Traditions. Rituals. Customs. Whether they're religious or cultural in nature, or cultivated by family members over time, Thanksgiving is the signal that it is time for us to renew and celebrate the traditions each of us hold so dear.
As we held hands around our Thanksgiving table this year, we bowed our heads and I began to say grace.
I don't know how it began - me saying grace over our Thanksgiving meals - but it has always been. Our prayers during the early years were simple and designed to be understood by the toddlers that sat at our sides.
"God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food. Amen."
The Thanksgiving prayer has evolved, just as our family has, to become something a little more heartfelt and reverent. And this year, I continued the tradition of saying grace at Thanksgiving. But for the first time ever, I choked up with emotion over my prayerful thanks for safely bringing our family and friends together one more time. And my prayerful request to watch over those who couldn't be with us evoked a strong squeeze from the hand of my husband. Like many families across America, we are separated from loved ones - some by distance, some by choice, others by passage from this world into another. And the absence of their participation in holiday traditions is always keenly felt.
This holiday season has been particularly sentimental for me. Our house is quiet, our children are grown. We are in that strange limbo created by the departure of our children, while anxiously awaiting the time when our home will once again be filled with the sounds of children - our grandchildren.
As I unpacked boxes of Christmas decorations over the weekend, I reminisced about traditions our family developed over the years. I mourned the fact that the passage of time meant an end to some of those traditions. We gave up setting out plates of cookies, milk and Christmas Eve notes for Santa years ago. Stockings no longer grace our mantel. We take our Christmas tree out of a box now, and I truly miss our annual family trips to the mountains to cut down a fresh tree.
I continued to drag the boxes of holiday decorations into the house and attempted to decide what would remain in boxes and what would be set out. The process was quiet and orderly.
Years ago, chaos reigned, and I wouldn't have been able to get the decorations out of the boxes fast enough to suit my children. I spent most of my time admonishing them: "Be careful! That will break!"
And every year there'd be the argument about who got to put the angel on top of the tree. Usually it depended upon who was still little enough to be lifted up by their daddy. After the tree was decorated, and all were in bed, I'd spend another hour our so moving decorations around the tree. For the decorations placed by the children always managed to be concentrated on the lowest branches of the tree, leaving the upper branches bare. But, the kids always thought it looked beautiful.
So did I.
This year, I spent the time alone with the dust-covered boxes and my thoughts. I hesitated at the thought of putting out the miniature Christmas village. It was always Ryan's favorite, and he would spend a lot of time helping with the small buildings, trees and miniature skaters on the pond. It had to be just right. Putting the village out just never felt the same when he left home.
As I rustled through the various boxes, I felt a rush of bittersweet emotions. Ornaments crafted by tiny hands lay side by side with fancier store-bought ornaments. I tenderly held the stockings that once contained little surprises on Christmas morning. And I smiled at the thought of another tradition - the pleading argument posed by my children every Christmas Eve.
"We can't wait for Christmas morning, can't we open just ONE present? Please, Mom? You always let us open one."
I'd be tough, I'd vehemently deny that we'd ever done it before. And every year, I'd give in, laughing at the charade. They always knew I would.
Now that my children are adults, they will be creating their own traditions, rituals and customs. Their traditions will grow from what they knew as children.
Matt and his fiancee will travel to the tree farm this year to cut down their very own tree, which will be decorated by a handful of ornaments pulled from those dusty boxes.
Ryan will be able to see the joy of Christmas in his daughter's eyes.
Mike will be celebrating his first Christmas as a married man.
Melissa, the only one left at home, will resurrect one remaining tradition - baking Christmas cookies. Only this time, she won't be wearing flour in her hair, and chocolate on her face.
My children's holiday traditions will continue to grow, and mine will simply change. But, my memories of Christmas past will strengthen me. And it's those memories, and the memories yet to be created, that I cherish most of all.
Theresa Larson is the Lodi News-Sentinel's administration manager. She is married and the mother of five children. Her column appears the first and third Wednesday of the month. She can be contacted at 125 N. Church St., (209) 369-2761 or via e-mail.