Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Family Traditions: Times They Are a-changin'

Growing up, Christmas was a predictable event:
  • Christmas Eve at my Grandma and Grandpa Van Vorhis'. Eat first, then dishes, and only after dishes were done and put away would we be allowed to open gifts.
  • Go home and go to bed
  • Stay up as late as possible trying to catch Santa in the act
  • Wake up at 3 a.m. and go downstairs to go to the bathroom, sorting through and shaking all presents as I pass the tree.
  • Return to my bedroom and try really hard to go back to sleep, usually failing and reading until mom and dad's set time that we were allowed to even think about waking them up, which was either 6:30 or 7 a.m.
  • Go crazy opening presents, then basking in the afterglow and playing
  • At noon, we started to get around to go to my my grandparents' house.
  • Get to Grandma and Grandpa Lance's house at around 1 p.m. We would open presents, then eat, then stay around there until around 8 p.m., adults talking and playing card games in the kitchen while the kids played with their new toys and generally tortured each other.
  • Home and to bed.
  • Put everything away and take the tree down on Dec. 26.
Van Vorhis extended family Christmas Eve celebration...strangely on a
day and at a time when it wasn't dark outside. Most of these were done
at dinner time and into the evening.
When I started dating a girl from the same town I lived in, it stayed pretty simple: Christmas Eve with her either before or after Grandma and Grandpa Van Vorhis', and splitting the day together between Grandma and Grandpa Lance's and her grandparents.

Then I got married to a woman from a divorced set of parents who lived half a state away. That's when it got tricky. Here's how it played out:
  • Christmas Eve at Grandma and Grandpa Van Vorhis', trade gifts with Grandma and Grandpa quickly and early. 
  • Leave there by 6:30 p.m., and drive 2 1/2 hours to her parents house, arriving just in time for church.
  • Go to church at 8:30 or 9.
  • Return home around 10, eat dinner, and open the first round of presents with the brother-in-law and his family.
  • Brother and sister-in-law leave and we have a second Christmas where the big gifts came out. For some reason, two Christmases were appropriate in that family. Whatever. Their rules. I was along for the ride.
  • After opening all of the gifts, head to bed around 1 or 2 a.m.
  • Wake up at 6:30 a.m., shower and drive another hour to Cleveland for the full-on family Christmas. Breakfast, gifts, lunch.
  • Leave around 1 p.m., drive 3 hours to get to my grandmother's house for a few hours.
  • Home.
  • Usually back to work on Dec. 26.
We did that for 7 years or so, and by the end, we got really, really good at it. There was no discussion or negotiation or "we went to your parents last year, so it's my turn this year." We just did it. It was so smooth.

And then we weren't married anymore.

Then I got married again. Since then, my parents got tired of trying to outguess my sister-in-law's family AND my wife's family plans, and my ex-wife and the yearly-changing visitation schedule that never followed the court-ordered on-paper agreement. We always made our own agreement. So my parents claimed the weekend before Christmas as the time to celebrate Christmas with them. Sometimes, like this year, it's a full week before Christmas. So we go to my mom and dad's for brunch, open gifts, snack a bit, and are pretty much done by 1 or 2. We go home, contented with our time with family, and wait for the rest of Christmas to come.

Bruns Family Christmas 2008...The grandkids,
spouses and great-grands.
On Christmas Eve, we go to Christmas church service with my wife's parents, sometimes followed by dinner at a chicken wing joint, get the kids to bed, pass out on the couch, wake up in the wee hours of the morning, rush to get the presents under the tree, and head to bed. This year, they went to church with us, and we didn't do the chicken wing thing, but the rest remained pretty much the same.

One year when I was single, I woke up at 6 a.m. in my favorite chair, realized what time it was, and got the gifts under the tree and went to bed about 20 minutes before my only son at the time woke up. I'm so glad I woke up when I did.

Dec. 28, 2010 at Epcot
Christmas with my wife's family is...well, it's different every year. Last year it was several days after Christmas in Orlando, Fla. The year before that it was at their house on Christmas (I think). It's a moving target, but in a family with four married girls, it has to be.

Tradition is very important to both Jenn and I. My family always put out milk and cookies for Santa, sometimes even after we didn't have to. I always listen to the same records from my childhood that I have since converted to CD, and now MP3. Jenn has brought to this family the traditions of Christmas pajamas, which is a pair of pajamas that the boys get to open and wear to bed on Christmas Eve. 

She also brought Christmas wrapping paper. This gets a little convoluted and involved, but here it is in a nutshell: Each kid has two kinds of wrapping paper. One type is from us (different for each child), and one from Santa (also different for each kid). And the paper from Santa MUST have Santa on it. So, at a glance, you can tell 1) who it is for, and 2) If it is from us or from Santa. And joint presents (like movies and video games and other such similar shared items) are wrapped in a combination of the appropriate paper, a little for each kid.

Christmas pajamas 2011
We also have the tradition of reading "The Night Before Christmas" each night, and sometimes retelling The Christmas Story, about the birth of Jesus.

This year, both my parents and Jenn's parents, along with Jenn's grandmother, and our best friend (and the youngest son's godfather) came over after presents for breakfast. Some years, we have done Christmas alone with just me, Jenn, and the boys. Some years, my parents have joined us. After presents, there always is monkey bread. And always lots and lots and LOTS of coffee, required to be made and poured and ready to go before we can even touch the presents.

This year, with Jenn and I getting serious about our faith, we felt the call in our hearts to add a few traditions. First, we "adopted" two children through Operation Christmas Child. In that program, you take a box, about the size of a shoe box, and fill it with stuff (you get a list of suggestions). You return it to the church, and they give it to a needy child who fits the demographic. The two children we adopted, without surprise, were the same gender and age as our 8-year-old and 3-year-old boys. We got the boxes and paid the bill, and the boys picked out the items to put in the box with more or less input from me and Jenn.

The other tradition we started was saying a prayer on Christmas morning to remind the children that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, and that Santa is just a cool guy who gives them gifts in celebration of Jesus's birthday, much the way the magi gave gifts to Jesus himself.

Grandpa Lance's last Christmas. He died less than 2 months later.
In February 1995, my grandfather Cloyce Lance died. Christmas hasn't been the same since. That's not being disrespectful; it's just factual. There is just that feeling of "the empty chair" and the memories that we can no longer make together. I remember hounding everyone almost every Christmas until we would all gather around the piano. Grandpa and sometimes one of my aunts would sit down and play and everyone would sing Christmas songs.

I miss Christmas with my grandfather. It isn't any less special now. It is just different. Grandma sold the farm and moved to town. My cousin and her husband have decided that Christmas is for them and their kids. They don't leave the house on Christmas day. If we want to visit her, that's okay, but they don't come to any large-family Christmas gathering.

In the last couple of years, we have experienced several changes that will affect the way we celebrate Christmas forever:
  • On May 16, 2010, Jenn's grandfather, Robert Refsell, died in Iowa at age 85.
  • My grandmother, Ellen Van Vorhis, died Feb. 10, 2011. The last time I saw her, not including at the hospital when we said our goodbyes, was just before Christmas, 2010, when we dropped gifts off at their house before we left for Florida.
  • Jenn's grandfather, Ralph Bruns, died Oct. 9, 2011, on our youngest son's third birthday.
This was our first Christmas missing Grandma Van Vorhis and Grandpa Bruns. Due to schedule, we didn't go to the Van Vorhis family Christmas this year, opting instead to go a few days after Christmas. It wasn't at grandma and grandpa's house anyway. I don't know what happened with the mood or attitude at that celebration. With Jenn's family, that celebration was moved to Jenn's parent's house, so that changed this year, I think to make it easier for all involved.

Evan's big 2011 present, a nook ebook reader.

A couple of years ago, my father said "Pretty soon, we're going to have to make some decisions and change the family tradition. It's just about time to make our own." That's not exactly right, but it was something like that. The sentiment was the same.

At first, I reacted like people do when they hear that their school district wants to close an old building where they attended second grade who say, "you can't close that building. It's historical. I has value as a historical building. It's tradition." I said the same about Christmas at our grandparents.

As this year has progressed, I have found myself wondering more and more if NOW is the time to change the family Christmas tradition for good. There is no organized gathering at Grandma Lance's. People just show up as they can, if they can, to eat some cold cuts and snacks and share gifts. It's a loving, but unscheduled, loose gathering.

The Van Vorhis family Christmas has been difficult to understand and process for many years.

Kaleb's bit 2011 gift,
GeoTrax Grand Central Station.
Until a couple of years ago, my brother and I, and Jenn as well, have never known any different. Sure, things changed as my brother and I got married, I got divorced, and Jenn and I got married, and we created a combined family with two boys. But any changes have been because of our relationships and the traditions of our wives' families.

Regardless of those changes, the Van Vorhis Christmas was always on Christmas Eve night for dinner, and the Lance Family Christmas was always on Christmas afternoon. If we could go, we were there. The events - the traditions - continued with or without us. 

Now, the change is occurring because of death in the immediate families, and it will only continue as we grow older. So what, as a family, do we do with that change?

At church just before Christmas, the topic was based on a traditional Christmas song, "I'll be Home for Christmas." During the message, we explored the phrase "Home is where the heart is," and how that phrase means that home is where you long to be.

I'm a pretty solitary guy. I like to come home from work and decompress. I love my quiet time, which is why I am writing this at 12:27 a.m. and have mostly been staying up until 2 a.m. for the last several months now: I am most productive when I am left to my own devices and given quiet time to think.

Yet I realize the importance of family and I don't discount it by any stretch of the imagination. Lately, it seems like the only time the entire family has been gathering has been for funerals. Of course, I want to be with family on Christmas. But how do Jenn and I, and the boys operationalize that as a family with our parents?

Perhaps it is time to follow my cousin's lead of staying home for Christmas and letting anyone who wants to visit do so.

The boys at Gma and Gpa V's 2011.
Maybe it's time to disband the extended family Christmases and only do our family of four and Christmas at our parents house. After all, that's all I have done or known for all 37 of my years. Never once did we go to Christmas at my great-grandparents' home. Yet we continue to take our children to their great-grandparents' for Christmas. It's not wrong, and I'm not condemning it. This is just an observation. Jenn and I both grew up with 3 Christmas celebrations: mom and dad's on Christmas morning, and both sets of grandparents at some point or another. Now we do that, along with one set of great-grandparents on Jenn's side, and two sets on my side. Then my 8-year-old celebrates with his mom, then again with her parents, and yet again with her extended family. How did it get to be so big.

And this year was the year to bury some grudges. I haven't seen eye-to-eye with one of Jenn's sisters for...well...pretty much never. There have been a couple of shouting matches and some milk thrown in my face at one point or another. But something changed this year. I don't expect miracles, or to ever completely agree with everything. But at the same time, I can tell that something is different.

Bruns family Christmas 2011.
Christmas, I think, also was an opportunity for Jenn and I to mend some fences with my family. There was a big no-good thing that happened on Easter that kept contact between us and my parents minimal until mom came to visit me right before my appendectomy. There were offenses and hurt hearts, but those have been slowly mending. We'll get there.

This has been the year of changed hearts. Perhaps it also is the year of changed traditions. That's a discussion we all will have to have as a family. It's not a decision for me to make on my own. We'll see what this next year brings.