I distinctly remember putting a plate of cookies out for Santa when I was a small child, knowing full well that it would be my father who took a bite or two of my chocolate chipped offering (he was the reason we didn’t leave oatmeal raisin, which would have been my preference), only to then drink a Santa-appropriate amount of the milk left with them. Intellectually, I knew all of this, but I still went through the motions. I’m not sure if I thought it was important to my parents (honestly, I doubt that it was) or if I just got caught up in the tradition, but I can remember the doubt, the feeling that it was an important ritual somehow (even if I couldn’t come up with a remotely valid reason), and the tinge of guilt for what I perceived to be the dishonesty of it all.
I must have been a pain in the ass of a child.
At any rate, I told that story to a friend recently after she explained how much her kids are invested — she used that word, invested — in the whole “Elf On A Shelf” thing. It was magical for them, she said. (Yes, she used that word, too.) Then, after I finished my admittedly unmagical Santa story, she said it was “the saddest thing” she’d ever heard. (Really?! THAT is the saddest thing you’ve ever heard? Well, good on you, my friend.) But the truth is, it wasn’t sad for me. It was just my experience.
I guess I’ve never felt particularly beholden to tradition. On some level, I think I’ve intentionally carved out a life that tends to avoid the rigors of that sort of expectation. Sure, we were married in a very traditional way — the pomp and circumstance of a big church wedding in front of God and family with all of the vows and flowers and thank you cards that one might expect — but we pretty quickly shook loose of standard customs after that. Some of it, of course, was entirely by design, but other parts have been more of a response to the cards we were dealt. Either way, now, twenty-some years in, we have a life that doesn’t look all that similar to the lives of the people around us. As much as we’re content with the way it’s all worked out, we often find ourselves in situations where we just feel alien by comparison.
This is especially true around the holidays. For most people, I realize that the holidays are steeped in handed-down tradition, so conversations during this time of year are particularly fraught. After all, we eschewed the traditional Thanksgiving feast and gathering some years ago, opting instead for a quiet anniversary-acknowledging retreat for just the two of us, punctuated with sushi instead of turkey and stuffing. Every year when we’re traveling during that holiday week, strangers will invariably ask about our plans for the upcoming Turkey Day. When we tell them, we’re often met with a look of bewilderment, imbued with what seems like a bit of pity. “Oh, look at them, those poor, childless nomads,” silently communicated with a knowing squint. Honestly, their reaction makes no more sense to me than my friend who thought my lack of childhood Santa magic was the saddest thing she’d ever heard.
Some years back I had “comparison is the thief of joy,” a Theodore Roosevelt quote, tattooed on my arm. I wasn’t thinking about traditions, or my lack of them, when I had it done, but the sentiment sure applies here. Particularly in our social networked time, where you can immediately compare your Thanksgiving spread or the stack of presents under your tree to those of a few hundred people you’ve known over the course of a lifetime, comparison can be a particularly unsettling thief.
So, friends, whether you’re Instagramming your latest Shelved Elf moment or jonesing for sushi with a friend instead of a big holiday feast, know that you’re not alone. Whatever your circumstance this holiday season, my simple hope is that you find joy in the midst of it. And may those moments of joy be the tradition worth keeping.