Monday, December 27, 2010

The Gift of a Family Tradition

[Note: I'm posting this early in case you'd like to establish this as a tradition for your own family.]

It had been a difficult year. My widowed mother was nearing retirement from her job at IBM, I was a single mom in my final year of college (having returned two years before to complete my degree in English and Elementary Education, when my daughter Jen started kindergarten), and January seemed like a long, bleak month stretching out before us. The gray days of winter sapped what little energy we'd had after the hustle and bustle between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

As usual, we had taken down the Christmas decorations right after New Year's Day. We were exhausted, and the post-Christmas let-down was affecting all of us, but it hit my mom especially hard. So, Jen and I planned to surprise Grammy by celebrating Twelfth Night, the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas that culminates with Epiphany on January 6.

We didn't have much money, but decided to buy one gift for Grammy from both of us. We also planned a special supper to have ready when she came home from work. Then I set up, and Jen helped decorate, a three-foot tall, table-top, artificial tree that I had used for the Pioneer Girls group of which I was leader. We placed the tree on the living room coffee table so that mom wouldn't see it when she came in through the kitchen door from the garage. Jen was so excited it was hard for her (and me, too) to not give anything away.

When mom came home from work, she was tired but surprised and pleased to see supper cooking on the stove. As she removed her coat and boots, and stepped into her slippers, I said, "Supper will be ready soon. Why don't you go sit down in the living room and warm up." She nodded and headed into the living room. But when she saw the tree, with its glowing lights and decorations, she stood stock still and just stared, open-mouthed.

Jen and I both shouted, "Happy Twelfth Night!"

Mom gaped at the tree, then at us, then back at the tree.

"What did you do?" she asked, awe-struck.

We had her sit down in her rocking chair, and Jen played "Santa," handing my mother her gift.

"But I don't have anything for you!" she protested.

"Our gift was doing this for you," I said.

I have long-since forgotten what the present was that she unwrapped that night; but I will never forget the look of wonder and joy that lit up her face when she saw that little tree and as she opened that solitary gift. We had a delicious supper, and all of the exhaustion and post-holiday depression melted away in the warmth of each others' company. It was a wonderful night.

Thus began our family tradition of celebrating Twelfth Night--a tradition I continued when David and I married two years later, and which has endured to the present. Each year, on New Year's Eve, those family members who are able to participate, put their names on slips of paper, we each draw a name, then buy that person a modest gift. On Twelfth Night, we gather around the Christmas tree (which we leave up until after January 6) one last time, light candles and enjoy the lights, often read the story of the Wisemen bringing their gifts to the Christ Child and sing "We Three Kings," and exchange our gifts. We have found it a wonderful way to bring the holidays to a close, and to diminish, if not entirely dispel, the post-holiday melancholy that many people experience.

Do you have any post-holiday traditions that you celebrate? Do you have a ritual for taking down the tree and packing away the decorations? If so, please share them in the comment section below.


  1. Your story was so wonderful, it made me want to cry. What a fabulous thing you did for your mom.

  2. Helen, thank you so much for dropping by and letting me know the story touched you. Mom passed away two-and-a-half years ago at the age of 97--she would have been 100 years old in May.