By Steve McIlwain
For the first 27 years of my life, Christmas was always the same … and I loved it. Then, I got married.
Every year, more or less, the routine was set. On Christmas Eve Mom cooked homemade soup and freshly made bread. After that we attended Christmas Eve service at our church which concluded with a congregation-wide candle light singing of “Silent Night” outside on the patio.
Christmas morning consisted of Mom, Dad, Sis, Grandma, Granddad, & Uncle John: all sitting in our usual spots. Each gift was unwrapped, typically followed by some whirlwind story of how it eventually nestled under the tree. After each gift was opened, you’d wad up the wrapping paper and shoot it basketball-style over to dad who always manned the garbage bag. Mid-morning we took a breakfast break for cinnamon rolls and little smokies. Then we’d hop back into the opening of presents and telling of stories. The McIlwain-style of Christmas morning was a drawn out, methodical marathon that lasted until 1pm-ish. We enjoyed each other, enjoyed opening gifts, enjoyed good food, and enjoyed telling stories.
After the cornucopia of gifts was complete, we would gear up for Christmas dinner. Mom has perfected her prime rib, mashed potatoes, and caramelized shallots menu. It’s one of my favorite meals of the year. All in all Christmas Day was familiar. It was enveloped in a cozy feeling of being at home, conjuring wistful memories of all the Christmases that had come before. There was nothing particularly extravagant about our Christmas festivities besides being something we had experienced together for years upon years; and that made it magnificent.
Ashley and I were married in 2008, and our holiday rotation began. For our first year of marriage we spent Christmas with Ashley’s family in Pennsylvania. We attend Christmas Eve service at their church which ends in a candlelight rendition of Silent Night … maybe things won’t be so different. Well, in Ashley’s family presents are opened on Christmas Eve … a tradition I never really understood. Gifts are opened one at a time in rapid-fire succession. No stories, no long, drawn-out tales. Christmas morning is pretty low key. We wake up, make a run to Sheetz for breakfast (if you don’t know Sheetz, Google it. Their made-to-order food is awesome), hang-out, and play a bit with our new gear. In the afternoon Ashley’s Mom makes a ham Christmas feast including an odd, new-to-me side dish: egg noodles in ham broth. We then spend the rest of the day being together with family. In some ways it was familiar to my own Christmas memories, but in others it just wasn’t the same.
Now I don’t want to give the impression that I was miserable with Ashley’s family during Christmas. They did a fantastic job including me in the Christmas festivities and inviting me into their celebration. I love her family and time spent with them is always invaluable. A lot of people face truly devastating realties at Christmas; infinitely worse off than spoiled me. However, it was different. It felt foreign. It lacked my childhood memories. But on the other side of that coin: Ashley felt the same way about spending Christmas with my family. We didn’t loathe each other’s Christmas traditions, it just wasn’t our own. How do you reconcile that?
As time marches on, without really thinking about it, new traditions emerge. With Ashley’s family we have developed traditions that I absolutely love and look forward to each year we get to spend Christmas with them. Christmas on the east coast elicits old-time, traditional Christmas imagery. Growing up in California a rainy Christmas was about the best you could hope for. But when it comes down to it, there’s nothing quite like an east coast white Christmas. I really enjoy visiting Ashley’s hometown and seeing their Main St. decorated for Christmas (my hometown didn’t really have a Main St.). Breakfast at Sheetz on Christmas morning is priceless: free coffee and a chicken biscuit is truly one of my favorite meals of the year. Egg noodles in ham broth have become a side dish that I literally crave. And being part of Ashley’s family, fully immersed in their Christmas celebration, experiencing Christmas with the love of my life’s traditions is something I now consider my own family Christmas. Her mom, dad, sisters, brothers-in-laws, and extended family are warm, caring, and genuine people that embody the Christmas spirit. They love each other and love me. It is a privilege to be able to spend Christmas with them. At this point, I’d feel cheated if we missed our bi-yearly Christmas experience with Ashley’s family.
Christmas with the in-laws elicits different emotions, feelings, and experiences for everyone. Some have painful memories, some have bad attitudes, some have legitimate gripes. No matter where you land on the spectrum, at the heart of Christmas is family, friends, generosity, and love. Embrace new traditions. Appreciate things you’ve never fully appreciated. Take advantage of the wonderful people around you. While some things may be new and different to you, they are a treasured part of your spouse’s life, and without realizing it, you are building new traditions. Embrace that this Christmas season, and look for new ways to celebrate. One of the best ways you can love your spouse is to fully immerse yourself into their Christmas customs and make them your own. And in the process you may develop some traditions that you can’t live without.