IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

I never knew our sons hated my beloved holiday tradition

But when they finally told me as adults, it helped me realize what really matters. 
The author with her younger son, Stephen, when he was a child.
The author with her younger son, Stephen, when he was a child.Courtesy Karen DeBonis

When my kids were little, our family treks to the Christmas tree farm were Norman Rockwell-idyllic. I’d bundle Matthew and Stephen in their snowsuits and fill a thermos with hot chocolate, while my husband Mike loaded the car with ropes, a tarp and his tree saw. At the farm, we scrambled on a flatbed trailer and bounced along rutted trails as a tractor pulled us up the mountain. There, in a field of winter-parched grass, grew our perfect tree. When we found it, Mike broke out his saw and I cracked open the thermos as the boys squealed in excitement.

Can’t you almost hear the choirs of angels singing?

Matthew and Stephen are grown now. Recently, the four of us sat in the living room, reminiscing about bygone holidays. Sitting forward on the couch, his hands animating the story, Mike laughed about trimming the trunk at home and giving the stump to Sparky, our dog.        

Stephen during one of the family's annual outings to find a Christmas tree.
Stephen during one of the family's annual outings to find a Christmas tree.Courtesy Karen DeBonis

Then I piped up: “Remember the year Sparky kept barking at the tree? And finally we found the mouse nest in the branches?”

Our sons, now sporting facial hair and living on their own, laughed. Then they shared that look they have — the secret smile and a smirk that says, “Here they go again.”

“Well, I don’t know how to say this,” said Stephen. “But I hated those excursions.”

“Yeah,” Matthew agreed. “It was always so cold.” He shivered to make his point.

Ouch, I thought. But we did it for you!

We all joked about it, but when Mike and I were alone again, I turned to him.

“I can’t believe the boys didn’t like cutting our own tree.”

“It was exciting when they were little,” Mike insisted. “They just forgot how fun it was.”

“I hope you’re right,” I said, a tiny piece of my heart feeling bruised.

As we turned out the lights and headed to bed, I mulled over the revelation. I needed time to sort out my feelings.

The writer's older son, Matthew, at the tree farm as a kid.
The writer's older son, Matthew, at the tree farm as a kid.Courtesy Karen DeBonis

Change is inevitable, and since our boys moved out, Mike and I have simplified our own holiday practices. We stopped filling stockings to hang by the fireplace. I’ve cut back on baking for my health-conscious family of food-sensitive individuals. We order takeout for Christmas Eve. Our trek to the farm has been replaced by a trip to the attic to retrieve our artificial tree, which we assemble in the comfort of our living room. Although Mike pines for our tractor-pulled excursions, and I recall with fondness the scent of a freshly cut tree, I don’t miss the cold feet and runny noses one bit.

When I think about how refreshingly practical our current holiday routine is, the sting of my sons’ rejection disappears like smoke (or Santa) up the chimney. I’m reminded to let traditions serve their purpose: to create a sense of belonging and cohesion, help us pass down identity and cultural values, and provide familiarity and predictability. 

I’m reminded to let traditions serve their purpose: to create a sense of belonging and cohesion, help us pass down identity and cultural values, and provide familiarity and predictability.

Someday, if Mike and I are blessed with grandchildren, we may revive those bumpy rides, rehang the stockings, and maybe I’ll bake a blizzard of cookies. According to my friends, that’s what grandparenting does — allows us to experience the holidays with renewed fervor through the eyes of our littlest family members.

Until then, my Christmas wish for my sons is that they embrace what feeds their souls, nurtures their spirits, and makes them smile. Isn’t that what parents really want for their children — for them to find meaning and purpose and happiness? Is it truly important that the younger generation do things the way their ancestors did?

If Matthew hangs popcorn strings on a fake fig tree or Stephen buys a shiny silver Home Depot special, that’s OK with me. I trust they will celebrate what works for them.

And who knows what the future will bring? Sometimes, after young adult children initially reject the traditions of their upbringing, the seed of familiarity sprouts. Then our offspring may revive not only the customs from their youth, but the forgotten joy and excitement associated with them.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if someday, Matthew, Stephen or both will grab their significant other by the hand, bundle up kids if they have them, and hop on a flatbed behind a tractor. Then, when the time and place are perfect, they will break out the tree saw and cut a tradition of their own.

Related video: