“At some point traditions change or shift.”

This was what my brother told me a few weeks ago through e-mail, when I was whining to him about our inability to do “what we used to do” for the holidays.  He wrote back: at some point traditions change or shift.

New traditions.

Sounds a bit like an oxymoron.  Like jumbo shrimp or controlled chaos.

But in our typically unusual house, that’s exactly what we did this year for the holidays.  Create new traditions.  Because we had to.

December used to be one crazy month.  We celebrate both holidays in our family – starting with Chanukah in our house and with my side of the family.  I used to plan parties for family and friends, with dreidel games and bagels and latkes and gifts for everyone.  This year, I couldn’t do it.  I was emotionally, physically, and financially exhausted.

We had to do something different.  Luckily, Chanukah was early this year and close enough to Thanksgiving so we were able to celebrate it with my family while we were already in Vermont. The boys lit the candles with my mother and opened their gifts at her house, not caring that we were a few days early.

lighting Chanukah candles with my mother

Lighting the candles with my mother

When the actual week of Chanukah arrived, the boys opened one present each night.  While I know that this is the usual tradition for many Jewish families, we’ve always opened all of our presents on the first night.  That’s the way my family has always done it since I was a kid.  But thanks to Chanukah coming so early and my complete lack of planning, many of the kids’ gifts didn’t arrive in time for the first night.  So by default, we opened one gift a night.

And it worked.

There was no sensory overload from a room full of wrapping paper and empty boxes.  There were no gifts left untouched because other gifts seemed cooler at the time.  When books were opened on the third night, it was still just as awesome as the monster trucks opened on the last night.  And now…a new tradition in our house.

Mercifully, there were three weeks between Chanukah and Christmas this year.  When Gerry and Howie were small, we used to travel to my mother-in-law’s house to have Christmas there.  She’d save the decorating until that morning, and the boys would help her put the ornaments on the tree.  We’d spend the day there, opening gifts and having Christmas lunch.

When Howie was two, his sensory issues were becoming more difficult, and we knew he just couldn’t manage a whole day of present opening overload in unfamiliar surroundings.  Lewis was just an infant at Christmastime that year, and I wasn’t keen on taking him out anywhere.  Tim’s family graciously moved their holiday celebration to our house, tree and all.

The tradition has evolved now to something the kids look forward to.  My mother-in-law brought the tree, ornaments and presents to the house, the kids took 30 minutes to decorate it, and then they opened their presents.  A few hours later, we packed up the tree and ornaments and Christmas was over. No Christmas lunch, no unfamiliar surroundings.

And again, it worked.

Lewis decorating the tree for the first time

Very fond of the Thomas the Tank Engine ornament

There were points where it could have gone awry.  I had prepped Howie an hour before my mother-in-law arrived – telling him exactly how the afternoon was going to go and reminded him that the tree wasn’t staying.  When he started to get upset, I brought him back to our conversation and he was able to calm himself down before a meltdown occurred.  And we didn’t even bother trying to have a Christmas lunch or sit down dinner that night.  Even though I bought a ham, only Lewis and I ate it (smothered in maple syrup because I’m a Vermonter at heart).  Tim had cold sesame noodles, Gerry had waffles, and Howie sat in his favorite green chair in the TV room with some goldfish.  It was all he could attempt at that point of the night, and I wasn’t going to bother trying anything else.

I found that changing traditions was a little like changing my kids’ routines.  I had to give advance notice and any shift without planning had the potential for trouble.  When I forgot to buy gingerbread houses this year, Gerry got upset because it was something we “always did” over winter break.  So out I went to find corn-free, dye free gingerbread houses and decorating candy so Howie could eat it all.  It was important to him and consequently, to me.  And we’ve been eating gingerbread all week now.

the boys with their gingerbread houses

Very proud of their gingerbread houses

New traditions.  Focused on the idea of family and the holiday, and not around something that we think we have to be doing, just because we’ve always done it that way.  Not canceling them, but making a change to fit how our family works now.

I think I kind of like it this way.

Tradition, tradition! Tradition!
Tradition, tradition! Tradition!…

Who must know the way to make a proper home,
A quiet home, a kosher home?
Who must raise the family and run the home,
So Papa’s free to read the holy books?
The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!
The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!” – Tradition from Fiddler on the Roof

(I couldn’t resist the song, even though it is the total opposite description of our family…)