After dinner, my Nanny would gather all of the grandchildren into a bedroom and pull out copies of the “12 Nights of Christmas” and begin assigning us parts. Since there was only eight of us, that meant a few of us would have to take two days and for me, that was a nightmare. God forbid I was given the long-winded “Five Golden Rings!” part, then I’d have to sing something else on top of that? The absolute horror of it, even in front of my family.
Afterwards, she’d march us, red-faced and anxious, down the stairs to perform for our parents and aunts and uncles while she excitedly conducted.
These days, we don’t sing the “12 Days of Christmas” much to the relief of the grandchildren as most of us in our late teens, 20s, and 30s now. But, if Nanny were still alive today, I think she’d still make us do it.
It was only a couple weeks before Christmas when she passed away in Hospice Care, after a long battle with cancer, and that meant Christmas was a flurry. I was 15, my sister was 17 and received a college acceptance to her now-alma mater on the day of the funeral, and my brother was only 11. My father gave my mother a picture of my Nanny as a 20-something. In it, she wears a long pea coat and has her hair in a hat. Her smile makes her eyes crinkle like my mother’s eyes, like my sister’s, and like my eyes now. Christmas that year was fast-paced. We gathered in my Pop-Pop’s house, in the same places we sat post-funeral, and drank, and tried to play the usual gift-exchange games. My cousin, in an amazing act of foresight, filmed my Pop-Pop talking about meeting my Nanny for the first time. Later, she would say that her only regret was that she didn’t film more when he, too, passed away only four months later. They say grief can kill as quickly as a diagnosis of Pulmonary Fibrosis, something that crept into his lung five years before his death.
In the wake of my grandparents and all of their Christmas traditions, things began to change. Slowly, their house that we celebrated at year-after-year, began to change as our family split up their things and the big, comfy armchair that my grandmother often sat in post-cancer surgeries disappeared.
Christmas went like this: dinner, drinks, candy, and political chatter. Then, Santa, who always sounded suspiciously similar to my uncle, would arrive with presents. Then, we would play a gift exchange game where we could steal gifts from each other. The kids would perform and sing for their parents, which was particularly fun and disruptive when we were all just learning how to play clarinets, drums, recorders, and French horns and everyone just knew a shrill version of “Jingle Bells.” Finally, aunts and uncles would give nieces and nephews their presents, final good-byes would make their rounds, and kids would be sent home and put to bed.
In the wake of their deaths, and as we got older, these traditions became harder. Nanny was no longer there to assign our parts to the song, and to ask one of us to say Grace before eating. When we played gift exchange games, she could no longer jump in when we began to cry over a stolen toys and return the gift to us. Pop-pop could no longer slip us root beer candies. To us kids, they were our biggest advocates. To our parents, they were Mom and Dad.
However, in their wake, we began to adopt these traditions as our own. We modified the gift exchange game, and began to make deals with each other—“I’ll steal the big blue one for you if you leave my red present alone.” We watched home videos instead, including “mystery movies” we made with our cousins, featuring our grandparents.
Losing our grandparents did not mean losing our traditions, but adapting them to fill the hole they left in our lives. After the initial mourning period, we had to honor them and it was through Christmas that we found a way to do it. If we never reclaimed the holidays, that void would never be filled, so we roused ourselves and did it.
So, I may not have to belt out “five golden rings,” but I will play the gift exchange games, look at old videos of Pop-pop and Nanny’s honeymoon, and remember the twinkle in Nanny’s eyes as she waved her hands back and forth, conducting her grandchildren in a chorus of holiday spirit.