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Last week, my best friend and I were gingerly hanging silver globes and ceramic stars on our 2018 Christmas tree, when I paused a minute to think about the whole ordeal.
Then, our glasses were filled with wine, Christmas music was playing in the background and we were sifting, gleefully, through the sparkling, palm-sized memories we have collected over the years.
But the day preceding that moment was fairly hectic. We had made four (FOUR!) stops attempting to find the perfect tree — after the three cut-your-own farms let us down by having only Christmas Sequoias or Christmas bushes left, we procured The One, at long last, from a trailer stand behind a Golden Corral.
Then there was getting it on the roof of the car, pinning it down well enough to sustain the drive back, and, you know, wrangling a live shrubbery through the door, inside the house and into a Frankenstein collar whose screws twist as though they were made in the early 19th century, too.
We named him Gerald, the prickliest tree I’ve ever had; so surly you had to handle him with gloves.
The next night, we were decorating him (while sustaining small wounds on our fingers), just five days before Christmas; six days before his presence would become irrelevant.
“Why do we do this?” I wondered aloud. “I mean, why do PEOPLE do this?
“Why are we so drawn to tradition?”
It’s a lot of work, really. And some of it, when you think about it, is kind of silly.
My friend replied. “Because it grounds us,” he said.
And he was right.
For me, perhaps, it’s truer than ever.
My life impetus at the moment is to travel around the world, but the greatest drawback of that, for me, is the extreme lack of consistency. The constant movement has left me without a home. The perpetual change has left me without patterns. I crave the routine so absent from my life.
This is not to say that I can’t establish traditions in another place or that I someday won’t — in my life, so far, my traditions have shifted and changed in spaces between North Carolina and Boston and Minneapolis and now, Pittsburgh — but at the moment, I’m barely in a place long enough to establish “regular” status at a coffee shop.
Even the simple privilege of being known and understood by those around you is mostly missing from my daily existence.
Coming home for Christmas gives me the opposite experience.
The traditions we take time to relive are about nostalgia and commonality. They’re about remembering back to when we were kids and that sense of coziness, of security, of simplicity that enveloped us, then.
“Almost everyone has had at least one great Christmas memory,” my friend said. “I think we all strive to repeat that.”
I think it’s that feeling that we’re all searching for — and that we hope to return to no matter where we are in our lives and perhaps because we’re ever farther from it as life gets crazier, more complicated and more filled with adult problems.
We take a moment to celebrate, to feel the world in a light and magical way, not because it usually is, but because it’s almost always not.
This year, all of that is particularly poignant for me. Being in the kitchen, baking Christmas cookies, watching Christmas movies, conducting our elaborate Feast of the Seven Fishes, for the fifth straight year. To come back, and feel at home again, to remember, tangibly, who I am and where I came from, keeps me moving forward and growing and changing, knowing that next year, I can come back and again hang ornaments on a live shrub inside the house of someone I love.
So Gerald, we will put up with your prickliness and your inconvenience. We will enjoy you while we have you.
And I’ll soak up these traditions to last, in my soul, long after the tree is thrown out and the boxes are put away.
I hope you all have been able to do the same. Happy Holidays to everyone.