My daughter Emily was 11 when her seven-year-old brother Julian broke the news that Santa Claus isn’t real. It was a week before Christmas, and we were at the dinner table. In the living room, an eight-foot Fraser r stood covered in lights and ornaments we had collected over the years. Under it, a stack of neatly wrapped presents were waiting to be torn open, while nearby empty stockings dangled from a garland-covered mantle. An Advent calendar was stuck to a wall, and dozens of candy canes hung from doorknobs and drawer handles. Our traditions were all in place. My son’s announcement had rendered his sister speechless, but her eyes communicated volumes. When the reality finally sunk in, Emily bolted from the table and ran into her room. Julian just sat quietly, eating his macaroni and cheese with the satisfying grin of a frog digesting a fly.
A couple of years later, life for our family became a long series of sucker punches to the gut. There was a mid-life crisis, a divorce, a death, financial hardships, and mental health issues. The kids and I moved five times in five years and more than once had to leave a grocery store empty-handed because my credit card was declined. Looking back on those tough years, I realize it was our traditions that kept us sane. No matter where we were living or how low the bank balance, we never abandoned our family rituals: long walks in the mountains on Saturdays and popcorn and movies on Sunday afternoons. Lunch boxes lled with hummus wraps, baby carrots, and encouraging notes. Nightly dinners at the table with Diana Krall or Glen Miller or sometimes Men at Work quietly playing on the stereo in the background. A Christmas tree decorated with the same old ornaments and the same ragged stockings taped to a wall when there was no replace to be found. These are the things that grounded us during those years. The traditions that convinced us everything was okay.
As this Christmas approaches, those bleak years seem like a lifetime ago. My daughter is now a college graduate, and, despite having moved to the other side of the country, will y home to
spend Christmas with her nineteen-year-old brother and her dad, who always seems a little bit tipsy—sometimes a little less “little,” sometimes a little more. We’ll decorate a tree, hang up our stockings, eat mountains of pasta, and watch Love Actually at least three times. We’ll wake up early on Christmas morning and take turns digging into our stockings. Then we’ll eat French toast, and I’ll start in on the mimosas. After breakfast, we’ll open the presents from under the tree, some of which will be labeled “To Emily, From Santa.” Of course, Emily will know who these gifts are really from, but she’ll open them with the same sense of wonder and magic she’s had since she was a little girl. It’s just what we do. It’s tradition.