Eleven months out of the year I exist in a chaotic state filled with never-ending stress. When December rolls around a beautiful transformation takes place. I go to sleep November 30th a tired and overworked housewife and wake up December 1st with Martha Stewart’s blood running through my veins. As I unpack brightly colored balls, plastic snowmen, and macaroni nativity sets, I get giddy with excitement. It’s not just the decorating, shopping, or the intoxicating smells of Christmas cookies, it is the idea of carrying out the Holiday traditions that connect me to my family even when we cannot be together.
Most of us follow the traditions that we learned as small children. Sometimes it is as simple as baking the foods that we remember being served as a child, opening up one gift on Christmas Eve, or leaving milk and cookies out for Santa. My kids are both teenagers now, but we still follow through with these traditions. Of course, we have tweaked and twisted the traditions to fit our changing family. That is the great thing about traditions, they are flexible and every family puts their own unique spin on them. We still bake from the recipes our grandmothers used, but now we each choose our own special dish. It is not unusual on Christmas Day at our house to see a spread that includes a spiral baked ham and mashed potatoes next to a pepperoni pizza and chicken enchiladas. And yes, it is true. Last year we left out a fiber bar and a cup of Greek yogurt for Santa. I’m Sorry Santa, Weight Watchers encouraged me to not keep the cookies around. I’d like to think Santa appreciated this healthy alternative.
My mother is retired now and living in Arizona. She decorates cacti with Christmas lights and has long given up decorating a huge tree, but at one time her tree was the envy of the neighborhood. Growing up, I always knew our tree was different. Where others hung store bought balls, tinsel and Hallmark ornaments, we hung Hungarian dancing dolls, brightly feathered exotic birds, and stained glass ornaments. Our tree was unique. Each item was a treasured piece with its’ own story. Today, my sister and I each have one of the Hungarian dolls, and I know when I hang my doll that somewhere three states away my sister is doing the same with her little dancer. We each took a piece of my mom’s tradition and started our own with it. My own tree is not as exotic as my moms, but I carried on her tradition of not having any matching ornaments. When I look at my tree I see strings of pearly beads that my daughter played dress up with. I see her first ballet shoes and marvel every year on how tiny her feet once were. I see the stained glass ornaments my father makes with his own hands twinkling in the lights. I see every ornament as a memory. But mostly when I look at my tree, I see my mother.
Every family has traditions, and sometime they come in the form of games. The Christmas Pickle is a traditional German game that many of our friends play each year. It involves hiding a pickle ornament in the tree. The first person on Christmas morning to find the elusive vegetable gets the honor of opening the first present. This is a tradition that can easily be added to anyone’s family. It doesn’t even have to be a pickle. I’ve thought about trying this my family, but I know my family. I know their competitive streak. A simple game of “Find the Pickle” could easily turn into “Find the Closest Emergency Room.” I can see ornaments flying off the tree, the dog running for cover, and somehow someone ending up with an elbow in the nose.
Growing up on Lake Erie, my husband remembers every kid in the neighborhood receiving new ice skates. As parents lay recovering in mountains of crumpled wrapping paper and bows, the kids bundled up and faced the frigid air to try out their new skates. He remembers coming home with freezing toes and fingers and a running nose to find a roaring fire and steaming mugs of hot chocolate. On Christmas break every year, we go ice skating. I think it brings back my husband’s memories of the whipping wind and the thrill of new skates that would glide so smoothly across Lake Erie’s ice.
We all have traditions that we keep dear to us whether it be the connection we feel to our families far away, or just the memories that come from doing the same things are loved ones once did. Sometimes we update our traditions, like giving Santa low-fat treats instead of sugar cookies. Sometimes we keep old traditions, like decorating our trees the same way our mothers did. Sometimes it means starting new traditions that find their way permanently into our Holiday plans. Do you have any traditions that you have twisted to meet the needs of today and your family? Please share some with us. Whatever your traditions may be, I hope that they bring back special memories for you and help you feel closer to those who you cannot be with this season. Merry Christmas,