“Son, I’m not going to give you a stocking at Christmas forever. One day, when you get married, it’ll be up to you to carry the tradition with your family.”
His shoulders drooped. His head fell forward. The same pout that has melted my heart for eighteen years, landed on his face.
“You have to,” He said in a whisper.
Dr. Gordon Neufeld, a Vancouver, BC-based Developmental Psychologist, describes attachment through stages. According to his theory, early experiences of attachment are rooted in our senses.
As attachment matures, we progress to deeper phases of connectedness marked by sameness, belonging, significance, love and being known.
Not everyone progresses through all these stages; nor every relationship. One must first experience connection on a sensory level before moving to sameness; and experience sameness before feeling a solid sense of belonging, and so on.
The ability to establish and maintain connection grows from the tangible to the abstract. To a young child, incapable of abstract thought (or to an adult with insecure attachment) connection fails to exist if it cannot be seen, touched, or heard.
However, if we receive the necessary safety, attention, and care for attachment maturity, we develop the capacity to remain connected even while apart. This makes possible a sense of security even when alone, without proximity, or when facing death of a loved one.
Traditions—like those we practice at Christmas—make sensory connections that aid this type of maturity and security. They act both as a bridge to connection and a reminder of the fulfillment experience found in attachment.
My son will be returning home soon from his first semester at university, and this conversation reminded me of the importance for him to reconnect and experience belonging with our rag-tag bunch of crazies this Christmas.
At this time in his life when the push for independence and autonomy is heightened, traditions permit a beautiful, safe, hanging on.
My son’s sadness was not centered around the loss of an oversized sock containing a handful of inexpensive gifts. His expression indicated a desire to soak in the sensory reminders of attachment he’s known since he was a little boy.
In our home, Christmas morning fills our senses in myriad ways. It begins as Michael W. Smith’s, Anthem of Christmas, blares (auditory) a signal to our little ones to scramble from their warm beds and jump all over each other with enthusiasm (tactile).
They, then, burst into the living room to take in the lights and the shiny wrap that appeared beneath the evergreen while they slept (visual).
This thrust of ardor culminates as each child explores the trinkets and treats hidden in the stockings—delighting in the only day of the year they are permitted to eat chocolate for breakfast (taste).
Traditions based on rich, positive, sensory experience can build bridges from loneliness to togetherness; vulnerability to security; and fear to significance.
Sensory experience also laces the story of Jesus’ birth. We can imagine the smell of the barn and the magi’s myrhh. We relate to the coolness of night and soft newborn skin. We picture the bright star in the sky and the shepherds shock as angels appeared before them.
We empathize with Mary and Joseph, as they were forced to forgo their traditions and comply with the census—alone, vulnerable, and way outside familiarity. We attach to these characters, to Christ, and to those who share our appreciation of their story.
Wrapped in the traditions of Christmas is powerful truth and a powerful adhesive.
The little things—the smells, the sights, the familiar stories—are golden opportunities to connect, to share, to remember, and even to grieve. Hidden within is permission to hold on and deeper yet, the security to let go.
As for my son, the letting go is not quite yet. I received this (tongue in cheek) text the day after our conversation, ”Hey Mom, my girlfriend is on board with the common-law idea so we always get a stocking. Thanks for your support.”