When you ask Jim what his family traditions are for Christmas, he says, “Chinese food?” And he really is asking. I’m not sure what the root cause is, but his family’s Christmases are very free-form. They don’t seem to be much in to structured gift-giving, and in fact Jim has had to learn how to choose gifts for me.
In my family, however, Christmas is still not as big as in some other families I’ve seen, but there are traditions and there is gift-giving. It starts after Thanksgiving Day when the tree goes up and the decorations emerge, and everything looks festive. It may take some brainstorming and some last-minute strokes of genius, but we’re pretty good at gifting. Breakfast is a baked good, usually muffins, usually blueberry. Stockings are opened during breakfast. There is an orange in the toe of your stocking. Presents are opened after breakfast is cleared. One person plays Santa and distributes the gifts evenly so that someone always has something ready to open. Every year since 1984, my mom has crafted me a special ornament that somehow signifies the year that is drawing to a close. These things happen over and over every year, to be anticipated the next year. Traditions.
Except ask my mother about Christmas morning oatmeal. That is a tradition that didn’t get passed on. Sometimes traditions don’t make it from one generation to the next, for some reason or another. That’s ok.
Since Jim and I started celebrating the holidays together, we’ve yet to get our own traditions off the ground. We’ve had some false starts. There are some I brought with me, like making a special breakfast and opening stockings first and then getting to the tree in an orderly manner. Tree decorating baffles him. It took him three years of marriage to realize I wanted him to *help* me. And eventually I’d like us to create our own traditions that belong to *our* family especially. I like the idea of festive, iconic holiday meals, so this year I’m working on that aspect. Usually, though, because he works at a hospital, Jim has always volunteered to work or be on call over Christmas. Frequently, this means our Christmas traditions have been “bye, see you when I get back.” Maybe he’ll come home with a slice of hospital-provided pie, if I’m lucky. This year he’s in networking, though, not field services, so there’s a chance that even though he’ll technically be on call, probably, it’s unlikely that he’ll have to go in. So I can plot to my heart’s content.
Since we moved in to the house, we’ve been dashing down to the nearby Congregational church for a Christmas Eve service. It’s nice, it’s festive, there are a lot of open flames involved, it’s a brisk two minute walk, and I think it helps Jim feel connected to his Presbyter roots. Then we come home and I try to cook something nice, but Jim’s reaction is always “meh.” Last year was a disaster; I don’t even want to talk about it. This year, though, I think I’ve got his number: kielbasa baked in a bed of sauerkraut. We just might be able to make this Christmas Eve tradition stick.
Christmas day, I still plan to bake something for breakfast. It might be muffins from scratch instead of from a boxed mix, but something will be baked. Or I might feel nostalgic and get a roll of cinnamon buns. I’m not the only person who jumps a mile in the air when the tube finally pops, right?
Christmas dinner should be something lazy but indulgent — how does roast duck sound? How does a duck, roasted low and slow, shredded, and bathed in hoisin sauce sound? Served with Chinese pancakes and a crunchy slaw? Followed by a sour-cherry coffee cake? Well, I’ll let you know on the 26th how it turned out! I think this satisfies his querying “Chinese food?” tradition, I just need to find myself a duck. I know I’ve seen them in local meat cases, just need to hunt down the right store. Here, ducky ducky ducky…
I think that traditions are important, and I don’t care exactly what they are. They help us structure our otherwise chaotic yearly rounds, and while they might not seem like much at the time, looking back on them we realize how important they were. The fact that Jim and I put up a (fake) tree and open presents on December 25th is completely a matter of accident. (Although I admit that the tree is mostly my thing.) We both come from Protestant backgrounds. It’s the tradition we’re used to marking the end of the year with, so we work with it. But as an adult, especially one living far from family, and married to another person who’s far from family, we get to make up a lot of our own traditions too. It’s freeing to carry some things forward and create new things. It might take a few false starts, but eventually you’ll hit on something that’s a winner.
So whether or not you choose to schedule your winter-centric tradition around the 25th of December, do me a favor and make a tradition anyway. Make it something your kids can anticipate with joy, that they can look back on with happiness and comfort. Make it something that makes you feel alive and connected to other people, and honestly, the dark, ending-time of the year is a good time for this, a time when otherwise we feel separated from the world by early sunsets and late sunrises. Or wait until early January, when people’s calendars open up, and celebrate the beginning of a new year by going to a champagne brunch with your oldest friends. Connect to other people. Go on an annual ski holiday. You will feel much, much better afterward. The world will seem a bit brighter.
Families, have a weekly tradition of baking something together on Saturday mornings, or family movie night on Sundays and eating popcorn or cereal for dinner, or making individual pizzas. They may not think much of it now, but later in their lives, your kids will probably thank you for it. Well, they might not actually say “thank you,” but it will be telegraphed somehow, just you wait and see.