Every Christmas Eve we dragged a tree into our living room for a fun, colorful and chaotic night of family. My father always brought Chinese Food home and sat close to my mother. Christmastime made her happy. Music rang out from the stereo as we playfully fought over placement of ornaments and location of our soon to be present pile! Later, when the tree was laden with bobbling ornaments and twinkling lights bounced off the walls, Mom put on a Classic movie and let us March with wooden soldiers or see Santa creating miracles on 34th Street! The Hills could also be alive with The Sound of . We didn’t care about the movie. Or the tree and presents. We were happy and safe with both parents fussing over us and that star my dad always ceremoniously placed on the tippy top of the tree as he had us lined up in a row on the staircase up to our rooms – that bright star was hope.
I grew up thinking that my family didn’t have Christmas traditions. We never traveled to celebrate with extended family or made frustrating phone calls where a staticky delay leaves you both speaking at the same time. My father’s family had mostly already passed on and my mother’s family was too far away to even try. This was just the way it was. To this day, our holiday celebrations aren’t the tenuous family gatherings you see spoofed on SNL. We don’t have Drunk Uncles, there’s no debate over politics, and nobody brings a dish so repulsive that we eat out of pity so as not to hurt Aunt Marge’s feelings. The only family that did celebrate with us was my maternal grandfather who moved into our nuclear household after his wife passed away. In the throes of dementia, he became increasingly bewildered by a world changing around him. Technology baffled him and what his waning memory allowed him to remember seemed to change at a horrifying turn on a dime. Constants were crucial for his senility and comfort. For my grandfather, this became his garden. Orchids were his specialty. Anybody who has ever tried to care for them knows what fickle mistresses they can be. But my grandfather and his green thumb knew exactly what they needed. My grandfather emigrated to America in 1962. He left behind his wife and my mother back in the Philippines until he had a solid job and foundation to move the rest of the family over. When my mother took her first PanAm flight to America, she lived in Cleveland while my grandfather held a job in Florida. He drove a thousand miles round-trip to see them each weekend. Even at the end of his life, I saw glimpses of his tenacity. Every year we would wake up on Black Friday and head to Home Depot, my grandfather leading the charge. Home Depot sold poinsettia plants for 99 cents each. We each grabbed a cart and loaded up until we had around 100 plants. Later that morning after breakfast, he planted each one of those poinsettias in the front lawn. A clean row of the bright red flowers framed the stage on which two Christmas deer would stand, twinkling at night. It took the entire morning, always. Even the neighbors looked on; this was our sign that Christmas time was here. It was a Herculean task. One hundred individual holes would have to be dug, each poinsettia placed with excruciating care. My mother and I would help, but my grandfather did most of the work. Our knees got cold and ached afterwards, but my grandfather never complained. This was the kind of gardening you would see done for a lavish theme park display. We stopped planting poinsettias in 2015. My grandfather finally succumbed to old age and died a peaceful death. Firsts are always hard after a death, but his absence was felt the most that first Black Friday. My mother and I did plant poinsettias once or twice, but as the years passed, we stopped all together. I grew up thinking my family didn’t have Christmas traditions. We don’t attend Misa de Gallo on Christmas Eve. If I ever went caroling, it was as a paid singer and not as a willing, enthusiastic volunteer. We didn’t eat bibingka and puto bumbong and we certainly never set up a nativity belen. It took until my grandfather’s passing to realize that family traditions aren’t going to look like what you see on Lifetime or in Hollywood’s newest ethnically inclusive holiday flick. Traditions aren’t defined by one’s culture, they’re the small quirks that make your own family unique. Five years later, I do a small bit of gardening now. The porch is still littered with orchids, of course, they don’t flower quite as well as they did. I finally got two heirloom tomatoes out of a plant of which I could take better care. My parsley and basil plants are flourishing, mainly because they are very low-maintenance. When my grandfather died, we received a small Christmas cactus as a mourning gift. They’re incredibly easy to care for; just don’t over-water them. Getting them to bloom requires a bit more work. Ideally, one prunes the plant until mid-summer, encouraging branching and flowering. My mother and I don’t touch our Christmas cactus often. We water it when we remember and we certainly don’t repot or prune on any kind of regular basis. It sits mostly forgotten on the kitchen table. And yet, every year, at the tip of the dried leaves, we’ll see a tiny pink bud emerge to remind us that the holidays are upon us. Traditions are what you choose to celebrate and pass on each year. Planting poinsettias wasn’t a tradition before my grandfather came to the United States; it wasn’t even a tradition until the last 10 years of his life. Maybe in the future, I’ll make a point of planting and caring for mountains of poinsettias. Until then, I’ll take solace in his presence as the Christmas cactus blooms each year with enough reliability to make even the biggest skeptics raise an eyebrow in unbridled holiday hope.