Chris Clarke-Epstein is an amazing writer and speaker, as well as a beloved friend, mentor, and “Ahma Chris” to our kids. She was also an integral part of our most recent Escape Adulthood Summit. A while back, she told us about a special penguin-themed family tradition, and we’re thrilled she was willing to write this guest post. And since today is World Penguin Day, what better time to share it?
All my growing up years, our family – the whole family gathered on Christmas Eve for Swedish food, amazing story telling, and glorious present opening. We wound down the festivities in time for those so inclined to attend the religious service of choice (Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopalian) or not. Christmas Day was reserved for individual celebrations with immediate family members. No one challenged nor thought of challenging this pattern. Since our family primarily remained physically located in the Midwest, distance wasn’t a factor in keeping our long held pattern inviolate.
Divorce, re-marriage, and the inclusion of new families living at greater distances into our tribe did. The year arrived when my two children announced their holiday plans and I quickly realized that they were encompassing the traditions and plans of their new, added long-distance families and my husband and I were going to be ALONE FOR THE ENTIRE HOLIDAY SEASON! Nice to their faces, I quietly went into one of the most significant sad-pouts-righteous-indignation 3 days of my life. Frank, my husband noticed at about day two and a half. “What’s wrong, honey?”
That’s all it took. My vitriol poured forth. “They’re going to be gone! All of them! We’re not going to have one child or grandchild for the entire holiday vacation! And they planned it all without asking me for my plans or WISHES AT ALL! Amazing isn’t it. We’re the ones they call when they need a babysitter, childcare for a sick child, or transportation for kids, dogs, or forgotten items! We attend school concerts, hockey games, and mind-numbing movies. We read books, play games, and host picnics. We share vacations, meals, and our backyard. And now, at the time of the year that family means the most, they leave us high and dry.”
(To be honest, Frank looked a little perplexed in the face of this tirade. His quiet “You love doing all of those things for and with them. I didn’t think Christmas meant that much to you” didn’t help. “You just don’t understand,” I replied. “The Epstein family doesn’t have a long-standing Christmas Holiday tradition. As I’ve heard you talk, Christmas Day meant a movie and Chinese takeout. My family’s traditions are much more complex and significant.”)
Envision one of those pauses couples employ after years of a relationship in order to de-escalate and continue the dialogue. “Chris, this isn’t like you,” Frank said. “You don’t let stuff like this get you down. You figure out how to change the situation.”
“But it’s Christmas,” I said allowing myself one more whine. “You’re right of course. Here’s a plan. When are all the kids going to back in town?”
“Right after the first of the year.”
“What happens in January?”
A quick Google search uncovered a little known holiday, Penguin Awareness Day. After checking everyone’s schedule we dubbed the 3rd Sunday in January as Penguin Appreciation Day. Invitations went out to the entire extended family within 50 miles of our house, including several just-like-family friends, to the First Annual Penguin Appreciation Day Celebration. Participants were promised food, fun, and presents and invited to arrive in penguin attire.
While the rest of the world got caught up in the all too familiar holiday frenzy, we calmly looked for Penguin related decorations, giftwrap, and attire; marking their locations so we could make our purchases after the holidays when they’d be on sale. We planned our buffet menu – items a group of penguins might enjoy. (In case you wondering: shrimp, herring, and meatballs are on the list. They ARE primarily Swedish penguins, after all.) We also gathered intelligence on what everyone was getting as gifts to discover which wishes were going unfilled. Santa might have a list, but something always falls off. Leave it to a penguin to make the save!
The day arrived and it was filled with joy, laughter, and too much food. Attire was admired and giggled at. Friends were integrated into our family with ease. Penguin related movies played in ancillary rooms so children could decompress as they awaited the main event – presents! When present opening came, the children (and to be honest, the adults) opened presents more calmly than during our old tradition holiday gatherings. By the end, the house looked the same – tossed aside wrapping paper, lots of dirty dishes, and shared ideas for next year. The afternoon ended with a new tradition intact.
For three years we have celebrated Penguin Appreciation Day and shared our story with others. It gets better and better. Penguin attire gets more elaborate. Decorations increase in number and creativity. The menu is refined. This year, my sister-in-law, Lynda made and gave us the Penguin Family you see in the picture posted along with this story. When Frank and I packed up all our Penguin Paraphernalia to store till next year, I couldn’t bear to include the family in the box headed for the garage shelf. They’re currently sitting on the couch reminding me everyday of the Rules That Don’t Exist.