Christmas traditions that can't be broken
Holiday traditions take many forms. Ours is the annual Christmas road trip.
With all of our relatives in other cities, we hit the road for at least part of every holiday season, visiting one if not both sides of the family in metro St. Louis and Omaha.
We’ve got it down to a science: the strategic shipping of presents to the grandmothers’ houses, the addressing of holiday cards in the car, and my personal favorite, the annual Packing of the Van.'
Somehow, no matter how hard we try to fit everything into a reasonable number of suitcases, we end up filling the van to the brim, with a sliver of rear window to see out the back and just enough room for our feet on the passenger side. There are bags of snacks, movies for the DVD player, newspapers/books to read, my daughter’s stuffed animals, sleeping bags, extra pillows, snow boots just in case (a good bet this year) and my suitcase of wrapping supplies. (That one is a sore subject with my husband, who thinks all gift wrap is created equal. I beg to differ).
Friends often ask, in sympathy, why we don’t just stay home for Christmas. The trips can be grueling -- especially the two consecutive years we ran into blizzards on the same godforsaken stretch of central Iowa and had to stop for the night.
Or the time we drove all night on Christmas Eve from Omaha to St. Louis so we could be with both families for their big celebrations and had to stop at the “Bobber” truck stop in central Missouri for a 5 a.m. nap in the car. Nothing says Christmas like a parking lot full of semis.
Or the year (long before I was married) that it was 25 below zero in Champaign on Christmas Eve, and my car wouldn’t start. Every rental car in C-U was spoken for, so I ended up borrowing an old Volkswagen Beetle (the original model) from a friend who hadn’t used it for months, if not years. It started right up -- reminiscent of the scene in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” -- but also had an oil leak and, of course, a very weak heater. It was not a pleasant drive.
I confess there are times I think how nice it would be to stay in our own home, watch our kids walk down our stairs on Christmas morning, find their presents under their own tree and enjoy a lazy day together. No packing up the van, worrying about travel weather or sleeping on a lumpy hide-a-bed on Christmas Eve.
But then I think about the rest of Christmas Day and how quiet it would be.
No cholesterol-laden brunch with the traditional egg-and-sausage casserole, gooey butter coffee cake and pastries from my mom’s favorite Polish bakery. No warm hum of relatives’ contented voices. No sledding on the giant hill (a real one, not man-made) in the park by my mom’s house. No catching up on all the things my nieces and nephews have been doing for the past few months since we were last together.
And I can’t imagine not being there.
As they’ve grown, scattered and built their own lives, it has become harder each year to get everyone together on Christmas Day. Last year, for the first time in a while, everyone was there: my mom, her four children and our spouses, all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, from Champaign and Chicago, North Carolina and Kansas City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
We all descended on my mom’s house -- “Magu’s house,” a nickname coined by my oldest niece (who somehow got Grandma backwards). I savored the chaos, wondering how many more times we would be able to pull it off.
This year, the celebration may be divided into two, as two families can’t make it until the day after Christmas. At one point, someone suggested that we postpone the whole party a couple of days until everyone could be there -- a perfectly logical idea, as the idea is to be together.
Except that my heart dropped when she said it. My children are still young, and Christmas morning is a BIG DEAL. When I broached the idea of staying at our house for Christmas morning, I was met with a rebellion. Christmas, my son said firmly, is always at Magu’s house.
So we will be there, along with whoever can make it, and celebrate all over again a couple of days later.
Two Christmases. I like that tradition.
Photos: A Christmas tree is seen through the window of Neff Grocery at the Bunker Hill Historic Site in Kennekuk County Park near Danville, top. News-Gazette archive