Ghosts of Christmas Past

In anticipation of my first Christmas morning, Mamma posed me, freshly scrubbed and curled, before the Christmas tree for my annual holiday photograph. This was the beginning of a lifetime of Christmas celebrations–each one steeped in rituals and traditions built upon those which had gone before. As a child, I delighted in the magical world created in the minds of the very young. We woke to sparkle and glitter, presents stacked high, and bulging stockings. As I grew, the magic of childhood gave way to a different reality and a different joy, but the rituals remained largely unchanged.

Marriage brought family and babies of my own. The photo albums grew and expanded as I made a career of the holidays and the memories they held. Year after year, I lined up the little ones in front of the tree–just as my mother had done before me. Each holiday celebration was an extension of former joys, other times, different places. Importance was placed on building bridges from the past into the present.

Constancy equals comfort and security. Psychologists agree that tradition is important to the development of society and to family structure. Family traditions are healthy and normal. There’s only one thing wrong with tradition–it’s filled with shoulds. “We should have the tree up before the 15th. We should entertain. We should shop…decorate…send cards. We should be happy…” Tradition creates purpose and connection. Tradition provides roots. But tradition magnifies the pain of our loss.

At our house, we trim the tree the first weekend in December. It’s tradition. But the year Alexander died, I didn’t feel like trimming the tree at all. When we did do it, as many changes as possible were made in the ritual to help me tolerate the empty space left in his absence. The children receive a new Christmas ornament each year to add to their collections. Someday these ornaments will adorn their own Christmas trees in their own homes. But what about Alex’s set? Those three ornaments will never bloom into twenty and will never follow him into adulthood. That first year after Alex’s death I bought him one anyway–an angel in flight. Four stockings hang from the mantel. Do I hang Alexander’s stocking, or do I put it away forever? The first year, I hung his apart from the others. But every year since, his stocking has hung with the other four. I have five children with five Christmas stockings–and I always will.

The key to surviving Christmas as a bereaved individual is flexibility and foresight. It’s important to plan ahead, and it’s important to anticipate the changes you will need to make. Habit is easy, and it does take a little more effort to implement creative change in holiday planning. But change and adjustment are essential for the newly bereaved.

Families can spend so many years following the same patterns and routines that they forget these choices were made because they were right for their moment. But choices made under different circumstances may not be the right choices for the newly bereaved. The early moments of grief demand new rules. Even customs “set in stone” can be bent. Festivities that expend more energy than we have to give can be skipped. Entertaining and socializing can be altered or curtailed altogether. Decisions can be delayed and new plans designed and implemented at the last minute. The bereaved can learn to be creative and flexible in customizing their holiday plans.

Traditions bind families and societies tightly to one another. But altering our traditions to suit our current needs makes sense. Each moment, each stage of life, demands its own customs and its own rituals. By building our bridges moment to moment, we link the past and present to the future.

Special thanks to guest author, Joanetta Hendel, who graciously shares her work.

Photo Credit.


  1. Sue, Program Manager, Massachusetts said on December 21, 2011 at 12:01 pm ... #

    Joanetta, you touched my heart with your tender article. I’m sending 5 kisses, one for each of your children’s stockings and a very special hug for you. Sue

  2. Sarah said on December 21, 2011 at 12:22 pm ... #

    Thank you Joanetta for writing this. I lost my father in summer 2010(suddenly, when he was only 57 years old). My Mom, brother, and I couldn’t bear the holidays last year(Christmas and Hanukkah, being an interfaith household). So we went on a cruise to Mexico instead, which was probably the best thing we could have done.

    This year, we are celebrating the holidays, but the thought of trying to recreate our Christmas Eve tradition of Chinese Food, movies, and driving around to see lights (“Jewish Christmas” as my Dad called it) is just unbearable. I honestly can’t even let the thought cross my mind without getting weepy. So we decided to bring a little bit of Mexico back with us and make tamales on Christmas Eve instead, as our new tradition.

    I so agree with you that traditions are important. I know I will never be able to recreate the old Christmas Eve tradition without my Dad, so the only way for me to find joy without him during this time is to create a new tradition. One that he would really have loved.

    Thank you again.


  3. Wendy said on December 21, 2011 at 1:56 pm ... #

    Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful article Joanetta. We lost our 16 year old son TJ on Decemeber 1,2010. The house was already decorated as we traditionally did it the Thsnksgiving weekend. This year, knowing Christmas would never be the same, we took our time putting up decorations and I didn’t hang the stockings. On Christmas morning my other 2 boys will find their stockings amoung their gifts. Maybe next year I’ll be able to hang all our stockings again. There will not be any cards anymore either. I can’t bear to send a family card of our not complete family. That being said, I’m working hard to keep joy in the season and to focus on the many blessings we still have-including the belief that out TJ is still with us, but in a different way. Love, friendship and peace to you. Wendy

  4. Margie Hagberg said on December 21, 2011 at 5:06 pm ... #

    We lost our 22 yo oldest child 5 yrs ago and every holiday is different. The first 2 yrs we went away unable to bear the memories. Each yr is getting better, not easier, just a little more holiday spirit. We have not sent out cards either as we always included a photo of our 4 children. Thank you for your article

  5. Deb French said on December 22, 2011 at 9:04 am ... #

    We lost our 16 year old son in March of 2010. This will be the second Christmas with out him. Just this week our youngest has said to me, ” we need a new tradition for Christmasd.” Upon further discussion and talking about the traditions we already have he said, “a tradition that still includes Derrick.” Our son loved animals and was raidsing baby goats, so we use his stocking to collect loose change over the month of Dec. and will send it to an organization such as feed the world. They will buy a goat, chicken or other live stock in our son’s memory. We also have found a cute bell shaped suet feeder that we have place by his site in the cemetary as a winter treat for the birds. These two things will be our new traditions. Until we see our son again we can only live out the our love for him in doing things he may have enjoyed doing. God bless you all Merry Christmas

  6. Karla said on December 22, 2011 at 4:24 pm ... #


    Thank you for sharing. I also have 2 children and 2 stockings and always will, even though my son Theo died in 2006. His stocking hangs next to his little sister’s. The first year after he died, I wanted to hang it, but was so broken-hearted that nothing would be in it on Christmas morning. I ran upstairs, emailed friends and family and asked them to do a random act of kindness in his memory. I printed them out without reading them and put them into his stocking. We took turns reading the kindnesses all Christmas morning and into the afternoon. Christmas is still so very difficult. I am still trying to learn to hold grief and loss in the same space as joy and happiness at my daughter’s experience of Christmas. I can’t say that it gets easier. We have since turned Theo’s stocking into a yearly blog that we publish each year and invite others to do kindnesses not only in his memory, but in that of others they love who they are missing this season. I will be thinking of your Alex as I commit my kindnesses this season. Thank you.

  7. Deb said on December 22, 2011 at 5:27 pm ... #

    Thank you for sharing this. We just lost mom Nov 3rd 2011 so this is our first with out her. I just got my tree up today (12-22) becuase I just can’t bare the thought of not having mom here with us. We have 3 sons & my sister that will be together for Christmas this year. I want to do some of what mom would of done if she had been here. We will be putting some decorations from her house on our tree with ours while my oldest son & his new wife get to take some of my moms decoorations with them when they leave(they live in AZ) to have for their own hosue. I think mom would love that.

  8. Sharon said on December 23, 2011 at 9:50 am ... #

    I know your pain, the holidays turn me inside out! It all began 43 years ago when I was 8 years old and my mother spent from Thanksgiving to Christmas in the hospital and then came home to die a week after the New Year. Every year since I feel depressed come Thanksgiving. It took me many years to realize what was happening. My beloved father was killed in a car accident 3 years ago and the holiday misery is more compounded than ever. I try for my 11 year old but it is so hard! My thoughts and prayers are with all of you and your angels!

  9. lynne osborne said on January 9, 2012 at 3:29 pm ... #

    hate it when people say ,I know how you feel,,but you people really do.I am touched by your comments

  10. Sara said on March 16, 2012 at 2:49 am ... #

    I lost my Dad suddenly and unexpectedly on Christmas morning of 2010 and so much has changed since then. All six of his kids got to see him one last time the night before and I moved to Korea within months. I never had time to process it. So many changes. I think it has taken this long. Christmas has been rough to say the least. Now, my kids have lost both their grandfathers and it will be like me when I was little. None. I am not mad at God, I don’t blame him but I just wish that I could still call him and ask how his day was and what music he is playing instead of asking in my head what he’s up to up there.

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