By design or destiny, Christmas is always changing

Posted: Sunday, December 14, 2008

"The only constant is change," the saying goes. My head knows there is truth in this but my heart lags behind.

For the first time in 20 years, my daughter won't be home for Christmas. It was bound to happen sometime. This just happens to be the time. She has been in Cairo this fall on a study abroad semester. It makes sense that she would elect to spend her long winter break traveling through North Africa before returning to her Oregon campus. Even the comforts of hearth and home can't compete with Casablanca on New Year's Eve. Seizing the moment knows no season.

So, when she called to tell me she wouldn't be home for Christmas, I had conflicting feelings, as I often do when talking to my children, who are now young adults. Sad because I miss her now and I will miss her even more on Christmas Day. And a little sad for her younger brother who will have no sibling around this holiday season. But, also, I feel glad that she doesn't feel obligated to be home for Christmas. I don't want her to feel like she is disappointing or deserting us, and I certainly don't want her to feel guilty. She's 20 years old and beginning to live her own life.

Like a lot of people, I suppose, I always feel a bit nostalgic around the holidays. This makes perfect sense as Christmas acts as a marker for life's transitions. In one big jumble, I am filled with warm memories of my childhood Christmases, sadness at the loss of loved ones who are part of those memories and gratitude for my present-day life.

Certain rituals from my childhood rise to the top. When I was a young child, my siblings and I slept together in my brother's double bed on Christmas Eve. On that special night, we thought that cramming together in one bed was a treat. My mom sat on the edge and recited Clement Clarke Moore's poem, "The Night Before Christmas." She paused, her eyes resting for a moment on each of us, adding to our anticipation. She told the story from memory and never forgot a line.

"Twas the night before Christmas," she began quietly. By the time she got to "On, Comet! On Cupid!" she was waving her arms and nearly shouting.

When the poem ended with, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night," I was left with that sense of joy and well being that all children are entitled to know. It was magic.

I am curious to know which Christmas memories will rise to the top for my son and daughter years from now. Will it be my custom of making Swedish pancakes and homemade applesauce on Christmas Eve? Or their dad's recently established ritual of listening to Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales?" Or the way mom and dad always argue about whether the tree is lined up straight in the stand? Or, more likely, something I haven't thought of.

Christmas is a weighty holiday. Premium is awarded for continuity, ritual and maintaining links to our own childhood. That makes things hard when, by design or destiny, situations change. And situations always change.

When I knew our daughter wouldn't be home for Christmas, my impulse was to invite other family members. I called my out-of-state siblings.

"Come join us for Christmas! We have a spare bedroom."

If the house was full of people, I tried to convince myself, her absence wouldn't be so striking.

I had a similar urge a few years ago when, for the first time ever, we had no family coming to visit us for Christmas. Our annual tradition was that either my husband's mother or my parents would join us for Christmas every year. But, over the course of the years, due to aging or death or changed circumstances, this is no longer possible. I remember feeling very sad that first December, anticipating Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with no grandparent around our tree or at our table.

Yet, for all the downsides of changes in the holiday season, there are upsides, too. We don't have to be on "company behavior." We sleep in on Christmas morning and stay in our robes all day. We open our gifts when we feel like it, without anyone watching. The four of us have had wonderful Christmases like that, the last few years. Although I still like it best when extended family can join us for the holidays, I no longer feel sad when they can't.

Because I know the four of us are fine on our own. And, this year, I know the three of us will be.

• Carol Prentice is caught in the middle of life, work and family in Juneau.

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