When I was a kid, my family always did Christmas the same way.
The setting was the house my dad built—a Lincoln-log cabin deep in the Vermont woods. Christmas Eve, we’d go to bed too excited to sleep. In the morning, the three of us—my brother and sister and I—would thunder down the stairs to see a tree piled high with presents; stockings hanging from nails on the chimney, stuffed to overflowing. We’d tackle the stockings first, make tea for our parents and then fall on the presents like hungry animals. And at night, we’d feast.
When we were kids, it was magical. When we were adults, we kept the tradition going. My mom would hunt down most of the stocking stuffers—funny gag gifts from Newbury Comics; little gourmet mustards and hot chocolate packets; useful kitchen implements from Board and Basket, where she kept a seasonal job just for the discounts. Some of the few happy memories of her childhood involved giant piles of gifts under the tree, so she’d always buy massive stacks of presents.
She’d also take the lead in cooking Christmas dinner. As adults, my brother and sister and I would contribute appetizers and side dishes and desserts, each of us fighting for kitchen space. My mom was the ringleader. She’d hover over us with cooking tips and admonitions to dry off the knives and put them in the rack and don’t put that in the dishwasher.
Over the years, we added to the traditions. My sister and dad started a Christmas village, which grew more elaborate as the years went on. While the rest of us were haphazard present-wrappers, my sister would wrap hers with artistry and precision. My brother had his memorable cheese ball recipe and I brought my dark chocolate pie back every year. There was boozy Mad Libs, moonlit sledding runs, and spiked Egg Nog during the Lord of the Rings marathon. My dad would make popcorn in a giant bowl, perfectly balancing the salt and the butter; stirring it all with his hands.
Every so often, one of us would come home trailing a Christmas orphan; a sweetheart or friend who didn’t have anywhere else to go, or who’d lost the fight over whose family to spend Christmas with. My mom welcomed them all with open arms, buying them presents and making them their own stockings.
These were our traditions. And every year, no matter how far we traveled, they brought us back together.
I never would have thought before my mom died that our Christmas would die with her. I believed it was all of us keeping it going; not just one person. But I’ve learned that when you have a loss like this, there are only two things you can do: reproduce the traditions in exacting detail, or run away.
This year, we’re all scattered. My brother lives in Washington DC with three kids and a demanding new job. My sister’s in Boulder—too far to get back easily. They’re staying put this year. And I can’t stand the idea of Christmas without my mom, so I’m running away. It’s my first Christmas away from home, and I went as far as I could go.
One of my fears is that as the years go on, it will be harder and harder for all of us to find our way back to that cabin in the woods. I hope that isn’t how this goes. But in the meantime—for the first time—I’m replacing snow with sand. Spiked hot chocolate with lime in my beer. I plan to sit by a beach and pretend Christmas isn’t happening; to forget about presents and see if a human being can survive a whole week on tacos alone.
I’m not promising anything, but I may even make this a tradition.