“It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.” ~ Henry James
It has never gone smoothly. Not once in 40 years. Probably not once in the years before that but I was a child and not paying attention. And this year was no different. Even if we tried to change it. Simplify. Use less. Work smarter, not harder. Prepare ahead of time. It just doesn’t get easier. I think that’s why most people stop doing it, even though there’s a big advantage to doing it in Florida, where it’s warm outside and the sun is shining. It certainly beats wearing insulated gloves and face masks in temperatures defined by wind chill and falling snow. I remember doing it once, back in Iowa, when I was eight months pregnant with our fourth child. All by myself, teetering on a ladder in our front yard. Up the ladder, I lumbered. Reach. Wobble. Down the ladder. Move the ladder. Back up the ladder. Repeat. And I didn’t have a wing man. Not sure where my husband was that year. In front of the fireplace with a hot toddy, if he was smart. But I didn’t have a helper. No runner. No de-tangler. I’m sure I was too stubborn to wait for reinforcement.
But this year we shared the responsibility, my husband and I. And despite having the Christmas lights pulled delicately from the garage attic, and each bundle labeled and scrupulously rolled to prevent damage, and a concise agreement on how they would be strung around the trees in our front yard, in a carefully established sequence from left to right, at a delicate 30 degree angle, and meticulously wrapped at three-inch intervals, and not to mention the fact that each string was carefully tested prior to hanging them for confirmation that they did, indeed, illuminate, there was still trouble. To start, how is it that the first strand is always wrapped 10 feet up the palm tree when it becomes apparent that the plug end is at the top and the receiver end is at the base when it needs to be the other way around? Undo. Start over. We won’t make that mistake again. Until next year.
Before we know it, the first tree is strung and it’s lit and looks so festive we are inspired to keep going. The second tree is easier. We’re smarter about the plug end being next to the ground to access the extension cord. We begin moving along more efficiently, and bolstered by our success, we complete the fourth of our seven trees that will be festooned in white lights. Then we look back at tree one and see the lack of luster in the strand, halfway up the tree. They were twinkling just minutes ago. So, we shake, and we wiggle and we unplug and re-plug the lights into the socket until its darkness is confirmed and we relent that we must buy a new string of bulbs. And even though we didn’t save the box from last year (because last year all the OLD Christmas lights landed in the garbage out of frustration and we purchased all NEW lights, and we were certain that we would remember the exact style of lights we had invested in) we knew they were LED because we justified the higher cost knowing they would last longer. Whatever. Anyway, off to the store I went. On my way, in the car, I made the unilateral decision to buy two boxes of LED white, indoor/outdoor mini lights even though we only needed one. But there, in the aisle of Christmas décor, I faced new decisions I was unprepared for. LED, yes. White, yes. But soft white or cool white? What happened to simply white??? I bought two boxes of each and drove home feeling confident. Meanwhile my husband had made progress without me but now the red lights at the top of the second tree weren’t lighting and we have extra red but it’s a strand of 100 lights not 50 and that will look uneven next to the other red-tipped tree. I couldn’t allow lop-sidedness for Christmas. Back to the store I dashed, for a strand of 50 red, LED indoor/outdoor mini lights.
And so it was, four hours, and a bounty of bulbs later, another season of adorning our front yard for Christmas was behind us. It’s an unspoken pact between my husband and me that any lights that stop lighting after the first night they are hung, well, we just pretend that was the look we were after and ignore them until it’s time to strip the tree bare on January 1 and stuff the wad of tangled frustration into the garbage bin with a sigh of relief. Festoon and forget, is our decorating mantra.
So, what do you call a behavior that is repeated over and over, year after year, with the same results? You might call it crazy, but I prefer to label it “tradition,” and at holiday time we marinate in it. From the detangling of Christmas lights, and erecting the tree, to overeating pie, and binge-watching holiday TV. It’s tradition to sloth in elastic-wasted pants, in an eggnog fog and too-much turkey coma. We overbook our social calendars and under-estimate spending, so when the New Year arrives, we can honor the long-held tradition of Resolutions. Eat less. Exercise more. Stay home. Save money.
Tradition forces me to put on heavy socks and a sweater and travel to the Midwest for Thanksgiving. And it brings my kids to Florida, all together at one time, for Christmas. Tradition is doing mostly the same thing, year after year, at about the same time, with essentially the same people. We might have the same messes and hear the same old jokes and recount embellished versions of the same, familiar stories which is exactly what we want to hear. Tradition is history, remembered and repeated, because of its familiarity. Tradition is centering and comforting and often, it’s necessary to keep us focused on what matters during days of distraction. Tradition is the base that we build on. Tradition is the marker from which we expand. We might have to alter our plans, and be flexible in our efforts, as life intervenes, causing us to tweak the details of our traditions. On occasion, we might have to scrap an old tradition to make room for an updated version. For instance, it’s impossible to convince our grandchildren that Santa travels to Florida in a sleigh when there is no snow to slip in on. And since fireplaces and chimneys are rare in this part of the country, he’s going to get a break from shimmying down the flue. When the kids are here for Christmas, Santa drops by in a reindeer-drawn wagon and slips in through the lanai. His biggest obstacle will not be dense, snowy fog or a slippery roof top. Instead, Santa must circumvent the swimming pool without making a splash, and keep Rudolph from pulling all the blossoms from our hibiscus.
This holiday season, I’ll disencumber the mini-lights, and serve too much dessert. I’ll match the gift wrap to the tree ornaments, and send my Christmas cards out late. I’ll serve Oyster Stew on Christmas Eve, but not because anyone loves to eat it. Instead it will be the aroma of warm milk and butter, and steaming corn bread that draws us to the table for a traditional meal.
This season, I’ll do the same things I have always done, without the expectation of new results. You can call it crazy. At my house, it’s tradition.