Passing years, boredom threaten family holiday ritual

December 14, 2003|By Susan Reimer

I have celebrated every Christmas of my life in Pittsburgh. I have lived some 250 miles away for all of my grown-up years, but I have made the pilgrimage to Pittsburgh for the holidays.

This is true for my children, too, who believed for years that Santa only came to Grandma's house in Pittsburgh.

They have never opened their eyes in their own beds on Christmas morning, and they have never complained. All the grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins were in Pittsburgh -- and so were all the presents.

As part of the holiday ritual, my three sisters and I, the husbands and kids get together on Christmas Eve.

I don't know if we have ever had the complete set of relatives for this annual event. Each year someone is missing, and their excuses have ranged from the poignant to the pathetic.

One year, a nephew was deployed to Bosnia. On another Christmas Eve, a couple of the boys had Steelers tickets and a niece had to work. About the only thing you can count on is the boredom of the kids who do attend.

My sisters want to cancel Christmas this year, and that is probably the reason.

It takes a lot of orange juice and champagne to block out the long faces and the surly grunts from the now young adults who probably tired of this holiday ritual long before we noticed their pouting.

This year, it has been suggested that the four sisters get together and leave the husbands and the kids at home. An informal survey finds everyone in hearty agreement, except me.

I think some of us parent our children just the way we were parented by ours. But some of us do just the opposite, writing a family script from the flip side of our memories.

God bless my parents, now long dead, but they were not big believers in family rituals.

Maybe it was the times, maybe it was the chaos of four kids born within five years, maybe it was something else entirely. But the years of our growing up were not marked by the comfortable certainty of holiday or birthday rituals.

Perhaps because of that, I have branded my children's calendars with my own made-up rituals -- modest traditions, to be sure, but ones that they can count on every year.

And Christmas Eve with my sisters was one of them.

I thought the kids found our biting dialogue and our laughter -- the robust product of our shared history -- entertaining.

Apparently not. The kids voted to cancel Christmas, too.

I knew they would. All but one of the 13 grandchildren are passing into young adulthood right now, and at the moment they find us irrelevant.

Two of the boys have been to war and back. Another is in a military academy. One of the girls is a mother herself and the others are just in college or just out.

They have their own lives now. Why would they want to watch us relive ours? They resent the interruption.

But I am convinced that they will someday remember these Christmas gatherings, if not fondly, then vividly. And I believe they will regret it if this ritual is allowed to pass away without argument.

It is one man, one vote in my family, and I am not sure I can turn back this cancel-Christmas movement. But I will try with all the eloquence I can muster to keep us together this one day each year.

In truth, we have not been together in several years.

Two Christmases ago, we passed the phone around the room so that each of us could speak to the boy who was spending Christmas in Afghanistan.

Next Christmas one of the boys will be in Iraq, and the new mother may be visiting another set of grandparents far away.

Too soon, another of the boys may be deployed somewhere far away, and another of the girls may go with a husband to his family home.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge, I can see the future and the empty places at the table.

But I believe that if the faithful remnant stays together on Christmas Eve, then even those who are missing will be there. In our hearts and in their own.

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