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December 10, 2008

Time for New Traditions

19 I admit it — I'm a sucker for tradition, and when it comes to holiday traditions, the more the merrier. It all started when I was a little girl. Until I was 13, I was blessed to have four living great-grand parents. Our holidays in the Detroit area were a mad relay of staccato car trips that hiccoughed us from the east side to the west side and back again, visiting relatives who pulled quarters from our ears and fed us horrible cookies.

I loved it and could never understand why my mother was always a nervous wreck. Now I know too well the stress of trying to keep sugar-doped children clean in dress-up clothes, cook and schlep food all over kingdom come, and find gifts for people I barely know. No wonder her favorite holiday memory was the year we went to Jamaica.

As my generation grew up and spread out across the country, our traditions changed. The 60-mile radius of my childhood seems like a luxury in the face of two-day car journeys, long train trips and expensive plane fares. We don't all always make it. When we do, we are holed up together for days on end, which brings its own delights and stresses. Our family has become more complicated, as well, blending and extending in many directions — but we've adapted pretty well, adding new people, new celebrations and new traditions to the mix.

Adding on has been adding up, however, and the travel alone costs a fortune. More people mean more gifts, more food — just more. The entire family is guilty of overly generous gift giving, but these days everyone is feeling the pinch. Over the past couple of years, we have tried to create a few new traditions to make the holiday experience a little less taxing (both financially and physically) without losing any of the joy.

Last year, for example, my parents came up with the idea of putting each couple in charge of one meal: planning it, buying it, preparing it and cleaning up after it. Even my three boys took on a dinner (spaghetti, jarred sauce, frozen garlic bread and a simple salad). It was great and a new tradition was born. Here are a few more ideas — some we've tried successfully, some that will be new this year:

• I've cut way back on the number of holiday cards I'm sending this year (good for the planet as well as the wallet), opting instead to create a little e-video card. I'll have to get back to you on the results of this experiment.

• It's not the cost that counts. My boys have a blast at the dollar store. Last year, my dad got a lifetime supply of toothpicks and couldn't be happier. He's even taken to giving dollar store hints: "Gee, I could really use a new fly swatter this year."

• I'm encouraging creativity. Last year, my daughter made some great calendars using family photos that were a big hit. Our oldest son's girlfriend knits up a storm every year, creating beautiful, warm, personal gifts that we all treasure.

I think our favorite family tradition is the story behind the gift: who got the best buy, where one of us found that little shop with the crazy owner, and how someone snagged the most amazing freebie. Even lost luggage stories are fun when we're all together. Last year, lost luggage resulted in stringing out the gift giving for days.

Given our passion for storytelling, I've decided to inflict introduce something new this year. I fully expect the family to hate me for this, but we're going to try creating a progressive story (sometimes called an add-on or round robin story). The idea is that some poor sucker lucky raconteur (i.e., my brother) will be chosen to start a thrilling holiday tale, writing a paragraph or so before sending it on (don't you just love email?). Each family member will add a new paragraph, and we'll have a big story fest when we all gather later in the month. Wish me luck.

It takes time to develop and absorb new traditions. Change is hard. I thought the toughest part of a scaled-down holiday would be explaining it to the children, but it's not. The hardest part is accepting it myself. This year — and probably for a number of years to come — we can't have it all, buy it all, give it all or do it all. But we can still have fun, as long as we're together.

This is an original Chicago Moms Blog post. When not tinkering with tradition, Susan can be found tinkering at Two Kinds of People and The Animal Store Blog.

Graphic credit: Blessed by Billy Alexander.

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