Updated: Dec 27, 2020

All my growing up, Christmas Day was very full. It gathered food, presents, and people like a snowball gathers snow. And coming from a large family, Rod’s Christmas Day celebration was similar to mine - only he gathered a bigger snowball by the end of the day.

Our eldest got to experience Christmas Day festivities like the ones Rod and I had grown up with exactly once. When he was one year old, we moved halfway across the country. We had no family here; we had no one expecting us, no place we had to be on Christmas Day.

That first Christmas away from our families was quite a shock for us. We had only been in Texas six months; I was terribly homesick - and six months pregnant. Christmas Day went from a traditionally busy day that started early and ended late to basically just another day off work - but with presents. After opening said presents, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We had nothing to inform us what Christmas would look like outside of our previous experience.

We realized that we had a blank slate for our family Christmas.

We took that blank slate and slowly began to build our own Christmas traditions. We added things (including two more children) until we had built a whole family ritual that began on Christmas Eve. We started with opening one present (pajamas for all the pics that would be snapped the next morning), then drove around town (in said pajamas) looking at lights, finishing up with a cup of hot cocoa before going to bed (once they were old enough to not have fallen asleep in the car by the time we got home). Then Rod and I would begin a gift-wrapping extravaganza that lasted into the wee hours.

Christmas morning began with orange danishes, opening presents, spending time playing with all our new stuff, then our annual honeybaked ham in the evening for dinner. We stayed in our pajamas all day, and didn't rush through any part of it - except for maybe breakfast.

As the kids grew, our family traditions expanded beyond Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. They included everyone helping put up and decorate the tree (but always after my December birthday!) and picking a day to go to Santa’s Village (it only ran through Christmas, and only on the weekends). Later there were school parties and Sunday School parties, and a growing collection of Christmas movies we’d watch throughout the month. The list goes on.

This became a whole Christmas season, up to and including Christmas Day. Everything about it was unique to us, separate from any Christmas experiences Rod and I had previously known.

It was when the two oldest (both boys) went away to college, got married that our traditions necessarily began to change. We’d long outgrown some of the traditions, and for other December activities proximity and scheduling became a bit of a challenge.

We planned a time to open presents together, but it would be on Christmas Eve so they could begin to create Christmas morning traditions of their own. But I gotta tell ya, that first Christmas morning with just me, Rod, and our youngest was reminiscent of our first Christmas in Texas - it was a bit of a shock!

Having done all the Christmas Day activities on Christmas Eve, the big day itself was somewhat of a let down. We figured out pretty quick that, going forward, we needed to save our gifts between the three of us for the actual Christmas morning!

After that first Christmas morning, we began to rethink Christmas Day. What would it look like for the three of us? And, ultimately, what would it look like for just Rod and me?

Once again, we had a (semi-)blank slate, and the opportunity to rebuild the holidays with new traditions.

Having started from scratch once before, we were confident that we’d build something just as fantastic and memorable as what we’d built before. First things first - what to do with our now vacant Christmas Day. The first new tradition we added was to go see a movie! (I never knew this was a thing!)

New traditions were beginning to take shape, and we began to look forward to them and create more. And then he died.

Wait … what?

What happens now? Do we do what we’ve always done, just without him? Do we proceed with the still-forming traditions as though he were still here? Do we skip the whole thing and hide under a rock (or under the covers) until the holidays are over? So many questions and no clear answers. Definitely none that I liked.

In the past, when faced with a blank slate, at least we had a slate to write on. And we had each other to build and share our future with.

This time, I didn’t have any of that - not even a slate.

My daughter, who was home from college for the holidays, and I decided to go ahead and put up the tree. Maybe it was for my son’s kids, maybe it was just what you’re supposed to do at Christmas. I really can’t tell you why we made that decision.

But, having made it, we went out to the garage to get out the artificial tree we’d used for decades and all its trimmings. We opened the garage door, looked at the boxes from across the double garage, stood frozen in tearful silence for a moment, then backed out and closed the door. Nope. That wasn’t going to happen.

We decided to get a real tree. We’ve never had a real tree, so this was way out of our ballpark. But we’ve never had a Christmas without Rod either, so we were already out there. We thought doing something completely different would be …. we didn’t know what it would be. But we did know we couldn’t do things the same.

We celebrated Christmas with the boys and their families on New Year’s Day, so Christmas Day it was just me and my daughter. We decided that if Rod were here, we would have gone to see a movie like we had done for the last two years, so she and I went and saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

That Christmas Day came only 33 days after Rod died. It was intertwined with raw grief, so I don’t remember much else of Christmas 2013.

By the next Christmas, I had moved into a new (to me) house. Because the actual first Christmas was so tangled with grief, this Christmas felt like it was the first one without Rod. I threw lights on the ficus and called it done. My memories of that Christmas are fuzzy, too, like a dream.

By 2015, I was ready to get back in the game - or at least I had the wherewithal to make the effort. I made gifts for the kids and grands from Rod’s old jeans and t-shirts. The kids and grands all came to my house for Christmas; it seemed a little less heavy, and even a little bit … normal. (I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but pretty sure I didn’t like it.) We were able to talk about past Christmases with Rod, and there was laughter along with the tears.

But I experienced something new at that family gathering that is still difficult now. When we’re all together, that’s when it is the most pronounced to me that we’re not all together.

You know how when someone steps out of the room for a minute to get something from the car or go to the bathroom, but you know they’re coming back, and there’s a space where they were but no one fills it because they are coming right back? And no one mentions it because everyone understands that they’re coming right back? It’s kind of like that. Only he isn’t coming right back. And it isn’t a physical space; it’s a space that no one will fill because it was his space; a space filled with the silence of what might have been.

It’s not as prominent on this our eighth Christmas without Rod, but I still feel that incompleteness when we all gather.

I wish I could outline all the new traditions that have developed since those early Christmases, but the truth is there aren’t any, really. I’ve taken it year by year, making choices each Christmas season based on preference or convenience or circumstance. I still feel a little lost this time of year, but it’s more like I’m floating wistfully on the winds of opportunity rather than plunging into the unknown.

Christmas hasn’t been the same, for sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. I remember Christmases past, and I miss Rod and all that we’d shared together. But I’m finding that each Christams since his death has been unique, holding its own special moments and memories, and I look for joy in those.

Will some traditions eventually develop in the years to come? Maybe. But whether or not they do, I will choose to embrace each Christmas for what it is, focusing on enjoying and loving the people I spend it with, however we end up spending it.

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