Like all families, mine has its holiday traditions. Mostly they revolve around cookies, and whiskey tastings, and reading together on couches after all the hullabaloo is over and done. These most recent years, however, has brought a new tradition into our lives. Being in the medical field, my siblings don’t have typical work schedules, and as a social worker, I have mostly been working the day before and after both Thanksgiving and Christmas in these last six years. And so our family has adapted. We’ll sit down at the beginning of November and single out the best days to do our celebrations, passing the word to our extended family as to when we can find time to be thankful, to be joyful. Sometimes that frees me up to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with other people I consider to be family; sometimes I will spend those days in quiet reflection, curled in my apartment with cats on my lap and a book in my hands.

The holidays, as wonderful as they are, are also stressful. There is pressure and high expectation. By the time we get to the actual day, it can be hard to see through the preparations and the expenditure and the sheer overstimulation to remember what has brought us to the table in the first place. But I have found, and we have found, that when we celebrate on the days we choose, that is not so much the case.

Imagine, a family that gets together on an afternoon of opportunity and grace. There is food sizzling away in ovens and on stovetops. Music plays, the oldest and the youngest are indulged and cherished. There are cookies—all the cookies—and little kindnesses that carry us through. We make each other’s favorite dishes and say what we are thankful for around the table. For these days, above all other days, we are able to overlook our flaws and shortcomings to remember what we are: a family. Imperfect and stumbling, with disagreements and pitfalls like any other family, but with room on these days for elongated moments of grace and goodheartedness.

It’s not the presents. It’s not the songs, or the spread, or the accouterments of the season that bring us together. We could choose if we wanted to spend the holidays apart, say “We’re all working, so next year in Jerusalem and call it OK.” But we don’t. We choose each other. I am most proud of this tradition, and it is the one that I will work hardest to continue for my nieces as they grow up. I want them to know that it’s not the date that matters, or the stuff, or the hullabaloo. In the end, it’s the people you are with that make these dark winter days the ones to celebrate.

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