
That sense of presence, of being there, is the pulse of the Christmas story and the lifeblood of my Christian witness. When my family members set aside an evening for us, for the sake of being together, it is an act of valuing each other, an act of love. We met up this year in early December, gathering early around the table to accommodate my girls’ bedtime. By the end of the evening, my elder daughter had tried (and disliked) calamari. The little one wouldn’t touch it. We’d passed around bites of our entrées and shared a few desserts. My younger daughter maintained her chocoholic reputation and moved from her daddy’s lap to access her share of the spoils more easily. As we divided the bill, my elder daughter rested on my shoulder and my younger climbed back into her father’s arms. We were all quieter, satisfied by food and company.
Each year, this tradition is one of the most fulfilling of all the Christmas events that we inscribe on our calendar. It is joyful and hopeful, a kind of reassurance for all of us that love still binds us together in spite of our differences and our distances and our directions. It’s not a religious event, per se, but it buoys my spirit to love and be loved, to place myself within a tradition of ever-present love. I can look back on these meals and treasure their warmth. I can look forward to next year’s and anticipate its fulfillment. I might bring to the table a greater sense of Christmas as Christ’s mass than most of the people in my family, but our tradition emphasizes that we are all of us people of sacred worth. I see God as ever-present in my family’s dinners because He asks me to be His hands and feet. I extend myself in love, anchored by the love of my family and the love of Christ. He has always been there. He always will be.