Every year in late December, when Missoula is bundled in cold and snow, I pack a bag and drive or fly due south to the desert. For the past 21 years, I’ve spent a part of every Christmas season in southwestern Utah. My Christmas memories are backlit by burnt orange sandstone, sagebrush and yucca, crisp sunny days, and sharp, clear nights.
Beyond the escape from my dreary surroundings, what I look forward to most about the Christmas season is the tradition of coming together with my family—the time spent intentionally as a group, apart from the spinning, hectic nature of our separate daily lives. Each year, I am reminded that I am part of a larger family community that has nurtured me and supported me as I’ve grown into the world. They are my bedrock.
I won’t pretend that I don’t have differences with my family. I go to Utah to visit my 96-year-old grandpa. He was born in 1920; I was born in 1986. The fabric of our lives has been very different. He grew up in the depression, he was stationed in India and Burma during World War II, he moved his family around Europe during his long military service, he has been retired since 1980, and he has never cooked a meal on his own without a microwave. I live in Missoula, I teach and write for a living, I own chickens, and I have been cooking meals on a stove for ten years. We have different ideas about politics, gender roles, and the lifestyles we want to live. And yet, when we are together, with my mom, uncle, and sister in Utah, we do not argue, we do not dwell on our differences.
Instead, we solve crosswords everyday, we listen to Bing Crosby Christmas classics, we bet two bits (twenty-five cents) on the college bowl games, and we eat hearty meals together.
All this fun is interspersed with my grandpa’s colorful stories. One of his best is the time he drove his family through the French Alps. He was driving the family’s Volkswagen Beetle over a pass when the snow began to pile in thick and they started to lose traction. He told his wife and son they needed to get out and ride on that rear bumper to make it over the pass. My uncle still remembers shivering and hanging tight to that bumper as they trundled up that mountainside.
In recent visits to Utah, I’ve realized how much my grandpa and I hold in common. We both care deeply about the vocational paths we chose and have chosen and believe that you should follow your passion in life. But what is of paramount importance to both of us is our family. We know that family is the thread that binds our life together. We know that we should always be there for them because they are always there for us.
Many of us have our own Christmas traditions with our families. Mine is the desert, in a high-ceilinged house with a hand-cut, hand-selected pinion pine lighting up the living room. Each year on Christmas, when I see the neighbor’s kids tossing a new football with their parents in the yard, or watch the evening dim, and see trees light up each warm house, I am reminded that everyone has their own unique family and they are all coming together, sharing in that essential human connection that weaves this world.