A model train set revives a tradition from years gone...

A model train set revives a tradition from years gone by. Credit: Newsday / Michael Dobie

At some point on Christmas Eve, I'll sit down at the piano.

With me will be my wife, three daughters, son-in-law and a boyfriend. Collectively, they will be on flute, French horn, guitar, cello, electronic percussion, recorder and shakers. We'll be playing (and a couple of us, not me, singing) a medley of holiday songs at the gathering on my wife's side of the family.

My oldest daughter, a professional musician, is doing the orchestrations, and in general orchestrating what really is a revival of sorts of an old family tradition. Back when my daughters and their cousins were tweens and young teens, they would play holiday songs on their instruments for those of us in the older generation, their parents and grandparents. They called it a "spectacular," and that's what it was to us, a spirited affair filled with enthusiasm and joy. I have the videotapes; we have a lot to live up to. We're going to rehearse Monday night for as long as it takes to get in harmony.

I mention this because there is perhaps no other time of year when tradition is more important to families. And that's true no matter which holiday we celebrate. These traditions might center around food or gifts, prayers or salutations, games or stories. Or music. But each is a way for us to remember our pasts and carry what was important about that to the present. The best traditions are nurtured and endure. Others we adapt, or let fade away.

In times of uncertainty, like today when all sorts of norms and conventions are being strained and shattered all around us, these traditions matter even more. They become part of Yeats' center that must hold lest anarchy be loosed upon us. 

So each year we take out the tree ornaments made by my mother-in-law, our daughters and our grandson, each telling its own story of love from across the generations. Each year my grandson and I lay out the train tracks under the tree, hitch the cars to the shiny black engine and load them with little red and silver  presents, fill the smokestack with liquid holiday smoke, and let the aroma fill the room as he drives it 'round and 'round the tree, and I see my father in the basement of the old house driving the same train on the layout he built there. Each year I mount the step stool to get my grandmother's china off the top shelf for the Christmas dinner we celebrate with our own family, and suddenly she's bustling around the table again, bringing bowl after steaming bowl of food in from the kitchen.

And this year, there again will be music. I know I'll be thinking about the people who won't be there, who would have loved this new tradition no matter how we sound. I'll be thinking about what it was like to proudly watch the children we had raised playing together on their own, and so thoroughly enjoying the effort and one another's company. And I'll be proud this time to be sitting among them.

We'll play for our memories, the ones we recall now and the ones we'll make. We'll play for the sheer joy of it and for each other. Next year, we'll have to add my piano-playing grandson to the band.

In wishing all of you happy holidays, I hope we all remember the traditions worth keeping, begin new ones that we need, and find the harmony that makes everything work all year 'round.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.