by Natalie Christensen
A while ago, I was younger. I rode a bike, didn’t own a car and shaved my head frequently. I wouldn’t say I was “bouncing around”, but there was a bit of swerving. One such swerve took me north to Montana. I thought I’d check it out, try it on, put it in my resume. A quick stopover.
And then I fell in love.
Not with the state—although the state is very love-inspiring and many folks fall for her, as the mountains, rivers, trees, and clouds are all so beautiful as to appear made-up, like a backdrop in a movie. I fell for a man; fast and far. I was dizzy, free-falling. He was tall, brown-haired, smart and interesting.
He was also a father. His package included two little girls, stacked dishes in the sink, naptimes and animal cookies. His world included picture books, small hands, and bath toys. Precious, beautiful, and earnest.
That’s how I find myself, twelve years later, in the middle of the wild north, thousands of miles from any other family members, slugging through feet of snow, and year after year, putting down deeper and deeper roots. I joined this sweet little family. They welcomed me fully and a few years later, we added to that gorgeous original unit with the next little doe-eyed baby girl.
I didn’t like raising a young family away from our “extended” families. There was too much cuteness and tenderness and awesomeness not to be shared with people equally smitten by these charming creatures. It was a little painful, yet I see now that the isolation fostered a freedom of sorts. There was no one to influence us in our decisions, no context for us to fit within. We were two young, radical, creative artists, raising human beings on the edge of a nation, without any directions to follow other than our own ideals.
So when the world turned away from the sun and the days grew dark and folks began to hang lights on their snow-covered bushes we were pressed to make some choices about how we would handle the holidays. What would be our family’s traditions? My partner wanted to move away from a singular focus on any particular day and dug into research of all the world’s traditions. I wanted a tree and homely hand-made ornaments, the select parts that felt important in that painfully nostalgic way. We were able to pick and choose, expand and encompass, so we did.
Today we honor Chanukah, Yule, the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and, of course, the New Year. We light candles constantly. We savor the gathering and solemnity and lighting up the deep dark winter night. We talk about people all over the world and imagine them in their own homes, their hands on candlesticks, their faces lit up and pressed together. We leave cookies for Santa, a carrot for the reindeer, an apple chunk for Sleipnir, and dried berries for Holly the fairy. We pull out the menorah for Chanukah, hang stockings for Christmas and assemble dried ears of corn for Kwanzaa—and we keep it groovy for almost an entire month.
The first few years felt too new, like a house with pretty furniture but no scrapes or scuffs, no Lego pieces under the couch. Our holiday approach felt free from expectation but also untethered and loose. Soon, however, the stuffed raccoon ornament from my childhood arrived in the mail from my mom. Soon our girls had fashioned their own handmade ornaments. Soon our menorah was gilded in colorful wax. Soon we had hand-sewn forest and candy-apple velour stockings. Soon a blazing Solstice campfire became the norm. It really wasn’t long before it was ours and layered and rich.
As I got older I realized that what I consider “tradition” is really just what I remember from my own childhood. Tradition is only what my parents were able to come up with as yuppies in the eighties with their own concerns, struggles, distractions, and strengths. For someone like me, tradition isn’t what centuries of my forefathers have been doing since the dawn of time. My forefathers are Irish, Scotch, French, English, Danish, Cherokee, Oklahoma Dust Bowl, California farmers. The only thing they all celebrated in common were the seasons and their children.
It occurs to me now that, aside from those basic elements, tradition really boils down to what you do one particular year because you feel moved, or nostalgic, or ambitious, or foolhardy, and then do it the next year because the children remember and ask you eagerly if that’s going to happen again this year.
We’re happy they do! We’re happy they remind us of who we are and what tiny details illustrate our family. We chew up half a carrot on Christmas Eve and spew it into the snowy yard because we happened to think of it one year and now do it every year, since the girls, now tall and lanky, still patter onto the cold porch on Christmas Day and search for the orange bits.
Sentimentality on a cycle is tradition. Little hands on bright candles is tradition. A homely raccoon ornament is tradition. Tenderness in a seasonal rhythm is tradition. Tradition is simply working with what we have on hand at the time our children are old enough to start remembering.
Then repeat, with love.
Natalie Christensen is a writer, illustrator, and mother living in Missoula, Montana. She is co-creator of Feeleez, a line of tools that support the emotional development of children. She offers life + parenting coaching and on most days can be found on the banks of the Clark Fork river with her family and her yellow dog.