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When I was young, my grandmother was the glue that held our extended family Christmas celebrations together. We packed up our station wagon on Christmas Day and drove from Toronto to her property in Campbellcroft, Ont. She put on the turkey, bought the presents and had the Christmas music playing and fireplace roaring for our arrival. My uncle and his family would arrive – late – and the celebrations would begin. French 75 cocktails for the adults, a Shirley Temple for me (the youngest in the family and only child). Our family celebrations centered around her sprawling country home, her aging debutante-like demeanor and her kindness. It was the only kind of Christmas I knew – and the only one I cared to know.
When she died of cancer at 78, we had a Christmas-shaped hole to fill in December. I was only 11 and my mom, the assumed new family matriarch, took it upon herself to lift our spirits. Christmas celebrations began to take place at our house in the west end of Toronto, with my uncle and family arriving – still usually late – on Christmas Day. There were still drinks, presents, family, turkey and a roaring fire, but although we tried hard, it was difficult to recreate Nan’s Christmas. As with most things, time helped to heal our family and new rituals began to take shape. Yet, I was desperate to hang onto each tradition Nan had started.
As I got older, new customs began to form, such as the walk in High Park to start our Christmas morning. Celebrating in the city was beginning to feel right and newcomers began to pop in and out of our Christmases. “Strays,” as my mother called them. Those who hadn’t quite worked out their Christmas plans ended up at our table. Partners of cousins joined the family and, eventually, new babies. We settled into a new rhythm of Christmas for a few years.
Five years after Nan passed, my parents divorced. Traditions and rituals shifted once again. We began celebrating on Boxing Day because of new scheduling conflicts. My eventual stepfather was a professional classical musician. For him, Christmas was a chaotic time of performances. My Dad and I celebrated together on Christmas Eve, sometimes just the two of us. He was a fabulous cook who would put together some sort of potato-forward dish (blame it on his Irish roots) and pair it with wine. We exchanged gifts. He was hard to shop for, never giving the reaction you were looking for. He would usually give me a piece of jewellery or an antique little something he decided I should have from his past travels. I would insist on a Christmas movie. It was usually A Christmas Story or A Christmas Carol. My nostalgia became the spotlight of our Christmas celebrations together. I missed how it used to be. He would simply respond with “Christmas will have many iterations in your life, Kate.”
And he was right. Two years ago, I lost my Dad to a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. All of a sudden, Christmastime and its celebrations were new all over again. Traditions would change again and my Christmas Eve was going to happen with someone else. For my first Christmas without him, my mom and I spent Christmas Eve together, watching dated Christmas movies and eating charcuterie. It was surprisingly pleasant and calming. We shared “a lonely,” as we call them in my family – those fleeting moments of intense grief that can only be cured with a cry. The key part of the definition is that “a lonely” can be cured. Christmas morning, Boxing Day and the winter holidays all came and went without him. Despite the undertones of grief, they were filled with some of our old traditions and lovely moments.
Christmas traditions are a funny thing. As a kid, we don’t quite understand them and as an adult we either reject or embrace them. At 27, I’m grappling with the balance of insisting on keeping past traditions alive and building new ones with my boyfriend. Our families and our time now blend together during the holiday season. Long car rides to visit our parents have become a kind of tradition, alongside decorating the first artificial Christmas tree we’ve ever owned (blame it on the condo board). But I still hold the past, and my old traditions, close. I’ll let go of what I can, but keep what I need – the Christmas movies from my childhood, a walk in High Park and my childhood stocking.
Christmas evolves, I’m realizing. But it’s important to keep room at the table for the ghosts of Christmas past, for the traditions that came from grandmothers and grandfathers and parents and loved ones. Remember them fondly, and make time for that Christmas movie you haven’t seen in years. You’ll likely still find a little magic in it.
Kate Ryan lives in Toronto.