It is Christmas Eve and I am in my car on the phone with Michael, pleading with him to please, just this once, stop being so stubborn and spend some damn time with my family. This is not the first time we’ve had this conversation. But I can’t really blame him. I’m calling him from where I’m parked, in the local cemetery, and I’m asking him to come down here.
But this is my tradition. So this is what I need.
Since my sister passed away more than a decade ago, it has been our family tradition to spend Christmas Eve at McDonald’s (for breakfast, obvs) and then the cemetery. Gathering like this is the only way that my whole family can come together anymore, and as a result, this tradition has become something sacred to me. More than the holiday itself, our time at the cemetery is what Christmas means to me. And I need Michael there.
Still, I understood his hesitation. We’d been together a few years by this point (Three years, four? I don’t remember. He’ll tell you it was sooner.), but somehow, despite what we shared, it still felt too personal for him. While we were looking forward to a future together, my family was commemorating a history that precluded him, and therefore (maybe?) excluded him (or so he felt). How could he intrude on something so intimate? Moreover, how could he join in?
But still, the shrill pleading of my voice can be persuasive, and Michael buckled, driving the handful of miles from his mother’s house to the cemetery in our town and joining in on the festivities.
Together we tossed the football (ok, he tossed and I dropped), decorated the two small trees flanking my sister’s site, and fed the ducks with my grandmother (I think she just throws a loaf of bread in their direction and has them do the rest of the work).
I don’t remember if he enjoyed himself that day. But what I do remember is that the difference for me was palpable.
It wasn’t so much that I needed him there for the support. I needed him there because this tradition says, without words, so much about who I am that I didn’t think he could possibly understand the whole me without it. The same way that Christmas at his grandmother’s house speaks volumes about the man I’ve married. (They open their presents one at a time, in assembly line fashion. What is that?)
The traditions that Michael and I partake in each year are our own, but whether you spend your holidays at a cemetery, or painstakingly waiting your turn to open presents, the struggle is universal. During a time so often dominated by our families of origin, we are all working hard to navigate the waters of sharing events, creating new traditions, and building up the strength of our baby family. And while it is important that we use this precious time to strengthen the foundation that will eventually become our own set of traditions, I urge everyone to take a minute to appreciate the places our partners come from. I know it’s not always easy to understand why certain traditions mean so much to the people we love, but sometimes there is a comfort in the familiar that can’t be explained. And if it’s hard for us to explain the importance of the event itself, believe me, it is even harder to explain why we so desperately need you to be there for it. (But trust me when I say, we do.)
The stronger our baby family grows, and the more scattered my family becomes, the more important it is for me to hold on tight to these weathered practices. And the more important it is that Michael is there for them, if only for the brief glimpses into a life that belongs to me apart from him.
This is the first year that I’ll miss our trip to the cemetery, and I’m already mourning the loss a little bit. For me, the holidays are my family, and no amount of tree decorating or eggnog swigging can come close to replacing their presence. But I think that for this reason it is absolutely imperative that I carry out our quirky traditions in any small way I can. I’ll probably drag Michael to McDonald’s at 9am for breakfast, and then maybe we’ll buy a loaf of stale bread to feed to the ducks that live on our new property. This way, despite the separation, it’s almost like we’re still all together. Because being parted by insurmountable distances never stopped us before, now did it?