When I moved out to California fifteen years ago, I did not go home for Christmas. Instead of cold and snow and a gray day that pressed up against an early dark night, my Christmas was suddenly filled with sunlight, and the deep blue skies that exist in the winter in Northern California. This was the first Christmas that I had not spent with my parents and the rest of my extended family. And rather than feeling sad or nostalgic, I felt as light as the day.
I come from a big family and Christmas was always chaotic with lots of food, lots of presents, and always lots of hurt feelings, disappointments, anger, tears. So I found it particularly liberating to make my own Christmas traditions that year, to not be restricted by what I had eaten or done all the years before. Since my husband's family did not celebrate Christmas, I was truly free to make this day our own. We selected our tree-a large Noble Fir that filled our living room with its pine scent and its lights. I baked all my favorite cookies the week before, and our house smelled delicious every day. I chose my own menu for our large breakfast and then for a simple dinner. I hung stockings not just for our son, but also for our dog. I gave our son new pajamas that Christmas Eve (and have done so every year since) so that on Christmas morning he would look good for the photographs. In the afternoon, we all went for a long walk, our dog's red velvet collar strung with bells jingling all the way. There were few expectations that Christmas; it was quiet, relaxed (although there was still plenty of food and presents), and joyous.
I miss my large family on the East Coast, I miss the beautiful manger under the tree, and the ornaments that have stood the test of time. I miss my mother's spicy gingerbread cookies with the sweet icing, and the chestnuts my father roasts in the fireplace. I miss the prayers at midnight mass. And I miss the noise of all those people gathered together at one table. Oh, but I love my new Christmas traditions-I love that they are ours, and I love the peace I feel inside when I wake up each Christmas morning since I arrived in California. And I love feeling thankful for my small family celebrating beside me and my larger family celebrating far away.