I love that word. It brings to mind memories of times past and
occasions and activities that were so special, unique, or fun that they
became incorporated into our souls and repeated over and over again. (Cue the music!)
No season seems to echo the thought of tradition more to me than the winter holidays.
For me, it’s Christmas and all that goes with it. A visit to the greens market with my friend Jan. Cookie decorating on Christmas Eve with the kids. (That one is less likely to happen now -- at least on Christmas Eve -- but those cookies always get done!) A holiday gift exchange with good friends where we choose our gifts based on the theme of a favorite holiday song.
For my friend Jane, it is baking biscotti at Hanukkah. For my interfaith cousins with a large extended family, it is a way to make gift giving for Hanukkah and Christmas both fun and economical.
|A cake stand, bottlebrush trees and some festive mini-cones to fill in the space and you have an five-minute centerpiece!|
My holiday decorating begins on Thanksgiving weekend. (I'm a little slower this year -- but I've still started!) And with that seasonal launch comes the revisiting of treasured ornaments, favorite recipes and memories of all the past seasons.
|The tree is 2011, before I rearranged the furniture|
When I pull out the giant Gingerman my dad made for my mom, it reminds me of a tradition we used to share with our family, long before marriages and illnesses changed those holidays, making it difficult for us to get together. We would have an original gift-wrapping contest with various categories (“Best disguise of an obvious object,” “Best wrapping paper,” “Most unique”). Both adults and kids — we were all teens or in college — participated, spending hours dripping candle wax over a small, square box to create a faux candle or turning a rolled-up poster into a trumpet.
One year, after Mom had been making tiny stuffed gingerbread-man ornaments, Dad stitched up a giant one, leaving a small hole in its side where he hid a pair of earrings. It’s now the topper on one of my trees.
|The family room, 2020|
Other ornaments and decorations remind me of special times and people. An Eiffel Tower or dangling piece from Japan recall trips Rick and I have enjoyed together. A beaded ornament that was my grandmother's is the oldest and most precious ornament on the tree. The creche my parents bought in Mexico has a spot, along with the Santa my friend Mary Jane made for me several years before she passed. They’re all part of my Christmas and they will all be on the tree or in my home, no matter where I might one day live.
|Grandma's Ornament, c. 1920|
When Rick and I joined forces, his boys were quite young. That’s when we started the Christmas Eve cookie decorating tradition. I made the cut-outs ahead of time and after our dinner was tidied up, we’d get out the frosting and go to town. Some of the creations were artistic and elegant. Some were just obnoxious sugar bombs. The cookies would end up as dessert the next day, with some headed off to their mom, others shared with friends or neighbors.
Those boys are grown now and Christmas gatherings are merry with the Toddler Twosome. Two years ago, before Covid halted family Christmas plans in 2020, we did the cookies again -- not after dinner, but with the boys. Hopefully, we'll do it this year, once again. It may not be on “official” Christmas Eve. But we’ll gather at the table, cups filled with colorful frosting and enjoy our time together.
|Christmas 2019 -- Those boys are bigger now!|
That’s the other thing. Traditions evolve over time. Families expand and we learn to “share” those we love with others. But we hold tight to the feelings, the essence of the holiday.
My Cleveland cousins started a new shopping tradition several years ago when getting presents for the extended family of 17 or more became a financial nightmare. With all the children as adults now, this became a fun, easy way to cut down expenses. Each person would get a one, five, ten, and twenty dollar gift that could go to a male or female. These would be exchanged by drawing numbers. They would draw a name for a special present in the thirty dollar zone for one person. That, too, changed, as gatherings in 2020 were cut back. But who knows? The vaccines make things possible again.
Their exchange brought loads of laughs, the financial cost was significantly reduced (they used to all exchange!), and it was a fun challenge to find the right thing. (Dollar Tree certainly benefited from this!)
About eighteen years ago we started a tradition with another couple of choosing a holiday song as our theme for gift giving. We set a twenty-five dollar limit and pick a song. Sometimes we interpret literally (when we did “The Christmas Song” we both found “chestnuts” to roast on an open fire!). We’ve done “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Let it Snow!,” “White Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” “Christmas Island,” “Jingle Bell Rock” and many others. The changing theme helps the concept never get old!
|I'll bet you can guess the song theme this year!|
I will always make my cousin Bonnie’s “Jingle Balls,” (which you may know as Italian wedding cookies or snowballs), along with several other cookies that are holiday “musts.” (Here are Five Christmas Cookie Recipes I Love!) We’ll have probably the roast beef Christmas Eve dinner that Rick’s grandfather used to make (whether we serve it on Christmas Eve or otherwise!) and the strata breakfast casserole that goes in the oven while we open presents on Christmas morning (whenever we decide that will be.) We will watch “A Christmas Story” and “Love Actually” and I will be sure to watch “White Christmas” (by myself, probably, since everyone else burned out on that one -- not to mention the fact that I sing along.)
And that’s OK. Because for me, traditions are both those shared with others and those we hold close to ourselves. That moment of quiet to remember those no longer with us, a review of photos from Christmases past.
|1977 or 1978 -- our first Christmas together after the Moms died.|
When I decorate the little tree in my bedroom that has fishing ornaments and other things that remind me of my dad, he’s there with me, just as mom appears when I set the table with her Spode Christmas tree china and silver. To others, it might just be a tree or a pretty table setting. But I know.
|2020's Table for Two|
What are your treasured holiday traditions? Hold them close and share them, too. Pass them down to the next generation. They’ll change in time to be sure. So will we. But they will remain in our hearts as we recall family, friendships, holidays and most of all, love.
(This post first appeared in "Modern Creative Life." It has been updated for 2021.)