Campus life is steeped in tradition: the Freshman 15; first campout in the bookstore lineup (then, “Never again!”); the sacred vow never to hand in a late assignment, ever (usually blown first semester); and for many, spending the holidays away from home. With Remembrance Day in the rearview mirror, our attention is hauled into the Christmas season whether we like it or not.
Sometimes home isn’t all that far away, but the price tag on a ferry ride and a four-hour drive is hard to fit in the student budget (not to mention the terror of navigating the Coquihalla on bald summer tires). Left alone in your not- home-town, “Festive Greetings for the Holiday Season” can come across like a kick in the face.
My sense of family tradition was shattered early; my child- hood was sufficiently messed up to imbue every holiday with the subtle taste of lead. My dad and his family did their best, but it was always a day late. When you’re a kid, arriving at a celebration isn’t the same as waking up to one. By my 20s I’d abandoned tradition, unless it was reconstructed and embraced in an ironic, well-pickled, rock and roll sort of way.
With the birth of my son came a romanticized notion that our celebrations could have meaning again, but a sudden ill- ness drove us into the hospital for his first Christmas, and all bets were off. As he aged and his retreat into autism became more pronounced, it was clear that the holidays weren’t about him. He was completely disinterested in visitations from magical creatures or the delicious anticipation of an advent calendar; he only cared about whether chocolate or jellybeans would find their way into his sticky mouth. I lost the energy for any of it.
Our local extended family became “home” for celebrations: five generations, more than 20 of all ages coming together around the table. It was our last link to anything resembling tradition, but as families are inclined to do, things imploded, many moved away, and that thread unraveled. My sister joined us for a while, but then she had a family of her own to construct new traditions around. My son and I were back in a vacuum. When my partner came along, he wasn’t connected to family tradition either, so we haven’t built any together. We do feast with his parents, who live nearby, but those Christmas crackers at the table are about as festive as it gets.
Now, the consumer-crazy train has left the station and everything is being draped in tinsel and lights. For those of us who don’t buy into the hype, all that glitter just reflects our rudderless lives, devoid of tradition, back on us. My son couldn’t really care less about any of it. He’s madly driven to make lists, mostly surrounding things he would like, but this hobby isn’t relegated to holidays—he’s an equal opportunity, year-round consumer. Yes, we always put up a tree in December because he likes to decorate it, and that’s where the presents go. The sparkle of the lights does please me during the dark nights. That’s what tradition looks like here. Maybe we’re destined to become one of those families that blows it all off and just leaves town, except that’s expen- sive. And so many other people have the same idea that the borderline misanthrope in me would run screaming from the crowds, lock the doors, and hide under a quilt at home. Looking at others’ happy smiles and celebrations on Facebook seems masochistic, but maybe I’m searching for inspiration, for meaning to latch onto in an attempt to reconstruct some sort of notion of tradition for our family? But forcing the issue seems disingenuous. And it feels like a lot of work. Back on campus, a lot of students may be facing the same struggles: meaninglessness (without the nativity it’s all just shopping), baggage (we aren’t all always happy families), or distance (emotional and physical). For our international students, it could be even worse. The time of year may be meaningless, but the bombardment of fuzzy family images must trigger homesickness, and for them, home may be very, very far away. Today, wrapped up in the insanity of final assignments and exams, it’s hard to envision Christmas Day, but it will be here before you know it. Whatever your background or plans, wherever you call home, it’s not a bad time to start thinking about what that week in December will look like for you. Maybe it’s an “Orphans Pub Crawl,” a desserts-only potluck, a “Buy Nothing Christmas” protest at the mall, or a double feature at the movies on Christmas Day (popcorn for dinner!). Carve out new traditions, traditions that are your own, and slap new meanings, a new face on The Holiday Season. Here, mine starts with white chocolate mousse in my coffee.