Separated from relatives, we can find connections in friends who become family.
EVEN IN OUR noisy house, few days were more clamorous than Christmas: my four siblings and me thundering downstairs to open presents. The stiff crumpling of wrapping paper, the ever-pinging doorbell, the growing din as our house filled with a crush of relatives — so many at times, I had to be reminded of their names.
And yet, for all the noise, my most lasting memory of Christmas is one of peace.
I can still hear it: the rhythmic jangle of the aluminum potato peeler in my grandmother’s hand on Christmas Eve as she expertly flicked skins off dozens of russets for the next day’s mashed potatoes.
Gathered around our kitchen table, drinking tea and peeling and cutting potatoes and string beans with my mom, my aunts, my older sister and cousins, family secrets would begin to spill out. Even now, I remember my shallow breathing as I tried to become invisible, lest someone notice my wide-eyed child’s silence and send me packing, or signal a subject change with a fast dart of eyes in my direction.
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For years, that was the drill: females in the kitchen, preparing the next day’s meal, puffing on cigarettes and spilling the beans.
My memories of Christmas Days are vague: Many were jolly, some were drunken and a few funereal as we marked the first Christmas without one of our tribe.
But the sound of the peeler is seared in the happy part of my brain. It brings a smile as it percolates from my subconscious. It is that Christmas tradition of quiet intimacy that I’ve brought to my adult years, sharing love with friends who have become family in the absence of blood relatives scattered around the country.
In Seattle, land of the newcomer, if feels like there are more of us than ever seeking or embracing new traditions for the winter holidays. With families far away, we’re faced with remaking our lives with people here.
YOU MIGHT HAVE felt the dread building around Thanksgiving, when the questions started about what you’re doing for the holidays, maybe your first in a strange city. Um, nothing? Some of us opt out to avoid going to parties where we don’t know anyone, or so we won’t be taking part in someone else’s celebration that only underscores our separateness and the dreaded loneliness so many of us feel around the holidays.
How do you replace 20 years of Hanukkah or Makar Sankranti with your parents? Where do you plug into Kwanzaa or re-create Festivus, that ridiculous fictional holiday from “Seinfeld” that marked your time in college?
But sometimes, magic happens. We take a chance on the kindness of co-workers or a friend from the gym or preschool, and share our first holiday together. It could be something created of whole cloth or a tradition of long standing that has been widened to include us.
We can feel when that magic connection happens, when the awkwardness falls away through shared tasks like peeling potatoes or setting the table or singing karaoke after dinner or the reading of the Christmas story. We respond with an enthusiastic and sincere “yes” when someone suggests we do it again next year. It becomes the first seed of something beautiful that fertilizes the tentative roots that ground us to our new home at the edge of the continent.
Over time, we look over the table and see family.
Traditions are like that. Specific to places or to people, or both, they speak to all that is deep and important about living. To have them — or have had them — is to visit the passage of time, and remember who you were exactly this time a year ago. Or five years ago. Or 50.
Like vessels, traditions hold us in space and time, and mark the depth of our relationship to others and the past. They hold newcomers and old-timers alike, creating space for human connection like a poem.
We live these moments, seeking communion with others and with ourselves, and connection to the ancient roots and human longings they fulfill. Even though we face long months of rain and concrete-colored skies, there’s solace in knowing the darkest day of the year is behind us.
People through the ages understood that the importance of staying in touch through the darkness provides us with a compass to find our way. It doesn’t matter how we travel, or even with whom. The important thing is that we remind ourselves that we need each other.
Some of our most cherished Christmas traditions are handed down through generations: the ritual of opening presents on Christmas morning, the carols, favorite recipes, the tree, the garlands that go on forever, the ancient metaphor of shining lights in the darkness.
Other traditions come from an expressed desire to re-experience a beautiful moment of comfort or joy, a time when we felt deeply bonded and connected to those around us, and felt, like a warm embrace, our place in the world.
HAVING LEFT MY hometown nearly 40 years ago, and moved several times since, my Christmas traditions are shared not with my relatives, but with my family of friends.
We never know when it will begin, when saying “yes” for the first time will take us 40 years down the road, celebrating cherished traditions with our new family.
A few years ago, I spent the day with a family forged around the common desire to help widows and orphans. They were a chivalrous group, with shared values and rituals that gave everyone a distinct role in the family. We were exploring that when a man named Thomas entered the room, wearing an olive-green kimono.
Thomas was our chief tea-maker. He had lived in Japan for many years, and had perfected the art of brewing and serving tea. He poured the tea into small stoneware cups as we sat talking, and it was most excellent. He was clearly pleased that he had made everyone happy, and then he disappeared into the kitchen.
I thought about him for months afterward. The look of pleasure on his face. The respect he enjoyed. The place he held. He knew he was valued. He’d found a family of his choosing who chose him back.
I’ve seen it with other friends, too. Like Sarah Sewalot, a salon owner in Edmonds who celebrates “Friendsgiving” with people who have been part of her life since her daughter was born 18 years ago. Though close to her family, Sewalot says the celebration with her family by choice is the most joyful of the year. She sees family in the faces around her: people who have shared some of the most important times in her life as she raised her daughter far from relatives in Thailand.
I’ve felt that, too, in annual camping trips with friends we met when my son was in preschool, and in the yearly Christmas Eve feasts where the food is eclipsed only by the company, and the experience of gathering around a table to connect and share stories that are not for the ears of children.
We drive home after those nights already looking forward to next year.
If you’re reading this on Christmas, my son and I are probably still in our pajamas. We’ll have meatballs for dinner, if I can work up the energy. We might watch a movie. Or not. Friends might come over. Or not. If they do, they might very well become family whose absence on Christmas Day we will one day greatly miss.
We both love the quiet and the comfort, the knowing that we have family in Seattle.
And while my son might not know the tinny jangle of the potato peeler, he knows he belongs. We hope you know that, too.