My Mom Canceled Christmas And Invented A New Holiday. We Doubted Her At First — But Now It’s Our Favorite Day.

A decade ago, my mother announced we were no longer celebrating Christmas. “Does anyone else think this is kind of crazy?” my brother asked.

The day after Christmas, my family gathered around a bare branch stuck into the sand of a Cape Cod beach with boxes of stale crackers, cereal, and pretzels to celebrate what my mom had dubbed “Seagull Day.”

“Decorate it,” my mother said. The oldest of four, I exchanged glances with my adult siblings, who looked to me for direction.

“Mom, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I have no idea what you mean,” my brother said, bobbing up and down as he held my infant niece close to his chest.

A decade ago, my mother announced we were no longer celebrating Christmas. Instead, we’d celebrate Seagull Day. I was sure she’d seen it on Pinterest.

“No, no,” she said. “It’s something I thought up all on my own. We are going to decorate a tree with stale food from the cabinet and leave it for the seagulls to eat. Those guys must get hungry in winter when there aren’t any sandwiches to steal out of people’s hands.”

When my siblings and I started having families of our own, we decided to celebrate our family’s Christmas on Dec. 26 so our kids could spend Christmas Day at home and no one had to travel.

Over the years, our Christmas celebration had turned into a holiday filled with expectations and meltdowns — my mom’s, mine, and everyone else’s, depending on the year and who was raw from a custody battle or one of our kids’ serious health diagnoses.

Yet, year after year, we pushed through the day. The gathering was considered a success if no one took off early in their car or locked themselves in a bedroom upstairs. Both happened frequently over the years.

It wasn’t that we didn’t love each other. We just continued to cling to our family roles. In first-born form, I took on too many responsibilities and became resentful. My two younger brothers, both born within three years of me, poked at my rotten mood and tendency (OK, habit) of being bossy. My sister, 13 years younger than me, kept the peace and diverted volatile conversations, like which one of us was the most independent after high school.

Seagull Day was going to be different. My mother had a protocol — and we’d follow it. It looked nothing like Christmas.

The author's kids and nieces decorating the Seagull Day tree in 2018.

I’m working on the details,” she said to me on the phone a few days before we met up that first year. “Oh, and don’t bring gifts. Or expect gifts.”

I texted my sister: What’s the deal with Seagull Day?

She replied: No idea. But mom’s excited. Maybe it will be good???

When my daughters and I arrived at my parents’ house on Seagull Day, my mother was sipping wine, and my father was chugging Diet Coke. The scene was void of the familiar chaos in the kitchen, where we’d usually find the two of them bickering over an oven timer for the rolls.

Instead of smelling roast beef, potatoes and green bean casserole, I smelled balsam fir.

My siblings were scattered around the kitchen island. My sister raised her eyebrows. My brother shrugged his shoulders. They picked at the platter of cheddar cheese and Ritz crackers. Next to it, a balsam fir candle burned.

I’ve read in self-help books that the only way we change is when we’re uncomfortable. My siblings and I were very uncomfortable.

Where was the tension? The arguing? The passive-aggressive ploys for our parents’ affection despite being grown adults? How would we act out our unresolved hurt feelings from decades of miscommunication if we were distracted by celebrating seagulls?

“Boys, go find a big branch that we can use for a tree,” my mother said. The neighborhood was filled with knotty pines — skinny trees without good branches. They returned 45 minutes later with a scrawny, pathetic limb.

“You think this was easy to find?” my brother said when my sister scrunched her face. Instead of inciting an argument like I expected, they both burst out laughing.

When my mother announced it was time to head to the beach, one of my brothers couldn’t resist asking what the rest of us were wondering but didn’t dare question.

“Does anyone else think this is kind of crazy?” he asked. “Why are we going to the beach in 30-degree weather to celebrate seagulls on Christmas?”

Within seconds, my father shuffled me and my siblings into the hallway. “You’ll do whatever your mother wants,” he said. “Do you understand me?” His bushy Bert and Ernie eyebrows stood on edge. We were transported back to the 1980s and ’90s when one of us said something hurtful or was in a mood that threatened to ruin the day, which was, admittedly, an inevitable tradition.

“Emotions run high on the holidays,” my mother said. Every. Single. Year.

The 2021 Seagull Day tree decorated with taco shells and popcorn.

My mother always wanted Christmas to be magical. More than that, she didn’t want to disappoint us. In middle school, I rode shotgun in her minivan while she parked in front of toy stores. I ran in and asked the cashier if they had an impossible-to-find stuffed Alf doll, Transformer or Air Jordan’s. My mother’s look of hope faded as I hustled back to the car with a thumbs down.

Somehow, she always delivered what we asked for, but the labor of love — or the obligation and duty — came with a price.

By Christmas Day, my mother was exhausted and resentful — not at us, but at the expectation of the holiday. Tension was the seventh member of our family. It crept in after we opened gifts from Santa. My mother headed to the kitchen, where she spent hours preparing a meal that was never quite appreciated the way she wanted it to be.

Now, my family of 15 was walking a half-mile to the beach bundled in coats, hats and gloves. My brothers carried the “tree.” My niece clutched a life-sized wooden seagull that had been perched on the coffee table because my mother insisted it be in the picture. There would be pictures?

My father sang “White Christmas” and swung two plastic grocery store bags filled with half-eaten boxes of Cheerios, pretzels, Ritz and Cheez-Its.

My siblings and I weren’t sure what to do. The good, calm vibe threw us off our game. For as long as we could remember, we went into the holiday armed and ready for battle. More often than not, someone turned an innocent comment about grocery stores into a personal attack on them and their choices.

Now, focusing on the chill of the air, the crunch of the sand, and our kids’ excitement had the four of us seeking camaraderie to navigate my mother’s fake holiday.

We huddled together to block the northeast wind that threatened to take down the tree my brothers had shimmied into the hard sand. The Atlantic Ocean was dark, the beach desolate. I wished I’d worn gloves.

“Find little places on the tree to rest the snacks,” my mother said. “Think of them as sparkly ornaments.”

My middle school daughters, niece and nephews went to work. “Mimi, does this look pretty?” my daughter asked my mother. Ten pretzels were strung on a branch to look like a necklace.

“Mimi, look, look, Mimi,” my niece yelled. Wheat Thins were stacked in blocks and balanced on a low branch.

The author's family decorating gingerbread men on Seagull Day 2017.

My siblings and I stood back and took in my mother’s joy — a joy we’d never seen on Christmas. We exchanged smirks. We dug our cold hands into a Cheerios box.

“What do you bet mom had a bowl of these this morning?” one brother asked. (My mother is notorious for keeping expired food that needs to be thrown away.)

We laughed — on Christmas — I mean, Seagull Day. It felt good, genuine, and like the very element we’d been missing for years — maybe forever. We knew we loved each other; we just tended to forget amidst the chaos of Christmas.

When the boxes and bags of stale food were empty, we stood back and looked at our creation. “Do you love it?” my older daughter asked me.

“I love it,” I said.

We waited for a man and woman walking the beach to get close so we could ask them for a few pictures of us with our tree.

“What’s this all about?” the woman asked as she snapped pictures.

“It’s Seagull Day!” my brother said with confidence.

On the way back to the house, we started chanting what would become our new family cry the day after Christmas. “Seagull Day! Seagull Day! Seagull Day!”

I don’t think I’d ever felt such a sense of belonging to my family. My fingertips were numb, and my sneakers were filled with sand, yet my heart was bursting with the affirmation that my family loved me. For a long time, I didn’t quite feel that on Christmas.

That afternoon, we ate nachos and pizza. We decorated gingerbread men that my mother had made from scratch. The kitchen island was filled with mini candies, piped frosting and colored gels. She sat with her grandchildren and dazzled them with her creativity.

My mother gave us each an envelope with $50 and a box of mini Charleston Chews. “Happy Seagull Day,” she said. We were thrilled. We didn’t need anything — we couldn’t even remember what she gave us the year before. She asked my siblings and I to save one present from our kids’ Santa wish list for her to buy and give on Seagull Day. No one missed the marathon present exchange of years past. We didn’t realize how tense it made us until we had permission to not do it anymore.

A few hours later, my brothers went to the beach to remove the branch. It was bare. Every morsel of stale food was gone. The seagulls had swooped in and cleaned up the mess and junk of our family dysfunction and allowed us to start a new way of celebrating the complicated beauty of family.

Over the years, we’ve made Seagull Day T-shirts, bought a tripod for our annual photo, rotated who brings the take-out food, made playlists for the walk to the beach and learned how to dress appropriately for decorating a tree along the Atlantic Ocean in December.

Ten years later, my kids, nieces and nephews are surprised when people haven’t heard of Seagull Day. To them, it’s an annual — and maybe should be a national — holiday. My social media posts and pictures spark long threads of questions and “I want to do this next year!”

I assure everyone, “Yes, you do.”

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