When Traditions Die, Make Them New

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Photo: Kristin Van de Water

Every family has its non-negotiables—until life forces you to renegotiate.

Growing up, Christmas traditions held a weight like no other. In particular, visiting the Dayton’s department store Christmas display in downtown Minneapolis was a given. Nothing—not even living across the county in California—could stand in the way of this childhood staple.

From infancy into adulthood, I looked forward to Dec. 26, when we would meander our way through a life-size version of our favorite fairytales, from Beauty and the Beast and Peter Pan to Puss in Boots and Pinocchio. Most people enjoyed the show on their way to see Santa. We came for the display itself—and of course couldn’t resist the after-Christmas sales. Our reward for waiting patiently in line was a gigantic sugar cookie (caked with frosting!) and an ornament to match that year’s theme.

When I became a mom a few years ago, I was eager to share the magic of these living storybooks with my own kids. I could picture their little faces lighting up in awe and wonder at all the colorful characters and dazzling sets. I eagerly anticipated sharing a sugar cookie as I helped my kids pick out an ornament each to hang on our tree.

As I had done for 30 years on the day after Christmas, we dashed through the chilly parking garage, over the sky bridge, up a gazillion escalators, and around the bend to discover…wait a minute. The doors were closed! Apparently, when Santa returned to the North Pole on Christmas Eve, they shut the display down as well instead of staying open through New Year’s as before. In 2016 the store closed for good.

When traditions like this threaten to die off, it’s a shock to the system. Thankfully, as parents, we knew all too well how to think on our feet and used those closed doors as a lesson in resilience and adaptability. We had to reimagine our non-negotiable. That meant we shopped for our annual ornaments at the Mall of America instead. Admittedly less charming, but still pretty awesome.

This year brought another major shock wave when my husband, kids, mom and I opted for a warm-weather trip to Florida instead of our traditional gathering with extended family. The Midwest had been my Christmas home for 32 years, so this decision meant the bittersweet end of an era.

I was tired of being tied to traditions (even though I loved them!) just because that’s how things had always been done.

It was always Minnesota and Wisconsin. Always Dad’s side and then Mom’s side. Always fighting off sub-zero temperatures to play in the snow. Always card games and board games late into the night. Always elaborate dinners served on china and elegant platters of peanut butter blossoms for dessert. Always plenty of summer sausage and wild rice to nosh on while cheering on the Packers or Vikings. Always me making excuses not to eat the herring.

And always nice, long chats with the aunts about life, love and the Lord. Our lives would collide for a few days together after months and miles apart. We would catch up on what life was currently throwing our way and mourn the losses of the year. We would marvel at what God has accomplished in us and through us over the last 12 months. We would share our hopes and dreams for the year ahead and anticipate whatever new phase of life the New Year would bring.

And each new year has, indeed, thrown some major life changes our way. In the last decade, my family has seen college graduations, new jobs, cross-country moves, engagements, weddings, new houses, pregnancies, new babies, cancer diagnoses, divorce, memory loss and death.

My immediate family’s commitments and priorities used to center around Minnesota and Wisconsin. Now, my brother has in-laws to visit and my dad gained a whole new extended family (grandkids and all!) when he married my stepmom. Both my grandmothers passed away recently, reshaping all our connections to the motherland. Matriarchs hold us together even in their frailer moments when cancer and strokes intrude. Without the draw of Grandma, my cousins, parents and I are sticking to the coasts.

To be honest, I’m mourning a little bit this Christmas. “Home” seems so distant. Will it feel like Christmas away from the coziness of my favorite armchair by the fire? I can’t believe I packed swim goggles, sunscreen and sand toys rather than snowsuits, scarves and slippers.

As parents, growing kids make us experts at flexibility. They force us to keep learning, strategizing and making the most of whatever circumstance comes next, including this current flavor of Christmastime travel. We will figure it out—one day and one year at a time—just like we do with every facet of parenting.

This year we’re trying out new traditions with a Florida spin. We’re making our own ornaments and hanging them on a homemade tree. And while it may not be a Dayton’s display, the palm trees lining the streets look quite festive with their twinkle lights.

When we search for 2019 flights, I’ll know that, armed with Christmas traditions galore, I can embrace the spirit of the season and be at peace in sand or snow.

Kristin Van de Water
Tinybeans Voices Contributor

Kristin Van de Water is a former journalist and teacher who relies on humor, faith, and her mom crew to get her through the day. Raising four kids in a two-bedroom NYC apartment, Kristin is always on the lookout for life hacks to save time, space, money, and her sanity.

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