Six years ago, when we started spending Christmas with my husband’s family, his mom was very concerned that I was abandoning my own family for the holidays. The reality, of course, was that my own holiday traditions had been turned on their heads after we lost my dad, and fully collapsed 5 years later when all of my remaining grandparents and my great-uncle (who was more like a grandfather) had died. Once there were more empty chairs than full at our holiday table we never really regained a sense of normal tradition. So Thanksgiving with my family and Christmas with his became my new tradition.
A new Christmas in South Florida: decorated palm trees, early dinners, the beach and golf, golf and the beach, more early dinners . . . quite a shift from chopping down Christmas trees in the freezing cold and the possibility of a white Christmas.
In my family we never opened gifts Christmas morning; we had to wait until afternoon (a totally bizarre form of torture for small children, I know). In this new Christmas, we open gifts first thing in the morning. In this tradition, the youngest person distributes the gifts, gifts are all opened, followed by an elaborate breakfast. In my old Christmas, we each opened a gift at the same time, passing around each one, until all the gifts were done, followed by dinner. During my first Christmas with this new family, I scratched off my first lottery ticket, as scratch-offs are a holiday stocking tradition here. In my old Christmas, there would never have been a lottery ticket, and if one somehow appeared my mom would have explained that the lottery capitalizes on the dreams of those who don’t have enough money to spend on a ticket but buy them anyway. I won $125. Maybe these new holiday traditions would not be so bad.
Two years ago I was finally in this new Christmas. I mentioned in passing a card game that my family used to play, introduced to us by my grandmother. Though my grandmother was an avid Bridge player, Bridge proved a bit too much for the rest of young kids to handle. So she taught us Skip-Bo when I was very young and we played. A lot. I remember playing it on her card table in the living room, out on the porch, sitting in bed when I was sick, on holidays and Saturdays, and almost any other time I was at my grandmother’s house. I commented to my new family that I hadn’t played the game since my grandmother died. That Christmas morning in my stocking, between scratch-off tickets and countless gifts, was a deck of Skip-Bo cards.
I taught Brad’s family to play and by last Christmas, his mom had her own deck. We played each night with his grandmother. It was a nice comfort when the Skip-Bo deck came out this year, this tiny piece of my old traditions. Brad’s grandmother told stories of her friends from her retirement home playing Skip-Bo. Had they known about the game before? No, they hadn’t. She explained that after I taught her, she taught her friends, and now they play Skip-Bo. A lot. As she talked about this I thought of my own grandmother. . . imagined her at the table playing with us, or at the retirement home playing with the 90-year-old women who she never met but I am sure she would have liked (especially if they play bridge too).
I think of all the planning I have done in the past around preparing for the holidays after deaths – the advice I have given and advice I have taken, the holidays that have been wonderful and those that have been terrible. Today there is no advice to share. Just a reminder that, though planning for holiday grief is important, sometimes it is the smallest stories and a silly game of cards can make those empty chairs at the holiday table feel a little less empty.
Hope you found a little comfort somewhere in your holiday this year, and please share about it below if you like . . .