We figured out a long time ago that buying presents for every single family member was not going to work out very well in the long-term. Not when you start with six siblings and add spouses and then kids, more and more, year after year. So in my extended family, we draw names. And every Christmas, I’m grateful we figured that part out. Because there’s always so much else going on.

When a big family gets together for Thanksgiving or Christmas or Hanukah or any other annual occasion, it is never the same group of people it was the year before. There’s a new boyfriend, or spouse, or baby. There are friends or neighbors who need a place to go. There are a few nuclear families who might be missing this year because, shockingly, they’re with that other family known as their in-laws. Or they’ve dared to break with protocol and go on a trip.

But there’s another reason it’s never the same group of people: everyone in the room is a year older. So what? You might say. Maybe so what for us grown-ups, but for the kids? Wow. What a difference a year makes, when you go from squalling newborn to toddling, smiling one-year-old. Or silent young teen to suddenly-able-to-speak-again older teen. Or high school senior to college freshman. The niece or nephew I thought I knew? Gone, replaced by a young adult who wants to talk to quaint, church-going me about whether God exists and if so, why.

Every year for 32 years, with just a few exceptions, I have attended what you might call Holiday Family School: a “classroom” full of young people I’ve known all their lives who currently range in age from just under one (my great-nephew) to 32 (his dad, my oldest nephew). So even though my own children are now 21 and 24, I get a glimpse into the current middle school-high school world via my five teenaged nieces and nephews. I can commiserate and celebrate with their parents. And from my niece and nephews who are in their later twenties, I can learn what might lie ahead for my kids. And for me.

What it looks like is conversation and lots of it. That’s what we do. Sometimes it feels like shallow skimming; at other moments it goes deep. We’ve had our heartbreaks, our losses. We have our ongoing worries. But we also know how we lucky we are to have this: Holiday Family School, where we are always welcome as Continuing Ed students, lifelong learners, back for more.

It’s fitting that Christmas celebrates not only the birth of a baby but the creation of an unlikely family: teenaged single mom, loving stepdad, admiring shepherds filling in for the aunts, uncles and cousins they couldn’t get to that night, because babies come when they come, even if it means making their grand entrance in a barn.

Meanwhile, in some other town, Mary and Joseph’s relatives must have been fretting through the dark hours, and looking forward to the next year, when they’d all be together again: talking, comparing notes, admiring the new baby.

Merry Christmas from the Restless Nest.

Registration is open for Intro to Memoir Writing at SCCCStarts Jan 6. Six Monday nights. Non-credit = all inspiration, no stress!

 Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.