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Why We Celebrate Christmas on the 23rd

There is a gift under the tree that will not be opened. It was there last Christmas and the year before, wrapped in pretty Pixar paper and red ribbon that is sure to fade as all things do. It will be there next year, too, and for as many Christmases as we have trees to post above it.

Perhaps someday this gift will move away from home, along with my boys, a token of tradition under their own trees. Or there may come a time that it never makes it from the garage at all, left in a box full of memories more distant with each generation, until it is just another thing coated in dust and layers long forgotten.

You never really know what the future may hold.

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We know what is in the package. The boys know, too, although the youngest had to ask his brother for a clue this year—the response coming out between a chin falling to his chest and eyes suddenly sullen, dark and lowered. To be fair, it is hard to remember the ghosts of Christmas past when you are only 9 and prone to visions of sugarplums and winter wonder, which is exactly as it should be.

I refused to let death take the holidays from me, too.

The present is addressed to Nana, my mother, who never had the chance to open it. She died suddenly, a car accident on her way to our house two years ago, while I was cleaning the guest room and the boys were sitting by the front door, anxious for her arrival and the joy she brought with her. I let them sit there for hours, passing the time in plans and play, while I paced in the yard and cried into phone calls. I let them sit there as long as I could, holding Christmas with happiness untainted, their grandmother alive and laughing. Then I called them to my side, and I told them that she wasn't coming.

The gift went unopened and somewhat avoided after that.

I never wanted to be one of those people you see in the movies, bitter toward holidays, curmudgeons of the season hiding behind their respective sadness and the scars that it caused them. However, there was a moment when I considered joining their ranks—assuming, incorrectly, that I had no choice in the matter. Then Christmas came around again, and I decided to stand my ground. I refused to let death take the holidays from me, too.

It helps to have children in the house.

This second annual tradition springs from tragedy.

The boys keep Christmas in their hearts, or at least our secular version of it, with endless innocence and a wealth of kindness. My mother had that, too, and the holiday was her favorite time of the year. It wouldn't be fair to the kids or respectful of my mother's memory to let the sadness of the season overshadow the good it has done—and the good it has still left to do.

My sister and I live in different states with mountains between us. This year, just as the last, her family will make the drive to visit ours, and we will celebrate Christmas together—not on the day that the calendar has suggested, but on December 23, the day of our mother's passing. It is bittersweet, a tinseled twist of magic and melancholy, our children laughing and running everywhere but to Nana.

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This second annual tradition springs from tragedy. It's filled with tears, laughter and countless toasts of wine. It is our new Christmas Present, loving the past with an eye to the future, and a gift under the tree that no one will open.

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