“Hey! Unto you a child is born!” Gladys Herdman; from: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

The dog-eared, water stained copy of the book had made it to the keeper pile. It had survived the steady; in and out of what goes to Botswana and what doesn’t. “So, it’s definitely in the “go” pile?” Jeff asked, looking down at the shabby red paperback. “Yup” I replied, without looking up. “OK with you?” already knowing what his answer would be. The quiet that filled the next moments spoke volumes. Our annual family reading; and by now almost reciting, of the book, was to be suspended, and with the 2011 Christmas season in full swing, silence and reflection had become more and more common place. Holidays-certainly Christmas, would be the hardest. No one needed to say it; it hung in the air, making each tradition bittersweet. Getting “home” in time for the family to sit together at the Christmas Eve Service took on a new urgency. And when we finally assembled we drank it in and savored it, looking first at our sons and their wives, then to one another.

Perhaps more than the specific traditions themselves is the idea of traditions. It’s part of being in the human family. What connects us in traditions is that we establish them and keep them and they mark our lives. For our family, it’s the 4th of July flag cake, the ubiquitous “this year I’m thankful for_____” around the Thanksgiving table, Christmas Eve at church, Christmas day at home. Keeping traditions alive is part of how we keep our loved ones alive, as I learned at 10 when cancer took my too young mother. Every Christmas –even now- she lives on in me. That’s what makes the traditions worth the keeping. The place it touches in us is in the sharedness, the repetition, the anticipation. The history of who we are becoming, our own combination of what we kept from childhood and what we created, sometimes more by accident than design. “We do__________ every Christmas Eve. Time is what fills in the blank. Not what it is, but that it is.

“After church you watch Elf and eat pepperoni and cheese? Is that how most Christians spend Christmas Eve?” Our family recently shared the tradition of lighting of Hanukah candles with my Jewish daughter-in-law. In the blending and embracing we are all enriched and stretched. As family grows you find you can let the world grow and your heart get bigger, or smaller if you choose, or aren’t careful.

So it’s Elf and junk food Christmas Eve and beef tenderloin (and now a vegetarian dish) Christmas day. Mountains of cookies stored in the frigid garage (and people disappearing from time to time into the garage). Cookie gift platters carted off to church, neighbors and friends. Spilled garbage on the kitchen floor-that’s a recent one, instituted by my grand puppies! The reading of the list of ornaments gifted each year by Grandma and Grandpa-and now just Grandma, as they emerge from the collapsing boxes. Replacing those old boxes is not to be whispered! THOSE are the Christmas boxes. Thirty eight such Christmases now practically fills the tree. And, accompanied by tattered trophies from the kindergarten years, produce physical evidence of what accumulates over time in even the most modest of beginnings. Every item that goes on the tree has some memory or significance. A once sparse tree provides the stage where our family story is retold each year. As Jeff and I sit and recall the first ornament; a white mailbox topped with a red bird and tiny holly berries- Shaver printed on one side and 1976 on the other, Jeff suddenly disappears to the garage, not to eat cookies, but to begin crafting white mailboxes, with holly and red birds on top. This passing of the tradition lessens the sting of things going in the pile marked Botswana; re focuses the rejoicing on the things coming out of the box marked Christmas.

2013 our youngest son and daughter-in-law will be with us Christmas day at Water Lilly Lodge. Christmas with Lucky, who could have seen that coming in 1976 when the mail box first went on our tree? When their plans for visits to Africa took shape around who would come for birthdays and who would cover Christmas, we knew the torch had been passed. They too were anchoring in tradition.

Of course the great joy will be when we are all together again. But until then the sadness is mitigated by undeniable personal growth. As much as it has hurt on many levels we will return to America better people, better spouses, better parents. Not so much for what we have given as what we have been given. Recently I came across a quote in an old journal; scribbled there during the Peace Corps “waiting” months. It reminded me of why I’m here and not producing cookie favorites for one more Christmas.

“By learning from and with each other (Botswana) we sharpen our vision and practice in ways that could never happen alone. We need each other. Our connected lives and cultures make us better people.”

Botswana has caused my world view to grow; my life to grow and my heart. God is bigger than I used to think and isn’t that at least part of what “Hey; unto you a child is born” is really all about?

Oh, one more thing: It can be read on safari as well as any place, don’t you think?