Warning – this is a long one!
For some unknown reason, this year I signed up for a “Holiday Traditions” swap. My swappee and I exchanged packages containing (1) a handmade ornament; (2) my favorite “traditional” holiday recipe, and; (3) a guide to carrying out one of my favorite holiday traditions. I have mine all ready to mail, and my spoiler has put mine in the mail.
The whole thing has been thought-provoking. Consider the word “tradition” with its aura of time-honored manifestations of its followers’ history, values, and identity. Now consider the “Holiday” season with its associated commercial frenzy, unearthing of ancient family vulnerabilities, and general craziness. Together the phrase “Holiday Tradition” has “traditionally” caused me to furrow my brow, uncertain whether I even have any valid “Holiday Traditions.” Just for fun, I’ve decided to set down the evolution of my reflections on Christmas traditions. No, not just for fun, but on the off chance that some of my thoughts ring a (silver! holiday!) bell with someone else.
I was born in 1951 and grew up with parents and a younger brother and sister. My parents were not religious in the way of today’s aggressively devout politically-charged faithful. However, we had many holiday traditions, which I loved.
For example, my parents were sociable, and every year we’d get together with their old friends. The year that went down in (family) history was when their oldest bestest friends came out to visit and got stuck in a snowdrift a mile away. They had to go the last mile carrying the baby and dragging everything on sleds. (Parenthetical Note: Lest anyone doubt the reality of global warming, thigh-high snowfalls were commonplace in the 1960’s and 70’s)
They loved music and, while my mother couldn’t carry a tune in the proverbial bucket, my dad has a great singing voice. So, every year we’d pull out dusty holiday LPs (yes! and they got scratchier every year!) and sing along. It was actually a Big Deal when “The Little Drummer Boy” was written, because it was a NEW Christmas carol, the first in centuries. One year my school put on Amahl and the Night Visitors, also considered pretty avant garde back then. I memorized the words to a zillion carols and sang them without regard for tune or voice quality.
We lived in the country about an hour from Philadelphia. Every year we’d drive into center city and go to Wanamakers, an 8 story Department Store (ask your grandma what that is.) Wanamakers had a huge brass eagle in the middle of the first floor, inevitably festooned with shoppers waiting to
Meet Me at the Eagle.
We sang songs in the car, I’d show off by reciting the whole Night Before Christmas. We’d shop for a couple of hours, returning to the eagle periodically to regroup into changing Circles of Secrecy, with many Faux Hints (“I hope you know what to feed it!” for a pair of boots.).
We would wait in a long line to see Santa, a let down because the wait was dull and I never had a “list” ready for him. Then, we’d eat in the Wanamakers restaurant on the top floor. It featured a special dessert consisting of an upside-down ice cream cone made to look like a clown, with the cone as the clown’s head. Finally, I’d fall asleep on the way home, while my parents listened to strange (to me) radio programs (Jean Shepherd and Barry something).
Secrets! were a big deal. So was cooking. My mother was a wonderful cook and very involved in Cooking as an art form – she grew her own herbs, had a million cookbooks, and was absolutely fearless about trying new techniques and recipes. I think that I speak for us all when I say that our favorite holiday cooking tradition was raspberry thumbprint cookies, made with home-canned raspberry jam from home-grown raspberries. Part of the tradition included wondering aloud why we didn’t make them during the year, while realizing that we never would. Wine flowed, eggnog was served in cut crystal family heirloom glasses (one year a silly beagle drank it all, going down in family lore). Greenery was draped everywhere, candles were lit, stockings were hung.
Another tradition was buying a small live tree, digging a hole before the ground froze, and planting it after Christmas. As the years went by, you could see the trees grow. Our ornaments included a range from tacky to lovely, and on Christmas Eve they read the nativity story from the Bible. We’d go to bed and they’d do the stereotypical putting-together and digging-out-from-closets. This was real life, not idealized perfection. There were fights and tears, gifts that missed the mark, failures of generosity or appreciation, and assorted Family Dramas. But, again I think I speak for us all when I say it was a lot of fun.
Holiday Traditions of Young Adults
Um, heading home to regress? Getting high with friends from high school? Silly flings? Drinking too much? Going to a craft fair with a list of girlfriends to shop for? Exams? I think that “Late Adolescence” and “Holiday Traditions” are oxymoronic concepts.
Married With Children
In the fullness of time, I was married to a wonderful man and had two wonderful children, which made it time to establish my very own Holiday Traditions. I identify this as the point when I went off the rails a bit on the whole subject.
I came to marriage with my red and green bag of Family Traditions, see above. My husband’s family history included a LOT more church at Christmas, no drinking or throwing of parties or singing along, and, I’ve always suspected, less fun. For a few years he gamely played along with my increasingly frenzied anxiety to Succeed at Christmas.
During this phase, every year I spent too much on gifts, we got the kids too many gifts, we got into credit card debt, I became anxious about ancient family issues I didn’t think about the rest of the year. Periodically, I’d join a church, or participate in a charity drive. One year my daughter was even Mary in a Nativity pageant (with her pink skin, big blue eyes, and dramatic flair, she was a natural.) I saved Christmas cards to recycle into home-made Advent Calenders. I sent cards, sent them to every single person I’d ever met. I made a big to-do about choosing that year’s card, picking the Most Adorable photo of the kids, and looking for a secular card for my Jewish friends and relatives. I hung up cards on the wall.
I was always aware that I’d never be the cook my mother was. Every year I’d go into a psychic tizzy because my parents wanted to stay with my sister and not me – although, now that I’m writing this down, I can understand why! I sewed beautiful hand-made Christmas stockings for the kids and for some friends. I struggled to keep up the tradition of gifts for girlfriends I hardly saw anymore. I sewed and wrapped and mailed and shopped and made lists and fretted about all of it. We always had a tree and gradually accumulated ornaments with memories encrusted on their shiny surfaces.
However – here is the embarrassing part – throughout all of this festivity, I recall myself as anxious and uncertain whether I was successfully re-creating the holiday traditions from my childhood, adding any new ones, giving the kids the perfect balance of Gift Lust and Spiritual Reflection, cooking the right things, singing the right songs.
I don’t know why it was all so Fraught, but I can tell you this – Every single one of my fellow mothers-of-young-kids went through the same thing. Every one of them told overwrought tales of in-laws who drank, friends who Didn’t Understand, siblings who were a Trial, kids with Special Issues, etc. etc. So, rather than speculate on whether my up-tightness sprang from a Deep Seated Problem, I choose to conclude that it was just part of being in a young family in the 1980’s.
Traditions: Out of the Mouths of Babes
Let’s jump ahead to the children’s elementary school years. The kids’ teachers, intent on Honoring Diversity, would assign the children to create, cook, sew, or write about their family’s Official Holiday Traditions.
Here are a few of our children’s responses to these assignments:
One year my son was assigned to write about family traditions, and he identified two, which he proudly shared with the class. Evan explained that our family traditions consisted of (1) watching Star Trek together, and (2) that his mom always needed to stop at the same “traditional” highway rest stop to pee when we traveled at Christmas. This was incredibly mortifying.
Another time my daughter was assigned to cook and contribute to the class party her family’s Holiday Traditional favorite recipe. She told the teacher that her family had a Long Standing Tradition of making Red Velvet Cake, using her grandmother’s recipe. You have no idea how funny this was. Red velvet cake is a traditional southern dessert that I had never heard of and my mother, whose family was not only northern but Jewish, had really never heard of it. My lovely daughter had made it up out of whole cloth. Luckily, my mom was visiting and, in her fearless style, made a delicious Red Velvet Cake for Nora to take to school.
What’s a Tradition, Anyway?
At this point I began to suspect that our family simply did not have any traditions, much less holiday traditions. The 1980’s and 90’s saw the flourishing of all that Family Values hypocritical crap, and Reaganomics, and the Religious Right, and this did nothing to cultivate a relaxed attitude towards Christmas.
I associated Holiday Tradition with families so different from mine as to be a different species, families with Ironclad religious beliefs, with a strong sense of Ethnic Identity, family in which Father always Knew Best, and Christmas was all about Jesus’s Birthday, not trips to the mall.
I imagined that everyone else had Valid Holiday Traditions, in which they cooked foods associated with their Historical Background, maybe they made Swedish meatballs, or some unpronounceable sticky bun named SchlosseinSpeltGefilteFishSorbetCrumble? No doubt everyone else took part in Spiritually Meaningful traditions, maybe they went to “Midnight Mass”? (I’ve never to been to any “Mass” and Midnight Mass sounds like something from Twilight). Whatever it was, in the true tradition of repressive eras everywhere, I was convinced that I wasn’t Getting it Right.
The (Christmas) Present
After I signed up for this year’s Holiday Tradition Swap, I reflected on my personal history with the concept of seasonal traditions and realized that, by dint of time passing, self-help books, life experience, and whatever all else, I am no longer quite such a fool about Christmas. I also realized that, if I’m honest, my family Holiday Traditions include the following:
We always have a tree, and I am absolutely sentimental about the ornaments. My son is likewise glad to see the familiar bells and glass icicles, stuffed stockings and shiny balls, emerge from their packing.
I used to have an Annual Tradition of buying a tree that would fit in the lobby of a major city’s town hall, followed by a Total Meltdown while trying to string lights. Now I’ve learned to have my husband or son (with their gender-enhanced senses of spatial relationships) pick up the tree and (with their longer arms) string the lights.
We love music and play the same CDs every year. Honestly? Nothing makes me feel like it’s Christmas as much as hearing the first strains of Aaron Neville singing “Bells Will be Ringing”
The Red Velvet cake? Well, I have to watch my blood sugar, so I don’t bake much anymore, but I regard it as the absolute turning point when I realized that Traditions are what you make of them. So, yeah, I consider it a holiday tradition, and maybe I’ll make one this year!
The traditional Holiday Rest Stop? Sadly, of the grandparents who lived far away, only my father remains, and he lives down the block. Star Wars? I now think that it would be a wonderful Holiday Tradition to see a movie, or play poker, or watch Star Wars.
So, What about the Swap?
Without giving anything away, I sent my Swap Partner the recipe for a certain Southern Cake, a copy of a certain Holiday CD, and a knitted ornament!