The first year we took the Christmas picture, it was purely by accident. Then again, everything about our relationship seemed to be accidental, or maybe it just felt that way. How could we have known all those insignificant encounters at daycare for pick up and drop off would transform into something more? Who could have predicted the role each of us would have in the other’s lives or that we’d capture this single moment in time that, like our daughters, would grow into something stronger, bigger than each of us independently.
There we were, three of the four of us being first-time moms with little to no experience in child rearing. We had no clue how to persuade the girls to approach Santa Claus, and no creative thought regarding how to keep them in place so we could remove ourselves from the Christmas picture. Time after time with the crowd behind us building, we begged and pleaded with our daughters to sit with Santa at the mall. It was domino-like; first one started crying, then another, until finally all four were screaming, tears flailing down their little two year old faces. Frantically, we carried the girls back to Santa and attempted to flee from the picture. Persistently, the girls crawled towards us, arms open, tears flowing.
After two more attempts to place them, we heard his voice loud and clear intermingled with the holiday music serenading the mall. “Ladies,” Santa explained. “Please don’t force the children.” He smiled, his cheeks glowing red. “Take a seat and hold your child in your lap.”
Hesitantly, each collected a child and sequestered a place near Santa and his throne. What a treasure the picture was! There was the eight of us, smiling eagerly into the camera, thankful for the circumstances that brought us together.
The toothless smiles were gone the next year, replaced by tiny front teeth that Santa could mark off their list. We probably could have persuaded them to sit independently for the photo. Instead, we reapplied lipstick and finger-combed our hair before falling into place next to Santa and the girls.
Our initial eight had become ten with by the next year. Eagerly we initiated the newborns into to ritual laying both in Santa’s arms before quickly striking a pose. With heavy a heart we faced the camera that year. Julie had lost her mother since the last picture. Although she was smiling, her pain was evident. It was a sadness we shared, knowing the first of our girls would be without a grandmother and realizing others would follow one day.
The fourth year was probably the most formal of the Christmas pictures. Absent were the little shorts and sneakers. Red lace dresses and black patent shoes were prominent. Our girls weren’t babies anymore. They could recite every Hannah Montana episode as well as the songs. Frequent visits to the movies and parks occupied our time outside of the holiday picture. Somewhere along the journey, we’d become more like family and being in the picture now was more for our own benefit.
Although we were smiling in next year’s picture, the girls graduating preschool for elementary school and potentially leaving each other was prominent on our minds as we gathered once again around Santa. We’d spent the better part of the year, arranging the circumstance so that we’d still be united. Soccer, girl scouts, whatever; it didn’t matter as long as we were able to keep them and us together. And we were going definitely going to try.
The kindergarten Christmas picture, as well as the ones that followed over the next few years, were marked with a hodgepodge of personalities. Basketball and soccer jerseys, as well as ballerina buns stood out prominently in the picture. Gone were the coloring books and baby dolls we previously carted around for them. Instead, they were seldom without an IPod or Nintendo. It didn’t matter what event we planned, the girls would slide into their own booth at the restaurant and pool their electronics into the middle of the table.
Year after year, we continued to meet for the pictures. During this time, several of us changed jobs, buried a grandfather and a cousin. The girls moved from one house to another, several times, making new friends with each relocation while at the same time holding tight to one another. Several of our denominators had ceased; we weren’t sharing the time at soccer or girl scouts anymore. In fact, we went months at a time without getting together. But the girls had phones and face timed each other frequently, making plans to meet at the skating rink or mall. In spite of our busy work schedules, they manage to still be instrumental in each other’s lives. And we met at the mall every one of those years for the Christmas photo with Santa.
The first year of middle school brought many changes, both to the girls as well as the moms. Somewhere along the way, our little girls had become young women. The photographer waited patiently for the girls to apply lip gloss and finger-comb each other’s hair; then again as the Mom’s helped one another up from the floor. We hadn’t bothered with lipstick prior to the picture. Instead, we simply hoped the eye of the camera would be somewhat forgiving and minimize the graying hair and widening waist lines of middle age.
Santa looked smaller than I remembered as we enveloped around him for this year’s picture. Our girls, now teenagers, are tall, taller than Santa and us. Gone are the days of them sitting patiently in our laps. Instead, they are gathered near to one another, hands and arms intertwined, embracing the moments the year has given to them, once again. They whisper about boys as they walk ahead of us in the mall, disappearing into one store and then another. Clothes, makeup, and shoes make up their wish lists now. Barbie, the Wiggles, High School Musical, and Nickelodeon are obsolete recollections in our girl’s lives. It’s easy to smile at the thought of Pumpkin patches, Halloween costume parades, and Easter Egg Hunts; we are grateful to keep the promise we made all those years ago and stay together.
Starting a tradition wasn’t what we’d planned when we accidentally wandered into the Santa picture all those years ago. However, that’s exactly what we did. Regardless of life’s circumstances, we’ve managed to find the time and make it work. There were years our group was first in line the day after Thanksgiving to ensure we made the picture. Other times it took hours to get through the line as Christmas was only days away. Either way, we met for the picture, ate dinner and shopped. In the beginning the highlight of the evening for the girls had been going to the Disney store and picking out which Princess dress to ask Santa for. Now, however, they are salivating as we lead them away from Sephora.
Flipping through the pictures is like opening a time capsule, each photo a placeholder for the lives we’ve made together. Through these years we’ve endured amazing peaks as our girls won tournaments and awards. And we’ve survived the heartbreak of burying parents, siblings, and cousins. Looking ahead, the pictures will be marked with other milestones as our girls become wives and mothers. They’ll find their way as we have, learning and growing from every one of life’s encounters. I can’t imagine the picture we’ll make, them with their own children and us as grandmothers wheeling ourselves into the photo. Some traditions may start accidentally, like this one. But it’s become a way of life for our girls; one I know they will continue.