Building Christmas tradition alone. But not really.

Last week marked the second annual Helena and Mommy Day when we play hookey during a weekday to go ice skating. This year we started off our venture in typical style for a 4 1/2 year-old: me holding her up by her armpits, then with Helena scooting along the rail.

I'd glanced away for a moment only to then find she had made her way out to the middle of the thoroughfare, determinedly wobbling and moving along with the other skaters. Without any urging from me, she found the best way to learn to skate was on her own.

I'm not sure I've felt the same breed of maternal pride before. There was something in her understated confidence, the practicality of it, and her desire to be free. But a time or two she caught a glimpse of me beaming at her, and she'd reach out to hold my hand again. Those were the times when she'd twist and fall and revel in the cute skate guards who'd miraculously swoop in from nowhere and pop her back onto her little skates.

“No,” I'd tell her when she'd extend a hand. “No, you do much better when you rely on yourself.”

That may be true for amateur skating, but is that what I want to teach her about life?

As I've written, this holiday was an unusually stressful one. The family traditions that I've relied my whole life have ended, and for the first time I've decided not to travel back to see my family in Illinois. I felt this enormous pressure to create — out of thin air, on my own — a set of rituals that would define my little family, and shape my children's memories and identities. How could I make it all meaningful – without thrusting stress on everyone around me to make it oh-so-meaningful? How can I do that by myself?

As today, Christmas Eve, approached, I met it with a mix of dread and relief. First the good news: my mom decided to join us in New York, where my brother Josh and sister-in-law Susan also live. The holiday cards and party invites started to arrive. Friends agreed to join us for a party at my house on Christmas day.

But the day was still rife with anxiety, as holidays often are. Coordinating holiday schedules with ex-husbands can be difficult, and in our case we have a brain injury to contend with. We argued about a visitation, I worried about him spending his holiday alone. I worried about my mom, who is also struggling with health issues. Unwell loved ones are always a source of worry, but the holidays heighten the fear of what life might be like without them.

I didn't realize how on-edge I had been until the kids and I returned from a trip to the playground this afternoon. We came home to packages of baked goods neighbors had dropped off. We opened the mail to find a stack of new Christmas cards, just as my brother in Chicago texted to arrange a Skype chat. A friend sent a note saying gifts were on the way, and my iPhone chimed with messages and voice mails of greetings.

Related: Single mom holiday manifesto

We were still standing at the dining table, wearing our coats and hats, marveling at the generosity. “People care for us,” Helena said in that perfect way she has.

I spun around to face the wall, clapped my hands over my face so the kids couldn't see, and let out a single, silent sob. It let out just enough grief and stress, and made room instead for all that love and care around us.

And then we went on with our day — our new holiday. Josh and I made a new version of oyster stew to honor our late Grandpa Ernie who loved the stuff and died last year. And Helena, a puzzle savant just like her Great-Grandma Shirley,  received two 300-piecers. Even more neighbors dropped by with gifts and treats. Tonight, when Helena and Lucas are in bed, my mom will sneak into the living room and fill up their stockings with little goodies she's lovingly collected, just as she did for me and my brothers well into our adulthoods.

When the kids were in the bath and I was cleaning the kitchen, I took the liberty to switch the “White Christmas” channel on Pandora to Babel Gilberto, who always makes me think of my ex-husband. I thought about all the friends and acquaintances he brought into our lives when we were together, and how families and emotional resources can multiply through marriage. And when he had his accident it was all that love that came up around us when our life fell apart. Everyone said what a strong person I was, and maybe that was true. But if it was, it was only so because I had all of that.

And then the kids ran out naked and we looked at the snow falling outside and they were amazed. And I thought to tomorrow morning when they will dig gleefully into their stockings just like I did, and we will sit down to our new Christmas morning breakfast of bagels and lox and then our friends will bring wine and appetizers. That will be our new Christmas tradition, and it will happen because people care about us, just like Helena said.

And somehow that makes me strong enough to be alone.  Maybe because each of us never really is.


Open letter to myself about holiday nonsense 

Facing Christmas for the first time without a family homestead

Dammit, I'm going to have a fun holiday (and how a live lobster delivery 30 years ago ruined Christmases to come)

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Chris B. on December 27, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    Prime rib. Unfortunately I don’t have the Alto Sham (awesome slow cook oven) that my executive chef hubby always used. So I first liberally salt and pepper a very good cut of meat. I just went with Costco’s this year. I put it on a rack in a roasting pan, leaving uncovered, fat side up. (I bought a 20 pound roast, so I actually had to cut it into 2 roasts this year to fit into my pans – cooking for 22 people.) I use a remote probe thermometer (a serious lifesaver for me).

    Then I cook it at 200 degrees until it reaches about 127 degrees (rare to medium rare). I pull it out of the oven to rest for up to 2 hours. Then, about 1/2 hour or 20 minutes before we want to eat, I pop it into the oven at 550 degrees for 8 minutes. Perfection.

    If anyone wants it done to a higher temperature (heathens!), I have a pan of au jus simmering on the stove. Pop a slice into the au jus for a minute or two. Cooks it up a tad more, gets rid of all the pink that they’re a’feared of, and adds a smidge of flavor.


  2. Emma on December 27, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    Hi Chris – thanks for this. It hadn’t occurred to me to use my kid’s memories/comments as a gauge for what I should put my energy into when it comes to holiday celebrations. Again, my kids are tiny- 2 and 4 – but I will keep that in mind going forward.

    PS What is your prime rib recipe?

  3. Chris B. on December 27, 2012 at 2:10 pm

    What a lovely share. I think a willingness to audition possible new traditions, see what brings you and the kids joy and peace, being flexible year to year, not to worry too much about the ‘shoulds.’. Every year I talk to the kids – find out what they want to do and what’s not important. It surprises me, the things my boys think are important for our holidays. I love that you carry on the oyster stew tradition. I’ve started making prime rib for our big Christmas dinner. It was the only tradition my late husband brought to my family when we were married and now we always lovingly remember him as we enjoy the feast.

  4. Kelly Chiriboga on December 27, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    I love you, Emma. I love this piece.

    • Emma on December 27, 2012 at 1:59 pm

      I love you too! Now get your ass to NY.

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