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.