Ready or not, the holiday season is upon us! There are so many different holidays & reasons to celebrate this time of year—Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, Winter Solstice, even Wright Brothers Day (December 17, of course!), and more—depending upon how you were raised and the choices you have adopted since then. But let’s face it: in America, at this time of the year, it is Christmas that dominates the scene. We are a nation of Christmas. Even though for some, the holiday retains aspects of its original religious significance, it is safe to say that between Santa, the amount of money we spend on gifts, and the cross-cultural dominance of its symbols, Christmas has become mostly a secular celebration, like Halloween or Thanksgiving.
Because of this secularization, whether you are a Christian or not, you are probably about to embark on a week or two of Christmas-related rituals, leading right into the New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day shenanigans. Many of these rituals involve your family, of course, and that means they are not simply rituals. They are traditions. They have been in your family for years, maybe even generations. Some are heart-touching. Some are vomit-inducing. Some somber. Some hilarious. All are meaningful in ways you can’t totally explain. So, basically, they are like your family!
When I was a kid, we would drive a couple of hours to the town where my parents grew up so we could spend Christmas Eve with my grandparents and cousins. My Grandma Jeanne would make a traditional turkey dinner for us, which was delicious. My Grandpa Mel, though, always insisted that she include on the menu a platter of lutefisk. If you don’t know what lutefisk is, consider yourself lucky. Picture a very pale, very fishy-tasting slab of rubber soaking in warm water. Come on, Grandpa Mel! Give me a break! This is your Norwegian tradition? This is the part of your heritage you want to pass down? I am glad to say that lutefisk is one tradition which has met its demise in my family’s current generation.
Food & drink are such an integral part of so many of our traditions, though, aren’t they? In my family, the favorite food tradition comes on Christmas morning, when my Mom makes her cheesy, hammy eggbake (is that a word?), caramel rolls, and sliced oranges. That may sound like an odd combo to you, but there might be a mutiny in the house if she did not make them to eat before we all go down to open presents.
Ah, the presents! We are totally a Christmas morning family. When I was a kid, we would get to open one present on Christmas Eve: the one from our cousins who were Christmas Eve people. If my parents had a “family present” to give us—a game of some sort—we might get to open that one too. But now that the cousins don’t exchange anymore, we are a Christmas-Morning-Only house.
And we have to be at my parent’s house—the house that I grew up in—to open them. When I was a kid, if we took the two-hour drive to be with my grandparents and cousins for Christmas Eve, we turned around at the end of a long night and drove back across the frozen tundra so we would be home for Christmas morning presents at our house. Even as we got into our college and early adulthood, no one dared to miss Christmas at home. Wouldn’t dream of it. Multiple kids with spouses and in-laws have complicated things, of course, and in recent years a couple of my siblings have had to take their turn at the in-laws’ houses instead. Spoiled as we are, none of us take it well. I am happy to say that even after all of the wandering I have done over the years, I have always made it home for Christmas. Some years there are twenty of us sleeping under one roof, with only our spouses feeling cramped. My kids absolutely love it, as do I.
One of these years, one of the families of my siblings will announce that they are starting their own tradition and will no longer be going to my parents’ house—or my parents will lock us all out—and I will be very sad about that.
I think one way that my family might be peculiar—just one, of course—is that we have no Christmas Eve traditions. The only thing remotely like it is that most people go to church. But some years, people are just getting to town that night and thus don’t go, and my little part of the family never goes. Other years, folks have split up and gone to different churches. So, even the church part is not so traditional. And then we follow it up with a totally random meal that changes from year to year. As I said, we are a Christmas Day people, not Christmas Eve.
But I do love Christmas Dinner! After the late-morning eggbake and the presents, my old man goes up to the kitchen and has his own tradition of getting very surly about anyone getting in his space for the next several hours as he prepares his prime rib. So, we are all desperately hungry by the time dinner rolls around. And it is a true delight, including the traditional Scandinavian specialty, lefse, covered in butter and tons of sugar (which guarantees that my kids will continue this tradition). But alas, no lutefisk. Sorry, Grandpa Mel. The best part of the whole deal for me, though, is the Swedish Cream with raspberry sauce that my Mom makes for dessert. That smooth, creamy-dreamy concoction slays me every year. It is my kind of tradition!
One of my personal traditions is writing in my journal in the afternoon between presents and supper—seeing as I am shut out of the kitchen by the surly guy upstairs—and including a list of all of the presents I got, for posterity’s sake. I like to think I will enjoy looking back on those entries one day, the thought of the presents bringing back lots of fun memories to swim around in.
Thinking now of all of these traditions is doing just that. I haven’t been able to wipe the smile off of my face since I started writing this letter. I love the holidays for the memories they create. That reminds me of one last thing I do every year no matter what: I thank my lucky stars for the family I get to share the holiday with and for this wonderful life I get to live every day in between. I am wildly blessed. I thank the holidays for reminding me of that. Every year. Same place, same time.
How about you? What are your holiday traditions? Get out your journal and be ready to smile as you write. Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. Are there any traditions that you plod through every year just because “it’s tradition,” gritting your teeth through every bit of it? How tempted are you to step up and suggest ending that tradition? (I remember being so relieved when we finally stopped buying presents for every single person in the extended family, but it took someone finally saying something before it happened.) What is the oldest tradition that you take part in? Is it more meaningful because of its longevity? Which traditions mean (or meant) the most to your parents? Are those the ones that mean the most to you, too? Which ones are the most fun? How about the food? Do you eat the same meals every year at your gatherings? What are your favorite dishes specific to holiday meals? Do you have a version of lutefisk (i.e. something awful but traditional) at your meals? Is there something like a Swedish Cream that only makes an appearance once per year but that you dream about the rest of the year? Do you have any holiday traditions that have nothing to do with family? If you had to pick only three of your traditions to continue for years to come, which would you choose? What makes them keepers? Do all of the traditions make the holidays more fun or more overwhelming? Leave me a reply and let me know: What are your favorite holiday traditions?
Cheers to you and yours,
P.S. If this letter got you in the holiday spirit or brought up some fond memories from the back of your mind, pass it on. Spread love this season!