Growing up the boss’ daughter, it was not uncommon to look across the Christmas meal into the face of one of Dad’s crew asking, “Can you pass the gravy, please?” The normal attire was well worn Wranglers, sometimes clean, sometimes covered in whatever muck they acquired while feeding cows that morning. Either way, jeans were cuffed at the ankle and boots were left beside the door. There were no holiday decorations but the tree and the meal was big enough to last a week. My mom made everything from scratch, except for the canned cranberry sauce and the Hawaiian rolls. I guess they were just part of our tradition as well. Any of Dad’s single crew members that had not expressed other holiday plans were invited so from a young age, we learned what an odd, beautiful ranch family one could create through kindness and circumstance.
My sister and I were taught to observe many of the standard American holiday and religious traditions, but being a ranch family with a chronically ill mother brought many others as well. Our holidays would never compare to a Norman Rockwell card, the snow coming down while the perfect family opened a bounty of gifts in a perfectly decorated home. No, we were just a family living on a ranch in Nevada, just trying to get by without pushing. Most years we fed cows because Dad would work a holiday before he asked his crew to. The older we got, the worse mom would feel, so one of us would stay home to cook. My sister and I would think nothing of it until after the New Year when school was back in session, students all comparing notes about their break. At that age, I thought everyone had it better than us! Eventually, I came to understand that although the cows had to eat, the holiday magic was in spending time as a family.
Years later, I met and married a man whose childhood holidays revolved around feeding cows as well. The first few years we dated, we were but a few hours from where we grew up. Many times, we could see both families on the same day. Six months after we were married though, my husband, Sam, accepted a colt riding job in Washington, twelve hours away. There we were on Christmas day, six head of sale horses fed, watered, brushed and re-blanketed before 8am. For kids who were use to feeding thousands of head of cattle and were grateful to be done by noon, we found ourselves asking, “What do people who don’t work and don’t visit family DO on a holiday?”
We spontaneously made the drive to the nearest town with a movie theater. We had never understood why people would spend Christmas at the movies with strangers, but now it was making more sense. We decided to forgo a fancy holiday meal in lieu of over-priced snack bar junk. Since we were not responsible for teaching anyone about the holiday season, no nieces or nephews to help with, this seemed like a workable solution. And really, if holidays are supposed to be special and out of the norm, then these two ranch kids found that in new releases and over processed food.
Now, we have kids of our own and making memories with them. One of our favorite Christmas’ was spent at the ZX Ranch. Sam shipped calves Christmas Eve morning and was sent home with the departure of the last truck, much earlier than their normal schedule. I grew up opening presents on Christmas Eve, the grand finale being Santa’s gifts and stocking goodies on Christmas morning. This was partly from dad’s German heritage and from the necessity of feeding cows early the next morning. We have always tried to stick with this routine when we planned our own holiday, so Sam, the boys and I opened our Christmas pajamas and put them on. We had the boys start their marathon of presents by opening movies. The remainder of the day was spent unwrapping a gift or two, calling to thank the givers, having a few snacks, and exploring new gifts as another movie played. More than a few people judged us for this, but we found it to be wonderful! My toddlers were not overwhelmed, having one toy jerked from their hands while the next brightly packaged gift was thrust at their bewildered faces. My house was not wrecked with wrapping paper and boxes and bows galore. The kids practiced being thankful, watching everyone take their turns, seeing the joy in their faces. That night our family staged the cookies, milk and carrots for Santa and his crew before retiring to dream of sugar plums. It was so nice to leave Christmas day to focus on our family and our faith and the reasons we saw for the season.
I admit, I’ve fallen victim to the holiday trap a few times. As my kids grew, I wanted to give them every Christmas I never had. If only we could buy a few more gifts, plan more get togethers, spend just a bit longer in the kitchen or our family could participate in one more act of service. Our boys would know they were loved and my husband could be proud of a wife that pulls it all together. Stop! Yes, that is a trap. Those things are all important, but in moderation. We still spend a lot of time carefully planning, ensuring our resources are used wisely. Ultimately though, it all comes back to family, rather by blood or by heart, and your gift of time to them is the most precious of all.
This holiday season, I invite everyone to go with their gut but more importantly, their heart, when making plans. The new-found traditions may stick for a year, or for the next three generations, but at least they felt right at time. Can we drop our Norman Rockwell expectations, as well as the stress that comes with them? Could there be joy in experiencing a holiday that was not a re-run of previous years? As we spend our first Christmas in this house, I’m excited to see where our holiday season takes us, remembering to be thankful for the cows and family that brought us to where we are now.
From the Hedges’ family to yours, Merry Christmas!!!
November 29, 2017