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Making Magic in Times of Loss
On creating new holiday traditions
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell at Me, a newsletter about politics and personhood. If you enjoy it, consider becoming a subscriber. The newsletter also makes an excellent gift for that person in your life who wants regular dispatches from the Midwest, served up hot, with a little bit of spice and a lot of cheese.
I started the advent calendar treasure hunt by accident. The year before I got divorced, I bought an advent calendar that could be reused. Where every day was empty, and I could fill it with treats or notes for my kids.
I am one of eight children and growing up, we had an advent calendar tradition of our own that I loved. It was a nativity picture calendar, and every day my mom would have us guess which part of the nativity story was behind each window. Goats. Camels. Shepherds in the field abiding. And on my birthday, which occurs six days before Christmas, I would get to open the little door.
I wanted something like that for my kids, but without the Biblical emphasis. Even then, I was struggling with my faith. But I still wanted a way to celebrate that the holidays were a season of waiting, anticipation, and surprise.
So, I bought this little calendar thinking I’d fill it with little candies and treats. Only the candy I bought didn’t fit inside those numbered circles with their lids. So, I hid the candy under the couch cushions and drew a treasure map. My daughter was four that year and my son was two. And for Christmas, my daughter had asked for a pirate ship. I made her one out of Amazon boxes, and she got so excited she peed on the cardboard floor.
But in the lead-up, I figured a map of the living room with a simple X marks the spot would be fun. The next year, I left my marriage. I moved out in the beginning of December, packing and moving boxes a couple at a time while the kids were at school and completing the final move-out over Christmas break while the kids were with their dad and his family. The plan had been to keep up appearances over the holidays. But after a family shopping trip with my sisters-in-law over Thanksgiving, I broke down crying and spent two hours sitting in the car in my mother-in-law’s driveway. I couldn’t fake it. I couldn’t pretend. I couldn’t lie to anyone, not anymore.
But I’ve come to believe that love should be about freedom. What are we holding onto these traditions for if they aren’t giving us joy? Why can’t we let them go?
That December, the advent calendar felt important. A symbol that all would be well. A symbol that even though everything was changing, some things would remain the same. That year, I put in riddles, and some days they found candy, and some days they found coupons that announced fun holiday activities we would be doing: drinking cocoa in front of the fire with special marshmallows, going to see holiday lights, meeting Santa.
Most holiday magic is created by mothers — mothers who go to work and then come home to cook dinner and move the Elf on the Shelf, and wrap presents, and make sure all grandparents have been mailed their cards. There is cookie-making and picture-taking and decorating.
The year I divorced, I stopped doing everything. I stopped making cookies. I stopped cooking the holiday foods my husband loved, the family ham-ball recipe, the lefse that his grandmother taught me to patiently roll out years before. I didn’t shop for his family or run the family gift exchange. I didn’t even host Christmas for my children. I called my brother crying, and he had me come to his house in Minneapolis. In an effort to create Christmas magic, my mom took me and my daughter to lunch at the American Girl Doll store at the Mall of America. And I had a panic attack in the Nickelodeon world theme park. Sweaty and sobbing and breathing heavily, I collapsed on a bench while my mother and daughter swirled above me on a Ferris wheel.
“Are you okay?” a security guard asked me.
“My life is falling apart,” I told her. She sat with me until my mom came back.
What I did do that year was the advent calendar. It felt like the one thing I could do. The one magic thing I could hold onto. And when I moved out, I took it with me.
Burning down my old life meant I was free to build a new one. The gift of loss is that you can fill that emptiness with something new.
I left so much behind when I moved out, dishes, pots and pans, towels. I left them because I felt guilty, like I didn’t deserve to take them. I was the one ruining everything after all. I was the one leaving. But also leaving behind so many material things allowed me space to reimagine what I wanted my life to be. What new traditions would I build? What kind of life would I have?
Divorce was one of those moments. Covid was too. That first pandemic Thanksgiving without family around, I asked my kids to list all their favorite foods. And instead of having a traditional Thanksgiving meal, we had jello, croutons, mac and cheese, and a beef roast in our first annual feast of favorites.
The next year, after I moved out, instead of cooking on Christmas eve, I made my kids a charcuterie board. I started doing this when they were little on those nights when I was too stressed to cook. Then, I called it toddler tapas. Now, they were older, so I called it a kid platter. Frankly, I didn’t want to cook, and why bother when they didn’t want to sit down and eat a heavy meal? They were kids. They wanted cheese, grape soda, and Elf. And I wanted those things too. So we filled the platter with things we all loved: cheese cubes, olives, chicken nuggets, grapes, chips, and crackers. Then, we all drank grape soda out of my fancy wine glasses and watched TV. A perfect night.
All too often, we just take on the traditions we inherit. In the beginning, these traditions can feel like gifts, moments of continuity from one generation to the next. But after years and years of working to keep them up, to bake, wash, wrap, smile, dress, shine, sparkle, and then clean, they can become generational curses. The burdens of our mothers passed along to us. And we hold to them because we love our mothers and our grandmothers, or we want to try to love them at least. But I’ve come to believe that love should be about freedom. What are we holding onto these traditions for if they aren’t giving us joy? Why can’t we let them go?
The calendar brings me joy. And every year, it has evolved into a more complicated puzzle. My kids are older and smarter now. There are no more maps now, only riddles, which lead to small gifts of socks or chapstick, or little notes that announce we are going to the theater. Sometimes riddles lead to other riddles and to other riddles until, finally, a surprise.
I do not care if my children continue this with their kids. There are so many reasons not to. First of all, it’s a lot of work. But for now, this brings us joy. It’s a game we have together. We laugh, and I try to challenge them with each new day. It’s something we created together.