the hard part

Holiday Traditions Are Cheesy and Exhausting and Totally Worth It

Photo-Illustration: by the Cut; Photos Getty Images

I can still picture my first Christmas through a multicolor haze of twinkly lights in a dimly lit room, made fuzzier by the sleepy eyes of a tired 6-year-old. Our family was new to Canada, still figuring out who we were in this strange place. My parents were lapsed Muslims, not religious anymore though still hungry for rituals and traditions as anyone would be after a lifetime of living inside a culture dominated by them. But that year they were also excited to take on these new foreign customs, to try on the trappings of unfamiliar holidays and wear festive, ill-fitting sweaters.

They’d gotten a small, artificial tree, outfitted it with red, green, and yellow lights, and sat it on an old cardboard box they’d flipped upside down. My two younger sisters were just babies so I was the only one who knew what the tree represented and what might be left underneath if the story my parents were telling about Santa was true. I was a cynical kid — no doubt a side effect of having moved homes and countries four times by then — so I didn’t entirely believe an old man was going to pop into this chilly basement apartment and leave me anything, let alone the Barbie I’d had my eye on. I waited up all night, determined to catch my parents in the act. Every time I woke up from dozing off, I’d glance over at the tree and it would look the same as it had before. Small, glowing, and strangely bare.

In the morning, I was the first one up. I woke my parents with the news that Santa hadn’t come after all, that there was still nothing under the tree. I was disappointed, albeit satisfied, that I was right. My parents laughed and told me to look closer. Finally my dad moved the tree over and lifted the cardboard box, revealing a host of wrapped gifts underneath. It was so surprising and joyful I still find myself smiling at the memory, at the delight I felt in that moment, that utterly pure sense of wonder that is so hypnotic, even now.

I love to imagine my parents locked in a tender conspiracy together, outlasting me at my own game, secretly wrapping gifts and finding the perfect way to hide them so that that morning would feel like magic. It was such a soft way to land in this strange new place, worlds away from where I’d spent my first years.

After that, Christmas became less of a tradition; having three young kids under 6 is exhausting enough on its own without the added pressure to spend the weeks leading up to these big holidays performing this specific form of parenthood. My mom (and let’s face it, it’s usually the mom) was working overnight shifts and putting herself through school, so going all out for a holiday she didn’t even celebrate became the furthest thing from her mind as we grew older. Which, as a parent now, I can appreciate. But I also know how much both of them poured that exact same energy and love into our birthdays and other new rituals we forged together as a family, as exhausting as I know it must have sometimes been.

With two kids of my own, I think a lot about what traditions, if any, I want to carry forward as a parent and why it even matters at all if I do.

When I had my first kid, I was also starting over, having moved to London from Toronto with a newborn. I felt deeply unmoored and a little lost without my family and friends to anchor me through this vulnerable phase of life. I missed those familiar faces, missed the specific ways we used to celebrate and spend time together. I wanted to create something new that would help define our family unit, that would start to tell the story of who we were as parents. As the keepers of the familial memories, I felt like I had a chance to create a legacy of love that would, hopefully, outgrow the contours of these rituals themselves and live on in the fabric of my kids’ lives. I started to understand how important these traditions were for me, as much as for the kids, to help situate me in this challenging, sometimes uncomfortable new role as a parent.

I dove into finding ways to ground us, of using newly made traditions to bring a sense of normalcy and safety to our lives. Christmas was an easy one to latch on to — with its well-worn rituals and beautiful baubles.

So I went a little overboard experimenting with all the things I’d never had as a kid: I baked (poorly); got a giant, real tree that we dressed to the nines; we bought advent calendars; we indulged in every even semi-related holiday movie. The baby was oblivious but I ended up feeling at home, slowly becoming more comfortable in this city and as a parent. It took me right back to that first, hazy winter 34 years before, to what my parents must have been feeling when they strung those red, green, and yellow lights around that plastic tree.

As years have passed, with my son getting older and very excited about Santa and my daughter just figuring out what the presents under the tree are for, we’ve dropped a few rituals and added new ones. Some were just too exhausting to keep up and others didn’t make sense for us as a family. But the ones we’ve kept have quickly taken on a tender meaning.

Every year we cut down our own Christmas tree, spending an entire morning picking out the perfect one and then bringing it home brimming with excitement. And the small handful of ornaments we started piecing together in London four years ago has grown into an amazing hodgepodge collection that includes a pink glass banana we bought when we decided to move back to Canada and a ceramic pizza chosen by my son the year after our daughter was born. Once we get our tree home, we make popcorn, put on the cheesiest carols and then delicately unpack the ornaments to dress the tree. When we first started doing this, it was my husband and I who cared so much about the ritual of decorating the tree; now it’s our 5-year-old who takes the lead on carefully taking each ornament out of the box and finding the perfect branch to hang it from.

Sometimes these things can feel like burdens, especially for the people in the family who end up putting it all together. There are definitely moments when I think, What is all the stress ultimately for? I know I’ve rolled my eyes at my own parents for forcing togetherness when no one’s in the mood or insisting on celebrating in the same way year after year, despite how much older we all are. And yet I tear up at the thought of our son hanging these same ornaments we collected in his childhood on his own tree one day and suddenly understand so acutely the power of tradition and how it carries our legacy in big and small ways. So that even when I feel overwhelmed by the task at hand, by the pressure to put it all together year after year, I know that what will live on is so much bigger than the details or by how well I got it right.

I know that these traditions are not just what make the holiday special, they’re what make us a family.

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Holiday Traditions Are Cheesy, Tiring, and Totally Worth It