Christmas Traditions Recycled

Friends are spending this holiday in ways they didn't plan. They are not with the people they usually celebrate with or they're not taking trips to family in snowy areas -- so they must "adjust". Here's my story of adjustment from the San Francisco Chronicle  10 years ago. It has gotten easier.

As times change, make new traditions from old

Wednesday, December 3, 2003
The holidays often create the challenge of melding traditions from different families. Also, those who moved from places that look like a "winter wonderland" in December must find ways to feel the holiday spirit in the California sun. In either case, adjustments are required.
As I pull out our holiday decorations, I can see that I am adjusting, and it's starting to feel a little more natural.
For the first 14 years of marriage, we returned to be with my family in South Dakota at Christmas, as I had done every other year of my life before that.
Then five years ago, a decision I had long avoided loomed. My mother was 90, no longer really conscious and unable to leave her care facility. I didn't think that I could stand being at our family Christmas events, knowing that she was just a few miles away and not with us. It felt equally hard to remain in California for Christmas, away from my brothers and their families and from the many traditions we shared at the holidays.
On the other hand, my husband, who is a California native, was ready for a Christmas here. He had long felt we needed to come up with some local traditions. Our kids didn't put up too much of a fuss, so we spent our first Christmas as a family in California.
I bought a tube of waterproof mascara and tried to stay busy. We had always "gone to Christmas," and now we had to bring it here. Though I had moments when I felt like curling up under a warm comforter and weeping, I had to find a way to make it feel like Christmas here, for my children and for myself.
I started by planning a big party. I sprayed fake frost on every window. I cheered when the temperature went down. The house smelled of mulled cider and logs burning on the fire. Every corner was decorated in some way. The menu and traditions were like those we usually celebrated back home. Everyone had a great time.
Our quiet family event on Christmas Eve also went fairly well. We ate fresh crab by the fire, shared some with the cat and opened our gifts. Sensing my misery, my husband even agreed to play board games with the children and me.
I took just a few breaks for tear attacks, and each year since has gone a little better.
One thing that has helped is to focus on people for whom the situation is truly serious. We have helped at a local church putting together Christmas packages for families in need. The children have earned money and donated to local causes or have done special things for some of the children whom I work with.
Each year we've had a crafts day with close friends and their kids, making decoupage plates, doll quilts and Christmas ornaments.
Now that my daughter is a teenager, we have "fancy cooking days," where her friends come and learn how to make dishes like meringues and red pepper relish . When we're done the kitchen is a disaster. And even the mess is comforting.
For my children these traditions will be added to their Christmas memories. As a fervent recycler, my mother would be proud that I made new traditions from old ones.

Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator in Berkeley. E-mail her at
This article appeared on page HO - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle