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Issue Six / Photo Essay
“I remember caroling on the back of a trolley, and tenderly pressing a cookie cutter into soft dough”

Making a Tribe

Words by Rebecca Parker Payne Photographs by Parker Fitzgerald Styling by Melisa Michele Sibley

Our author remembers forming old family holiday traditions and pushes forward to create new ones with her new family, her new tribe.

Sometime in early December, somewhere within the hollers of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you could find us, wandering and weaving through long lines of pines and evergreens. Four siblings, our faithful dogs and our daring captains: Mom and Dad. Our finest yearly tradition was born from the pinnacle of our mother and father’s parenting careers—their discovery of Christmas tree farms deep along the sloping ridges of the mountains. A mere two hours from our home, the hillside farms were light years from the commercialism and consumerism that we lived among.

So every year we pilgrimaged to the Blue Ridge, to climb a mountainside and bring home the war-won tree. Our father, with verbal encouragement from his brood of children, pulled the tree down the hill, across a tiny creek and perched it like an arbor trophy on the top of our faithful Suburban. It would be hailed “A Christmas victory!” by my father, despite the frozen, mittened hands, the carsick dogs and the arduous process.

Traditions peppered our childhood lives, and the holidays meant they were only more salient. Something to remember our time by, something to look forward to, something to have that was special—something ours.

Our holiday season was characterized by these wild expressions of togetherness. In our tree travails, in our trips to Colonial Williamsburg to eat in the fire-lit taverns of yesteryear, in baking our apple-sausage quiches, in our matching Christmas bell necklaces. My siblings and I jingled as we danced through the holiday season.

When you’re young, you’re not aware that your yearly routines are sowing and tending traditions. These rituals engulfed and enveloped us, and our youthful naiveté told us this was just life; that this was just how our holidays are done. Only with age, and a healthy dose of selflessness, have we seen that this rhythm of delight and anticipation is the careful and thoughtful product of a family or parents who want to experience life together.

Because now, so much of our holidays are only remembering. I remember the food, the traditions and the traditions revolving around food. I remember a few of the gifts, but with the most clarity I remember caroling on the back of a trolley, and tenderly pressing a cookie cutter into soft dough. I remember the brunches and the dinners, I remember the stillness and I remember that feeling of warmth, closeness, unbounded joy. We number our memories, rewind and replay the moments that gave our holidays their meaning.

Now that I live independently, away from my childhood home, I find myself expecting the same rhythms, that the ones that comprised my youthful holidays, to be the footprint for this year’s upcoming season. I remember it all, and still I want it to be the same. But things have changed. I haven’t lived with my parents for years, which means they are no longer the leaders they once were of my holiday season. I don’t have the abundant free time I did as a child, with which to make snowmen out of laundry detergent, or to hand-dip candles.

And this is where we are now, in this particular age. We are always busy, always moving from this to that, here to there. We are young and filled. We understand why we had traditions, and should be thankful for them. We can even feel a draw to mourn the end of childhood traditions. All is right and expected of our growth and maturation, but we do not stay here. We are adults, and we are, in our best selves, independent, vibrant, thriving and capable.

Holidays can take us in two directions. We can buy the presents, go to the parties, open the presents, clean the tissue paper from the floor. A dutiful ascension to an idea, a complacency to the expected. A casual nod to the time-honored celebrations, created outside of us. And we drift around each other in this harried time of giving and getting, making and doing.

Or, we can take the traditions into our homes, draw them through the sieve of our personalities, sprinkle them with whimsy, mold them to our own relationships. In doing so, we hold a respectful ownership of the season, where it cannot exist outside of us. Indeed, we are the daring captains of wonder and nearness in this time. And through our efforts, the holidays become intensely intimate, a seasonal experience tailored and defined by us who celebrate—our friends, our families, our own children.

This is how we measure the depth of our bated breath. This is how we calculate the expectancy of our hearts. The existence of our families and friendships are not entirely dependent on the existence of such activities and traditions, but the sustenance of such rituals is the soil in which we cultivate a deeper sense of commitment, history and meaning. A group of casual friends becomes a community, a family becomes a tribe.

A few months ago, I started a new family altogether. A small family with tender roots. A family of just me and my man. A man with his own traditions, his own idiosyncratic holiday routines from growing up. He is the grown man that is memorialized in family photos up ’til about four years ago, sitting on his parents’ stairs with his brothers, each sibling wearing matching pajamas. And although we don’t have the same traditions, we both understand their role in making meaning of the holidays and our lives together. And we want to be a tribe.

In this place of adulthood, as a new family and as one-day future parents, we will cultivate a reason for hope and joy in all of our holiday seasons to come. I think it will involve long tables of food, homemade eggnog and cranberry pies. It will involve storytelling and song singing. It will involve days of baking, and days of decorating. It will involve quietly lighting advent candles, and loudly spinning records. It will involve our community of friends and family, and it will be extravagant and hilarious and ours. It may even involve a borrowed tradition, a hauling of a tree down the side of a mountain.

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