Break the rules

This writer ditches the matching Christmas sweaters and instead redefines family holiday traditions

Photo illustration by Priscilla Garcia

Last year, my family spent its first holiday season without my grandmother.

My aunt’s house felt empty without her—Nana had grown frail in recent years, but always remained bright-eyed and interested in everything around her. Still, for all intents and purposes, everything continued business as usual. I soon learned, however, that this might be the last time we celebrated this way.

“Your aunt is thinking maybe she won’t host Christmas Eve next year,” my mother told me as she stirred the lumps out of the gravy before dinner. “Who knows what we’ll end up doing.”

My first thought: “Oh no!”

My second: “Finally.”

Don’t get me wrong, I love spending the holidays with my family. But if they ever decided to put out a guidebook to our annual gathering, it’d probably be called The Rules.

There are a lot of dos and don’ts when we gather every year at my aunt’s. In addition to rules about presents and food, there are also rules about how we eat. Each year my aunt sets two dinner tables: the adults’ table and the “cousins’” table. Never mind that some, if not most of the cousins are actual adults, the only way to graduate is if someone dies—and even then it’s considered a bit distasteful (last year, with Nana only three months gone, not a single cousin, young or old, volunteered to take her seat).

Rules, of course, are made to be broken, which is why for years my cousin and I have plotted to overthrow the regime. It probably started in earnest the year that my aunt strong-armed her into wearing matching holiday sweaters.

“Christmas just isn’t the same as it used to be,” my cousin lamented, looking down at the sequined Christmas-tree appliqué glittering across her chest.

It’s true. I remember my childhood-era Christmas Eve as a nearly daylong affair. There were movies playing in the VCR, dance parties in my cousin’s bedroom and marathon Trivial Pursuit sessions.

After dinner, we’d gather around the Christmas tree to open presents—an agonizingly long procedure spent watching each person, ordered from youngest to oldest.

“Remember the year Nana bought us matching Esprit outfits, and after dinner we all walked to 7-Eleven to spend our Christmas money?” my cousin asked wistfully.

Oh, yes: baggy neon Flashdance-styled sweaters and Slurpees. Good times.

And yet, even as as my cousin and I bemoaned the ghosts of Christmas past, we also made stealth efforts to forward the holiday, discarding dreaded family customs and chipping away at fusty traditions.

There was the year, for example, when we insisted on ditching the lengthy present ritual. “Let the kids open theirs first,” my cousin said. “And then it’s every adult for him or herself.”

It was a small but meaningful victory and, in the years since, we’ve made other inroads. This hasn’t been an angry, hostile coup, mind you—no storming of the kitchen, no upending of my aunt’s gorgeous Better Homes and Gardens-worthy tree, no burning of the gifts. Rather, there are now vegetarian dishes on the table, no one is forced into matching sweaters, and just last year, my cousin made us ditch the presents extravaganza altogether in favor of a white elephant gift exchange.

I don’t know where we’re spending Christmas Eve this year. Perhaps we’ll be left to our own devices, and I can finally redefine it as my own. In truth, however, the thought of such leaves me feeling slightly orphaned. Instead, I hope my cousin inherits the task and, like our mothers before us, we’ll get the chance to create traditions that will drive our family crazy.