The family in modern times: columnist Sandy Banks, second from left, with…
The children aren't little anymore; they're 28, 24 and 23. But I still know where my daughters will be on Christmas Eve — snuggled under a blanket with me, while I read "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," the classic story of Santa's visit.
I don't know when quaint becomes eccentric, but that's how we've spent every Christmas Eve for as long as they can remember.
Christmas rituals in our household are more than mere tradition. They're a link to the family we used to be; a connection to a father who died one week before Christmas 20 years ago, when his children barely knew him.
We didn't realize then that his death would leave us stranded in time, clinging survival-style to rituals we'd shared when he was alive.
We go together to pick our Christmas tree and get the best we can afford, because their dad hated the scraggly rejects his father used to bring home. We still eat every Christmas at Benihana, because it was easier and more fun than dinner at home when the children were small.
But they're women now, with obligations to others and busy lives of their own. I couldn't escape that fact this year, as I spent the run-up to the holiday baking cookies in a quiet kitchen and stringing lights alone.
Maybe it's time to let them move on, to let these rituals go.
I considered that thought for only as long as it took me to find our familiar Christmas Eve book in the bottom of a dusty box crammed with holiday decorations.
I felt a rush when I opened the book with its smudged and fading pop-ups. It takes me back to when we were whole, and I'd read the poem to little girls whose dad was on the roof jingling bells, trying to make them believe that Santa was coming.
Rituals can be both comfort and crutch, in ever-shifting proportions. Ours link us to an image of family that we didn't want to release. But they've also stranded us in the past, tethered beyond reason to the way things used to be.
Most people feel sentimental at this time of year. But how do you untangle desperate longing from ordinary pine-scented nostalgia?
My middle daughter recently shared with me a 20-year-old memory of the night her father died, when she was about to turn 5.
"I understood when you told us daddy died," she said. "But I didn't know that meant that he would always be dead."
None of us, I realize now, understood what his death meant then. We couldn't comprehend that every milestone and celebration from that night forward would be shadowed by his absence.
I understand now that death's reach is long and hard and strong. When you lose a loved one near a holiday, the annual onslaught of painful memories competes with the season's joy.
I learned rituals can turn into ordeals that just make everything harder.
There were years we didn't buy our tree until Christmas Eve because college, jobs and holiday outings kept us from getting together. And times when the pressure to get everything right turned grown women into squabbling toddlers.
This year, I decreed we'd buy our tree at Thanksgiving, when all my girls were home. They argued over what tree to get, then cried because the one I picked wasn't quite perfect.
It's kind of hard to get in the holiday spirit when your 28-year-old can't look at the Christmas tree without weeping because a dad she holds in her heart might not think it's good enough.
We've gotten past the Christmas tree drama. After a few failed tries to gather a quorum, I decided to break with tradition and string the lights myself. With the gaping hole facing the wall and a hunk of errant branches clipped, the tree's twinkling beauty now would certainly merit their father's approval.
We won't hang the ornaments until next week, when daughter No. 3 in San Francisco comes home again. I'll make a fire, pour the eggnog — with a little brandy, these days — and watch the next drama evolve:
When they were little, they used to argue over who hung what ornaments where. Now they're more likely to complain that someone's too busy Instagramming or texting friends about party plans to do her decorating share.
But this is the ritual that connects us best to who we were and are. It doesn't matter that our ornaments are old and the inventory shrinking. We have enough to decorate the front of the tree; we don't feel the need for more.
The youngest will grab the "Baby's First Christmas" angel, engraved with her name 23 years ago. The middle daughter will find the pine cone she decorated with feathers, glitter and pipe cleaners as a 3-year-old. The oldest will hang the ceramic Dalmatian that honors our first dog. I'll find a spot for the trolley car that we picked up on a family trip to San Francisco, a few weeks before my husband died.
Then the girls will scatter and I'll settle in front of the fire alone and listen for their father.