December 24th was my wife’s mother’s birthday. Traditionally, it was the first celebration of the season. We would always make sure to focus on Diane on Christmas Eve because throughout her childhood, her birthday tended to get lost in the maelstrom of other Christmas celebrations. This was the first year Diane wasn’t with us on her birthday but we made sure to celebrate it in her honour anyway.
My wife Valerie and my late father’s wife Dawn, and I sat down to dinner on Christmas Eve. It was the first year that all four of our parents were gone and the first time in years we weren’t thinking about hospitals and sickness. It was just the three of us at her house. And like with any holiday dinner, if we’re lucky enough to have a holiday dinner, there was too much food, too much wine (it felt just right at the time), candle light, and music. It felt the way I remember it’s supposed to feel.
I sat in my father’s place at the dining room table and Dawn sat in his chair in the living room. And when we finished our meal, before we moved to the sitting area in front of the fire place, Dawn said it should become our new Christmas Eve tradition.
Valerie and I did most of our visiting in Toronto in the days preceding Christmas, knowing full-well that everyone is stretched thin at this time of year. Family commitments are in place for everybody and we didn’t want to impose ourselves upon anyone so we left Toronto on Christmas Day.
Forty-five minutes on the 401, half an hour north on the 35 and then the rest of the way home on highway 7. Highway 7, a road I’ve known all my life and a road we’ve travelled hundreds of times over the last few years. But never on Christmas Day before. And so here is a word of advice. Don’t travel it hungry or without a full tank of gas. For two hundred and eighty kilometres, the only food to be had was from a McDonald’s in Perth. I had the McChicken sandwich for my Christmas lunch and I tried to elevate the experience by having a root beer with it instead of a coke. It didn’t work.
When we got home, we unpacked our suitcases and threw our laundry in the hamper. I took the garbage out and emptied the dishwasher. Then we had to decide what to do for our Christmas dinner. Little was open and there wasn’t much in the fridge so we piled into the car again and headed to Chinatown. Just like Ralphie and his family in the movie A Christmas Story.
When we arrived, the place was packed. But there was a jovial vibrancy that was unmistakable. The staff were very friendly and the food was great and we’ll be eating Chinese for days. I couldn’t have felt more comfortable. Valerie said to me, Maybe this should be our new tradition. And I thought, Why not?
Every old tradition once occurred for the very first time. And any traditions that last only last because they continue to be not only observed but embraced by those who practice them. I think of it as being like a social language. It is living and breathing and it changes and it adapts. And if a practice does become a cherished tradition, it’s probably because it helps us communicate with each other a little better than with what came before.
I’d eat dinner with Dawn and Valerie every Christmas Eve and be happy. I don’t mind travelling on a clear highway for a few hours on Christmas Day as long as I’m with my wife and there’s something good on the radio.
And Chinese food on Christmas Day is delicious. We’re lucky for the privilege to be so well-fed.
And while it’s not like the Christmas of my youth, it may become the Christmas of my future. And somewhat strangely, these unusual experiences, these new traditions, can almost feel like coming home.