I was raised by an old father. Dad was older than my mother in years when I was born, but he was a lot older than her–or anyone else his age–in personality, appearance, and expressions. I can remember a teammate poking his head in the locker room in 7th grade to tell me my “grandaddy” was there to pick me up from practice.  I don’t remember a day when he didn’t have stark white, curly hair. Like me, he was the youngest child. He, my uncle, and two aunts spanned out in age over 20 years. And, like me, his parents were old to be having children when he was born.  I knew my grandparents on that side. They would be 120 years old this next year. I always thought they were very different. Now I know why. My experience with Dad and his parents was much more like an experience with grandparents and great-grandparents. Different ways, different ideas, different talk.

Dad’s mother, my grandmother Birtha, was something else. She was VERY spiritual. I remember going to church with her on visits to their home in Mabank, TX. I was terrified. Her church was what a lot of people would call a bunch of “holy rollers.” Loud music. Lots of crying. Scary sermons. I can remember there never being a clear indication of when the service was going to end. This, I would imagine, is because no one in the building (pastor included) knew when it would end either. 

Yes, Birtha, or MeMa as we called her, was a true believer. Her conviction went with her everywhere….especially to our family holiday gatherings. In her mind the holidays were convenient times not necessarily to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable. And we had some folks who were comfortable at those gatherings. Comfortable drinking, smoking, cussing, carousing. You name it. Dad’s family was an amazing cast of characters. Cowboys, cowgirls, bullriders, businessmen, lawyers, ex-cons, and current-cons. There was cobbler, fried chicken, fighting, arguing, and enough passive aggression to supply a million marriage counseling sessions.

MeMa’s favorite method of confronting the “sins of the flesh” afflicting all of my cousins involved, of course, scripture. After all, what better time could there be than the holidays to offer a swift sinners rebuke through the story of baby Jesus? In her estimation the two hours we spent eating dinner and opening family gifts provided sufficient time for her to thoroughly evaluate everyone’s standing with The Almighty. This evaluation took into account their language, appearance, haircuts, smell, and any other knowledge she could glean by asking “concerned questions.” After dinner and gifts she would remove the 16×16 Bible from the mantle and look around the room. Then, all of us thoroughly measured, she would commission the two most wayward sinners with the responsibility of reading an altogether uncomfortably long passage of scripture to the rest of the family. She sat next to the reader, following along word by word, to ensure textual accuracy. I guess she was thinking this might be the only chance these people were going to read the Bible that year, and, since she was in charge, by God, they were going to read it here, and now. Looking back, she typically chose the same two people. And, looking back, she was probably right to select them.

Yes, like most families, in one way or another we were dysfunctional. But, in our dysfunction we had our traditions. And, even those predetermined to test the fires of hell, at least in MeMa’s assessment, continued coming back year after year to face the impending judgment and enjoy the fried chicken. 

It was a tradition.

One year when I was a little boy, late on Christmas Eve, we came home from my other grandparent’s house. As we pulled into our long gravel driveway my dad abruptly stopped the car and shut off the lights. He turned to the backseat and said with a very serious, whispering tone, “y’all be quiet….I think I see reindeer out by the barn eating hay. I left some out there for them. You know, those reindeer need something to eat on a long trip like they’re on tonight. Santa might be in the house. I’ll go check.” From there we crept up the rest of the driveway, turned off the car, and sat in silence listening for sleighbells, looking for the slightest sign of Saint Nick. Dad got out of the car snooping like an investigator around the house and barn. We watched wide-eyed, our noses pressed against the car windows. He came back with a report that Santa was not there yet, but we’d better get to bed quickly or else we’d be awake when he did get there. For whatever reason that wasn’t a good thing. We believed every word of it.

It was magical. And it became tradition.

In time, we would learn the truth about Santa, but still observed some version of this tradition coming home on Christmas Eve. And now, with so much time and so many miles passed, I still look back with fondness. It wasn’t about Santa, his reindeer, or his gifts. It was about my parents adding richness and wonder to our lives. It was my dad putting forth effort to be a fun, old dad.

It was about memory.  It was about tradition. 

Now, years later, in the spirit of tradition (and of feeding reindeer), I gather with my siblings and our children at my parents farm in Texas. Dad’s suggestion that Santa’s reindeer were out eating hay at the barn has expanded with time.  We mix a large bowl of “reindeer food” (oatmeal with a little glitter) and the kids run through the yard tossing the glittery mix up into the moonlight, watching it shimmer in the cold night air. It’s the same yard Dad snooped around decades ago, long before he and Santa both passed. There is laughter and wonder. All of the kids know Santa isn’t coming. They know whatever presents are under the tree come from their parents. In our tradition we let belief in Santa naturally dissipate with time. Some of these “kids” are in their 20’s. Still, there is something we all enjoy about feeding reindeer we know aren’t coming. 

It’s tradition.

It’s a reminder of how my parents loved us and were willing to play, to be fun. It’s a bookmark, way back in the chapters, of a page I love reading again and would gladly live again if I could.

What will your holiday family traditions be? Please, don’t google “holiday traditions.” What is something uniquely suited to your family? It might be reading scripture, sharing a certain meal, a song you sing or listen to. It might be a memory you share from your childhood or a family story you pass down. Maybe it is volunteering for a loving cause. Whatever it is, make it yours and don’t give up on it.

Traditions are worth starting. And keeping. 

Hunter Smith
December 17th, 2020 

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