Once upon a time ...
In practically a previous lifetime I spent 17 Christmas Eves at the home of my ex-husband's parents. From 1966 to 1983. At the last one I already knew I wanted to end my marriage but thought it was too cruel to say so in December of the year. Since then I've learned that most people who decide to leave don't let December control what they're going to say and do. In 1983 I still had a lot to learn.
The feature of Christmas Eve for 17 years was a dinner in which no red meat was served. My Italian mother-in-law cooked fried smelts, octopus, stuffed squid, pasta, gravy (tomato sauce in other's terminology), pizza (I can still smell the pizza when I think about it), stuffed pizza, pizzelles (spelling?). All the immediate relatives came. Their children and grandchildren. It was a big thing for the family. Very important to show up. Some cousins and aunts and uncles came too. The kids ate in the kitchen and the adults ate in the dining room. The food was good and you were good and even better in the eyes of my mother-in-law if you ate seconds and thirds. Then you'd have made my mother-in-law so happy!
After the dinner everyone would gather in a room, usually in the cellar where the Christmas tree was. The decorated tree would be up all year in the basement, covered by a sheet. All it needed to be ready for Christmas was to take the sheet off.
Everyone would go to the basement and then someone would pass the presents out that had been under the tree. The most fun was to watch the kids open their presents. I'd take pictures of the kids unwrapping their presents and holding them up with excitement. At some point, earlier or later, each family would stand together in front of the fireplace in the dining/living room and have their family picture taken. The parents with their children. The grandparents with the grandchildren. I have a series of these pictures with the children getting bigger each year and the adults getting older and older. Until I wasn't there any more.
My then-husband used to worry that the recipes for the food cooked that night would be lost if he didn't learn to cook the way that his mother did. He wanted there to be a tradition that would continue past the deaths of his parents. That was long ago when I knew them all. I had heard that he has had the Christmas Eve get-togethers at his house now. That his parents would come and his sister's family and his brother. Now both of his parents have died. I am sure he would want to continue a family get-together but times sure have changed.
With this blowup between my daughter and her stepmother and father, I am guessing that for the first time in 39 years my daughter might not attend the Christmas Eve dinner. (Although I don't know for sure whether she has gone to them all for the last ten years.) This may be the first time in 39 years that my ex-husband doesn't have his daughter there. His wife is Jewish and has a son, a daughter-in-law, and grandchildren. I don't know if my ex's family Christmas Eve tradition is important to them too. The tradition certainly won't be the same without my daughter there. It was about family and the importance of family being together. Will my ex's brother and sister and their children still go too?
This must be hard on my ex and my daughter although I don't know what they are really feeling. They may each feel things that would surprise me if I knew. It was a great tradition that I enjoyed when I was part of the family. Tradition though seems to be kept easiest by those who are closest to its origins. The intention of the tradition was to celebrate love and family strength as well as acknowledge the importance of Christmas. It was more about the family than about religion. Then over time, bit by bit, the family changed. My sister-in-law left her husband. The brother of one of my in-laws was left by his wife. I left my husband. People died. People remarried. My daughter has estranged herself from her stepmother. The Christmas Eve tradition? What remains of it? Perhaps it continues in a new form?
I wish them all well, my daughter, my ex, his wife, his brother and sister, the nieces, nephews, the stepchildren, the stepgrandchildren, the second cousins, those who are left of the aunts and the uncles. I hope that life is treating them well. I wish that the picture that I have in my mind of those long ago Christmas Eve dinners resembled the Christmas Eve of 2005 but I know it can't. I hope that the new Christmas Eve that has replaced it has joy in it for each of the people in the family that I once knew, no matter where each of them experiences it or with whom.
Christmas means different things to different people. For me it means being kind to whomever is in my life, friends or strangers. I don't like the commercialism of Christmas and I am not religious. But for me the story and the spirit of Christmas lies in love and kindness. In the story of the birth of Jesus there were people who were kind to Mary and Joseph and the baby even though they didn't know them. They weren't family, yet they were given shelter. Wise men traveled from afar to bring gifts to an infant. People were kind.
It doesn't matter to me where I am on Christmas Eve or Christmas. I can find peace wherever I am. I can be kind to someone anywhere. One person targeted for kindness is my husband. He loves to eat and he loves it when I cook. I am going to cook a favorite recipe for us on Christmas. For gifts I am going to make a contribution to a charity or several charities. People I don't know will receive my gifts. That makes me feel good. That someone somewhere will benefit from something I did. I don't have to know them. They don't have to be family. They just have to be people. That is my tradition. It works for me! That is what Christmas is about for me.