Growing up, every holiday was chaotic. My extended family is huge. When you combine the paternal and maternal sides, I have 22 aunts and uncles (including their spouses) and 30 cousins.
Do I have to even state that family gatherings were loud? Yelling, shouting, laughing, game playing, little kids running in packs like wolves. I was never the ring leader, but I always enjoyed being part of the show.
After my husband and I moved away, I missed the noise. The silence felt deafening. Over time, though, we established our own traditions. Christmas Eve meant lights at the zoo and eating and playing games with friends. New Year’s Eve was spent running a 5K. I stopped missing the noise and reveled in the peacefulness.
Now that we’ve moved closer to family again, what has amazed me most this holiday season is how in this world of constant change, tradition still reigns.
The recent Christmas gathering with my dad’s side of the family felt almost exactly the same as it did when I was 10, though exponentially larger since most of my cousins are now married with multiple children. We’re talking 60-plus people here, some of whom I had never met. Honestly, my husband and I should have reviewed a family organizational before we entered the door.
Despite the crowd, we all gathered in my grandmother’s modest three-bedroom house for a late lunch, grasshoppers for the adults and virgin ones for the kids, and of course, caroling.
Yes, my family has its own caroling books. Choosing the songs is done in a very specific way, oldest to youngest, even though we eventually sing all 20-some songs. Some songs are sung in a round, men versus women. The newbies to the family must sing the part of the five gold rings in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It’s kind of our own version of hazing.
As a teenager this Christmas choreography had begun to feel rigid and stifling. When the books came out this year, I groaned a bit inside. I didn’t want to sing “Deck the Halls” in a round any more this year than I did when I was 15. As the house filled with song, though, and I watched my daughter in the midst of it, I felt the tug of tradition.
The next day, my mom’s side of the family met, and though we gathered in a banquet room at a restaurant instead of someone’s home, the feeling of déjà vu was just as strong. When I looked at my aunts and uncles, I recognized they’ve aged and changed, but somehow they also seemed exactly the same.
My cousins and brothers are all adults, most of them with spouses and kids of their own, and yet, I saw glimmers of the children I grew up with. Watching my child run with theirs reminded me of the magic that Christmas used to hold.
Tradition brings you back to childhood. Its bittersweet nostalgia anchors you in some way to something unaffected by time.
In the days that followed these back-to-back family extravaganzas, I thought a lot about family and tradition. In some ways, it seems silly to gather in such big groups. We’ve all gone our separate ways. You wonder, what is the point in having the same small-talk conversation over and over again with people you barely know any more?
But entering this year’s holiday chaos felt welcoming to me in a way it hadn’t in years. I realized that it may not be long before the our families truly go their separate ways. My grandparents are all in their 80s now. How long will these massive gatherings continue?
Being away for so long made me recognize the repetitiveness of tradition for what it truly is: a gift that connects you forever to your childhood.