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The pitfalls of tradition

As a child, I loved Christmas. Living in Texas, I couldn't count on snow, or even being able to wear a sweater. But even if it was 80 degrees outside, when the preacher's wife hit the high notes of "O, Holy Night," I knew it was Christmas.

The neighbors put lights on their houses and dragged home trees cut up North that became sticky and sappy. We covered those exiled firs and Scotch pines with gold fuzzy balls and bubbly lights. Back then, the school had a Christmas play and the Baptists put on a live Nativity scene complete with a donkey. Christmas was high drama.

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I had every intention of passing Christmas traditions down to my own children, and have done a pretty good job of it. But then I ran into an unwritten rule of parenting: Your children are not you, and, by golly, their childhoods are not yours to live vicariously.

Living in a small town, I never heard of "The Nutcracker" ballet until high school. My own children would not know such deprivation, I decided. I waited until my oldest daughter was almost 5 before deciding the time had come. This story had a prince, a fairy, and costumes. It was bound to be a hit.

It never occurred to me Holly wouldn't like it. My only fear was that she would emerge from the concert with the desire to become a ballerina.

Well, I needn't have worried.

Things started out well enough. Buttoning her brand-new holiday dress, clipping a pretty bow in her hair, I could practically hear the opening bars of Tchaikovsky's music.

At the matinee, we waited in anticipation for the lights to go down, surrounded by other carefully dressed children and their parents. The curtain opened, the music began, and costumed dancers appeared.

"When are they going to talk?" she asked, in not exactly a whisper, her disappointment obvious.

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"They aren't going to talk," I answered softly and cheerfully. "It's just music and dancing. But look at their beautiful costumes...."

"Let's go," she said decisively, standing up and pulling on her coat.

We didn't go. We remained in our seats 35 chairs from the aisle while I tried to ignore the agitated fidgeting from the seat next to me. My best dagger looks failed to faze her, and my whispered threats stilled her only briefly.

Once my darling daughter made up her mind, the Sugar Plum Fairy could have plucked her from the audience and turned her into a princess, and Holly would have hated it. My expectations of how she would treasure this experience faded along with the lights. I suddenly remembered how interminably long "O, Holy Night" could be with all the verses included.

Once I cooled down, I realized my anger stemmed not from Holly's behavior (although it had been unacceptable), but from my own disappointment.

I wanted to derive personal satisfaction from giving her the chance for an enjoyment I didn't have.

I still get excited when I plan special outings for my children. And, I must admit, sometimes my motivation is that I never got to do whatever it is we're about to do. Other times, it is because I did get to do it and liked it so much that I'm sure they will, too. Things don't necessarily turn out the way I expect. Like "The Nutcracker." So, we don't go to the ballet at Christmas. We put up lights, we drive downtown, we decorate the tree.

But no one is going to stop me from singing "O, Holy Night."

Parents: To submit a first-person essay on your own parenting solutions, send an e-mail to, or write to Parenting, The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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