I saw three ships … ships, ships, ships.

I grew up thinking my family didn’t have Christmas traditions. Because I attended Catholic schools, nearly every year in mid-December whichever teacher I had would prompt my classmates and I to share holiday traditions that were unique to our families. My dad missed a lot of Christmases on deployment. Our celebrations always felt inconsistent. Sometimes we traveled; sometimes we stayed home. One year, we had a real tree; another we had a plastic tree. Once, we even had a two foot tall Charlie Brown tree. So it seemed that we didn’t have any “normal” traditions. When it came time for me to share in class, I always quietly replied, “We don’t really have traditions in my family. We just go to church and open presents.” It seemed sad.

Only now that my parents are planning to spend this final Christmas in the house they bought 15 years ago— the longest home I’d ever known — did I realize all the little quirks we had that were in fact traditions. While all my friends growing up had ritual, secret family recipes they cooked, ornate formal dinners with their grandparents, or elaborate Advent celebrations, we didn’t. I always felt left out. Tonight at 25, I realized that I had something different but perfect in its own rite.

On no particular date in December, we slip in Nat King Cole’s Christmas CD and my dad drags the massive box of decorations from the attic. The years he deployed, we made due with smaller displays, but we had Nat King Cole no matter what. There’s a scratch on the disc, and when “I Saw Three Ships” plays, it skips a bit, repeating “ships-ships-ships-ships” until you jiggle the CD player. We laugh at it, every time. It never gets old. This, this is a tradition.

We don’t have a special, regimented Christmas breakfast, lunch, or dinner. But my mom buys Pillsbury cinnamon rolls every year and puts them in the oven before anyone wakes up. We eat them, getting the sticky icing all over, while we exchange gifts. It’s a silly tradition, but it’s ours. We are an unorthodox family. My whole life I thought it meant we didn’t have traditions. But I know now that our tradition is being nontraditional.

As my parents prepare to sell the only home out of the eight or nine we had that I ever really loved, I am leaning into our nontraditional traditions. It may be the last time we celebrate in that house, but the glitchy Nat King Cole CD and Pillsbury cinnamon rolls are traditions that can, and will travel anywhere.


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