Thinking about family in November inevitably centers around gathering for Thanksgiving and Christmas, especially this year since we are returning to gathering in person. Last year I missed having my extended family with me for the holidays because of COVID, but the experience underscored something I learned a few years ago. The date on the calendar is not the holiday, the gathering is.
When my children were young, we hosted one side of the family in our home on Christmas Eve, then drove six hours on Christmas Day to be with the other side of the family. It was exhausting, but created wonderful traditions and memories. My sons had to set aside their newly opened gifts for a couple of days, usually choosing one to bring with them. We listened to Christmas music on the car radio as we drove through long stretches of rural areas dotted with occasional houses lit up with Christmas trees in their windows and lights on their gables. All for the abiding joy in watching my sons and their cousins spending time together at their grandparents’ house.
Much later, my sons and their cousins on both sides acquired jobs and girlfriends then wives. Their time wasn’t devoted to our nuclear family gatherings any more. They had to learn to divide their time between families just as I had done upon my marriage. The first year my son was married, he and his wife spent Thanksgiving Day with her family. I decided to have our traditional dinner on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, complete with turkey and the trimmings, so they could join us. It didn’t matter one bit that the meal was not actually on Thanksgiving. What mattered is that we were together.
At my younger son’s graduation from the Physician Assistant program at Oregon Health Sciences University in August, all five of us celebrated together for the first time in a long time. It was a wonderful moment in time. It wasn’t a holiday, or a tradition, just a one-time celebration that filled my heart.
So this year, as the holidays approach, I need to remind myself that gathering when we can is what’s important. With one son six hours south of us, and the other son with his wife and new baby six hours north, what does a holiday gathering look like? My son in Los Angeles will come up to see us at Thanksgiving, but the baby in Klamath Falls will only be six weeks old then so they aren’t traveling. Baby won’t remember Zooming with his Grammy for his first Thanksgiving, but I will. And it will be fine as I know we will visit at other times.
At Christmas, I hope to have all six of us, baby included, at my house. It doesn’t have to be Christmas Eve or even Christmas Day, as long as we can spend time in each other’s company, sharing ourselves in ways that phone calls and Zoom just can’t replicate. Whenever Christmas happens for us this year, it will be a time of joy that has nothing to do with December 25.
Linda Ulleseit writes award-winning heritage fiction set in the United States. She is a member of Historical Novel Society, Women’s Fiction Writers Association, and Women Writing the West as well as a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. Get in touch with her on Instagram (lulleseit) and Facebook (Linda Ulleseit or SHINE with Paper Lantern Writers).