The Year We Discovered Tradition

The Year We Discovered Tradition

Ross laid a shocker on us at mealtime. We had talked about it but hadn’t decided: “I don’t think we’ll have Christmas decorations or anything this year,” he said. “All the kids are grown—except you, Marsha, and you don’t mind, do you?”

Marsha mumbled something—her mouth was full of whole wheat bread at the moment—but her response didn’t seem to be one of trauma. And when I thought about it, I didn’t really mind, either.

Christmas was different with all of our children gone, anyway. Marsha was fifteen, and she had grown up almost as an only child. For years some of our three other children had come home for Christmas holidays. But then they gradually married and began to have children. This year every one had written that they wanted to celebrate Christmas in their own homes, establishing their own traditions.

After her bite was chewed and swallowed Marsha looked at Ross for a minute and then said, “Well, Dad, if we aren’t going to have a tree or anything, what will we have?” Her face was a little red, and she looked bothered.

Ross just laughed and took her hand and mine and said, “Each other, of course. We’ll have each other.”

Marsha didn’t look too sure. But finally she nodded and took another bite. “Ah gus thas oakay,” she said.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full. What did you say?” I said.

She swallowed and then smiled and said, “I said, ‘I guess that’s okay.’ Okay that we’ll just have each other.” Then she looked at her plate and took another bite.

I wondered if she really meant it. Didn’t she care at all about the traditions we had established and followed all these years? I was a little disappointed.

The next two weeks were always the busiest—and therefore the most hectic—of any month of the year. As chorister, I had to prepare for the Primary presentation at the ward party every year. This year we were going to have the children learn “Jingle Bells,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “I Wonder When He Comes Again.” It wouldn’t have been such a big job except that I agreed to specially coach any children who were having particular problems with learning the songs. Next year I’ll do my special coaching in groups!

Then I supervised our yearly candy-making project, an important tradition in our family that we couldn’t let go. We make big batches of several kinds and take them anonymously to different families we know, all of whom pretend they don’t know who gave it.

Marsha always enjoyed helping in that project—she’s one of the few people I know who can eat candy at will and seem to suffer no adverse effects—and we were just finishing up a special batch of caramel-filled peanut clusters when I said, talking loud to be heard over the Christmas music, “You know we’re going to give presents to each other, don’t you?”

She was eating some caramel-covered peanuts at the time—something my body has indicated it would really rather I would not do—and had to swallow before she could answer. “Mom,” she finally said, “whatever in the world makes you say that?”

She was so casual about it that I wondered if it reflected her true feelings. But she didn’t stop there. I must have looked upset, because she said, “Well, just because we aren’t going to have a tree or lights doesn’t mean we aren’t going to give presents. Nobody said we weren’t.”

My throat felt kind of dry. Did she really not care about not having a tree? I asked her. “Honey, doesn’t it bother you that we aren’t going to have a tree or lights?”

She shrugged and didn’t answer for a moment. Then she looked at me. “No, I don’t care about that. We’re doing everything else that’s Christmasy. Why waste money on the kid stuff.”

“That’s right—the really important traditions we’ll still keep, because if we didn’t, it wouldn’t feel like Christmas.”

Somehow it felt as if I said that for my own benefit rather than Marsha’s.

Marsha nodded and said no more about it. But I caught myself snitching a little more chocolate than usual and realized I was upset, I’m being over-sensitive, I thought. What matters is that we don’t let her down in the things she does care about.

Then it was Christmas Eve. Ross came in from work a little late—they had the day off at noon, but he was working on a tough project with a tight deadline and he didn’t think he should leave. “Hi, girls,” he said, when he came in the door. “All ready for the big day tomorrow?”

I laughed and said, “Of course” (trying to be cheerful, I guess), but Marsha didn’t say anything.

“What’s the matter, Marsh?” Ross said. “Did you just learn that Santa Claus isn’t real?”

She looked a little disgusted and said, “Oh, Daddy,” and went back to her book. She had just discovered Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it was all we could do to drag her away from it.

So Ross sat down with the paper; then I served meat loaf sandwiches in the living room while Ross and I watched a special on TV about Christmas in other lands and Marsha tried to ignore it to read. After the program, Ross read us the story of Christ’s birth out of Luke, we had family prayer, and then Marsha went down to her room. In a few minutes she was back with an armload of presents. “Merry Christmas!” she said, and plunked the gifts down on our coffee table. “Don’t stay up too late or Santa won’t come!” Then she said goodnight and went down the stairs.

I looked over at that pile of presents. They looked so lone and bare sitting on that table. I got out of my chair and took my rubber plant off the little end table in the corner and put it next to her presents. “There, that’s better,” I said.

Ross yawned and stretched and said he’d like to go to bed to read, but I stopped him. “Do you think Marsha feels okay about a treeless Christmas?” I asked.

He laughed. “Don’t you think she’d tell us if she didn’t? When has she ever not told us when she had something to say?”

“I guess you’re right,” I said. But it just didn’t feel right.

We had prayer and Ross went to bed to read while I puffed by the bed doing my exercises. But my heart wasn’t in it. I somehow still felt uncomfortable with our decision. Finally I dismissed it and went to bed. When had she ever not told us when she had something to say?

We slept in late on Christmas morning. Finally I got up and took the rest of our gifts out of our closet into the living room. The rubber plant needed a little water so I gave it a drink. I fixed some pancakes and hot syrup and kept them warm on the stove.

It was 9:30.

Ross was finally awake.

There was no sign of Marsha. And she never slept in late like that. “Ross, could you go down and tell Marsha that breakfast is ready?” I hollered down the hall. If she wasn’t up by now, there was no reason not to wake her by yelling.

Ross clumped down the stairs, especially cooperative because it was Christmas.

But he didn’t come back up.

“Hey, you guys, breakfast is going to get cold,” I yelled down the stairs. “And I want to open presents.”

No response.

I was not pleased, to say the least. Here I had gotten up early for them and fixed a nice hot (and tasty) breakfast, and they didn’t even have the courtesy to come when it was ready. I started down the stairs, and with each step I felt more upset. I had to fix breakfast every day for them. And now I did it on a holiday as a special indication of my love and desire to take good care of my family, and they didn’t even have the decency to respond. Well, if they were going to be rude, so would I.

Marsha’s door was shut. I wouldn’t even knock. I turned the knob and pushed it open, my mouth forming the words “How thoughtless … !”

But I didn’t say it. There in the far corner of the room was a tree. It was a small Christmas tree, covered with lights and tinsel and glass ornaments. It was scrawny and misshapen. It was beautiful.

Sitting next to it on the floor, looking very sheepish, was Ross. And sitting on the bed, her legs tucked under her, was Marsha.

She smiled and blushed and said, “Like it, Mama?”

I shut the door and leaned against it—and saw that all the Christmas cards we had received that year were arranged on the wall in the shape of a wreath, with an especially colorful one with Jesus on it in the center.

On her dresser was a nativity scene, with little plastic figures and a cardboard backing. It must have cost a dollar at Woolworth’s.

I swallowed hard and tried to speak, but I couldn’t. I swallowed again and tears came into my eyes. “When did you—why?” was all I could say.

Marsha came up to me and put her arm around my shoulders. “Now, Mama, don’t feel bad. You and Daddy were doing what you thought would be best for us all, and I really thought it would be all right, too. But I just couldn’t take it—you know? So the Benson boys said they’d pick me up a tree and I collected all the cards and bought a nativity set—I couldn’t find ours—but it’s all right.”

Her saying “It’s all right” only made me feel worse. I thought—for the first time, I’m afraid—of how I would have felt at fifteen if my parents had suddenly dropped some of our cherished traditions.

Ross stood up and put his arms around both of us. I could tell he felt bad, too. But he squeezed us both close to him for a minute, then squeezed us again, and stepped around us to the door. “I need to get the gifts,” he said. “We can’t let this lovely tree go to waste.” And he ran up the stairs.

I looked at Marsha for a moment and then my eyes filled with tears. I wasn’t sure if it was because I felt bad about misjudging Marsha’s needs or because I was relieved that she cared about our traditions after all.

She hugged me and started patting me on the back and saying, “It’s all right, Mama.”

Then Ross came down with an armful of presents—with the rubber tree balanced precariously on top—and with a pancake hanging out of his mouth like a huge tongue. He put everything down on the floor next to Marsha’s little tree and then turned to us and took the pancake out of his mouth.

“Look! It bounces!” he said, and dropped the pancake on the floor. Then he laughed and put his arms around us again. “Someone turned them into rubber while we were distracted down here,” he said.

I looked over at the tree with its little pile of gifts, and down at the pancake lying forlornly there on the carpet, and I had to smile in spite of myself. Breakfast was ruined and the morning was half shot, but what did I care? We were having a real family Christmas after all—our traditional Christmas—and nothing else seemed to matter.

[illustrations] Illustrated by April Lani Perry