Kathleen Murphy column: Finally at peace with lack of holiday tradition

We moved a lot when my kids were young, and didn’t reliably live around family.

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Some memories are more vivid, and for me, this would include the 1970s-era wallpaper in my family's kitchen. My younger self is on the left. (Kathleen Murphy family photo)

When I was a child, every Christmas looked the same. A flurry of activity in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Dec. 23 would throw me into a tizzy of excitement. Shopping, holiday baking, school Christmas pageants — it all set me off. It was just too much for my excitable young soul to bear.

Christmas Eve day found me passing the time by harassing my parents with predictions about my gifts and not-so-subtle hints as to theirs. I tried to be helpful with any last-minute baking, but I likely wasn’t. I remember feeling as though I were bouncing off the kitchen walls, which were dutifully covered with an orange-patterned wallpaper, as I think all 1970s Midwest kitchens were legally required to have. Ours was orange trees.

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Eventually, my parents wrangled us into nice clothes and drove us to a relative’s house. Once there, we’d spend the evening visiting over a smorgasbord of Scandinavian treats, such as potato sausage (the requisite jokes while making the sausage had been told by the aunts in the kitchen the weekend prior), hardtack, Swedish meatballs and, of course, some sort of Jell-O salad, which isn’t specifically Scandinavian, but certainly midwestern.

We’d leave and head straight to the 10:30 candlelight service — with real candles — then my siblings and I would bounce off the walls of the church lobby for 30 minutes or so until our parents finally tired of wishing everyone they saw a happy holiday. My immediate family opened gifts into the wee hours of the night, rarely getting to bed before 1 a.m.

The next morning, Santa arrived, sure as the sun had risen. Santa's gifts were minor, small things that would fit in our stockings, plus the standard orange or apple in the toe of the sock. I don’t remember ever eating it. In the evening, friends who felt like family came over for a large Christmas dinner.


It was picture-perfect, consistent and reassuring. I have nothing but fond memories.

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My children — all young adults now — did not have the same set of traditions. We moved a lot when my kids were young, and didn’t reliably live around family. This meant that we never quite knew from year to year what we were going to do. Some years, we were home alone for Christmas; some years, family came to stay with us; and some years, we travelled to them.

I tried to make some of the traditional foods I remembered from my youth, but without family around to make Potato Sausage Day an actual event, it lost some of its charm and instead became just another chore to do. Besides, my kids never liked it anyway. Friends made Christmas cookies that I just had to try, which eventually edged out some of the reliable standbys from my youth — which my kids never liked anyway.

When the kids were older, my family took to travelling over Christmas. Memories were made, but with those memories came the final nail in the coffin for any attempt at family traditions. We actually have arguments — within my immediate family — as to whether the appropriate time to open gifts is Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. We’ve done both so many times, there is no sense of tradition attached. Just personal preference.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think this lack of tradition is necessarily a bad thing. Don’t get me wrong, I fretted about it when my kids were young. I was sure our lack of traditions was ruining their ability to enjoy Christmas. I still have occasional doubts, where I find myself falling into a nostalgia-lined daydream in which I’d been able to recreate the huge family buffets or the extended family baking events. Once in a while, I wonder why I chose, all those years ago, to do away with the apple or orange in the toe of their stockings.

But if you were to ask my children about their days of Christmas past, you’d notice their eyes light up with memories, just like mine do whenever I think of my childhood holiday traditions. They do not, in other words, feel as though they missed out. It’s true, they did not learn a lot about the value of tradition. They did learn, however, to be flexible and amenable to change, and to enjoy each moment for what it is rather than expecting it to be memorable only when it follows a certain pattern.

Everything is changing this year. Celebrating the winter holidays during a global pandemic necessitates a certain amount of grace and flexibility, a trait I’d wager most of us are feeling a lack of at this point. I don’t have any magical thoughts or words to get you through this — after all, it took me two decades to realize that lack of tradition doesn’t make me a bad parent. But I can reassure you — you will make memories. Even this year. Even without all of the traditional activities. You can make the memories happen. Don’t stop looking for them.


Happy holidays to all of my Northland readers, friends and family. Stay warm. Stay safe.

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Kathleen Murphy

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at

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