Are We Overdoing it? On Climbing the Mountain of Christmas Traditions
What to do when your family's wholesome holiday routine gets out of control, and takes over your life:
I’ve been in sticky situations with mountains before, but none quite like this. The craggy, snow-covered peak rose to a preposterous height above a glittering crystal creek. The summit itself, a contorted whisp of frosting shaped by some unseen painter’s knife.
A high-alpine lake glistened an unreal baby blue, cascading over the cliffs to the valley floor below. I could just make out the A-frame home where all of this had began. Across the river from the cabin, a barely-visible creature lurked — crimson dripping from its jaws; the beast at the base of the mountain.
“You aren’t getting points for that,” my mother said, pointing at the marshmallow mountain I had constructed.
“Because this is a ginger bread house contest!”
“It’s part of the background!” I objected.
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Every year for the past few holiday seasons, my family observes a relatively new tradition in competitive decorating. We assemble a ginger bread village together — each of us decorating our own building — then invite our guests and friends online to judge which they like best.
The winner gets bragging rights, and everyone gets to have a fun afternoon together sitting around the table, listening to Christmas music and enjoying each other’s company.
My family has a thing for traditions. Some of them are logical (getting a new pair of pajamas on Christmas Eve so everyone looks good in the holiday pictures,) some are ludicrous (baking legions of homicidal sugar cookies to leave out for Santa.) But over the years we’ve discovered that some traditions can start to feel more like chores.
When we collectively realized this, we started paring things down a bit. My family loves tradition. But we also recognize that above all else, these customs should do two things:
Establish and maintain sense of continuity and legacy
Bring loved ones closer together
Anything else runs the risk of devolving into a laundry list of things that keep you busy, but leave you feeling isolated and overwhelmed.
Cole’s Climb has been on quite the journey these past few months. When I started in 2020, it was a kind of journal exercise for me. I planned to document my training as I learned trad climbing, and prepared for my dream expedition to ascend lone eagle peak.
I had my little audience of about 15 family members and friends. And I dutifully sent out these slices of my adventures, every Thursday morning.
But something was missing.
Along my adventures I ran into other hikers, chatted, and made friends on summits. I wanted my work to be about community. After a string of ideas that didn’t work, I launched the Trail Talk podcast.
I wanted to keep Thursdays sacred for my essays, so I sought to produce one Trail Talk episode, every other Saturday. That worked for about three months before I burned myself out. I reasoned both posts could share real estate on my publishing calendar.
By this point, I’d started work on my documentary, The Alpine Amusement Park.
I’d already posted some hiking guides and gear shopping lists. I realized I was growing two equally engaged and supportive audiences that wanted two very different things out of my writing:
News and resources that impact their own outdoor adventures
Adventure stories and photos that let the reader experience nature second-hand
And so, I split Cole’s Climb into three segments, all taking their turns to be published — you guessed it — on Thursdays. And from there, the problems began to mount.
What happens if I come across a breaking news story on a Friday? Do I sit on it all week and risk getting scooped, or rush to publish twice as much? I found myself able to walk this line pretty well, until December 8th. For the first time in a year-and-a-half, I missed my own publishing deadline.
I talked with some other writers about their own structure, and wondered if the Thursday morning time slot was something that readers cared about, or even noticed. I put out a poll to my Summit Squad members, and found 89% of my most engaged readers didn’t care at all about my scheduling.
On further reflection, I don’t think keeping this schedule has made a lot of sense for quite some time. In the early days, it held me accountable; and I stuck to it longer than I probably should have because it had become part of a sense of consistency and legacy for Cole’s Climb.
As is the case with all traditions: it’s important to occasionally evaluate whether they bring your family and friends together, or feel like stressful items on a to-do list, bogging you down and keeping you apart.
In the same spirit, I’ll be leaving the Thursday publishing schedule in 2022, in the hopes of establishing new customs that strengthen the bonds of this little outdoor community.
From a practical standpoint: this won’t have an impact on how many articles or podcast episodes you get per month (usually 4-5 total.) They’ll just be a little more timely.
I hope wherever you are, you find a way to spend time with the people who matter to you, this holiday season.
Thank you for continuing to support this publication through another incredible year. I’ll see you all in 2023!
First of all, the intro to the gingerbread house is fantastic. Second, I love how you are evolving with your Substack. I've found the weekly posts (travel) for myself as a way to keep regularly posting, but I just post other pieces (personal or social commentary) as they come to me because, like you said, they are timely. Thank you for insuring me as a writer ❤️ PS, how do you get that recommendation prompt at the bottom of your posts when they show up online?
Hi Cole, I loved your intro about the gingerbread house. My Christmas tradition is picking out a special ornament for my daughter, son, and husband that somehow reflects their personality or interests, and I also pick out one for myself, and then we open them on Christmas Eve. I really value all these ornaments even though I'm not a person usually into decor or cutesy stuff, because each evokes a memory. The kids are excited to have their ornaments from their growing-up years on their own tree once they're adult enough to have a tree. Anyway ... thanks for getting me thinking about traditions. As for a publishing schedule, do what works! I admire how many branches you've grown on this newsletter platform, but it's OK to trim them back or prioritize one over another. Keep up the good work and happy new year!