Traditions trump gifts this holiday season

I don’t remember what my father’s mother and father got me for Christmas when I was eight, but I certainly remember the popcorn cake my memere made each year for after our holiday lunch (or maybe for those moments before we sit down to eat when everybody seems to be hovering around the almost-ready food, offering their opinions to its readiness).

I don’t remember what my mother’s father and mother gave me for Christmas when I was nine, but I certainly remember what it felt like to squeeze myself into the small space between the side table and the wall. It was the only place for me, what with the small, cozy living room holding upwards of thirty people.

Though I have to concentrate to remember what my boyfriend bought me our first Christmas, the memory of us first assembling a fake Christmas tree comes freely to my mind.

We’re champs at assembling the tree now. Though we really wanted a live tree this year, our schedules are so warped during December that we thought it better to stick with what we’ve got. Why buy a tree just to watch it die from a lack of water? Why throw out that artificial tree that we got for free, just so it can deteriorate in a landfill somewhere for about half a million years?

We make do.

But the best part of it is, I don’t care that the tree doesn’t smell Christmas-y and doesn’t freshen the air with its liveliness. It doesn’t bother me that this tree of ours isn’t the classiest on our rural route.

To me, its greatness comes from its assembly.

We listen to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. We have a system for putting on the lights and garland that utilizes teamwork and my ability to hold up my arms for a considerable amount of time.

This holiday tree assembly tradition is the start to a season full of such small but prominent moments:

Hugging my grandmother on Christmas Eve, when she, my grandfather and almost all of my extended family gather together to share a meal and catch up on the year.

Hearing my dad ask “I wonder what all the rich people are eating today?” during the holiday meal (even though this is kind of an everlasting tradition, since he asks the same question at every meal I ever sit to with him).

Seeing my sisters on Christmas Day, along with their children who are growing up like it’s some ridiculous contest.

All of these subtle, repetitive actions – things that keep happening every holiday season that we may take for granted – are so much more valuable than piles of presents or stacks of gift card envelopes.

Traditions create memories naturally and can integrate themselves into a family’s life cycle as easily as the four good seasons follow each other.

If your personal collection of traditions seems a little scant, it’s perfectly acceptable to create some to plump up the sentimentality of the season.

It’s as easy as making the best of putting up a fake tree and then going ahead and making the best of it again next year.

Or making the same dish for the holiday table spread with such regularity that guests anticipate it as soon as Thanksgiving’s over.

Or squeezing yourself in the space between the end table and the wall, even though you really don’t fit there anymore.

Whatever it takes, escape the stress of gift-giving and the curiosity of wondering if they’ll love what you got them as much as you hoped.

Picture what you loved about last year’s holiday season. Go forth, kind gentlemen and women, and re-create as many joyful moments as you can.

Tips to get started?

Listen to Burl Ives.

And, well, listen to Burl Ives.

It’ll take on a life of its own.


Jenna Beaulieu

About Jenna Beaulieu

Jenna is a writer and fine art photographer who recently moved from the Saint John Valley region to the quiet side of Mount Desert Island. She’s a fan of excellent music, homemade gravy, and colored pencils (also, short books and long books, good pens, flannel, and when the June bugs don’t really come out much that year). For more about Jenna and her work, visit her website at