04 December 2012

Over the river and through the woods...

I've been reading a number of blogs recounting personal Christmas traditions recently, and naturally started to ponder about my own family traditions and how they have evolved over the years. There is natural evolution tweaked by the progression of time; there are changes through the addition of new family members, and the passing of others. None of our traditions have been carved in stone though.

When we were young children, after dinner, we would leave milk and cookies out and a note for Santa and his reindeer on Christmas Eve.  I don't actually remember making the cookies - I should check with my sister who seems to have a photographic memory of the past; I'm sure she remembers making them. When we were ready for bed, our father – the storyteller at night-time rituals – would read T'was The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore.  I can remember the excitement I felt thinking about Santa landing on our roof. Wait! Do I hear bells jingling? OOOOh! 

I wonder whose idea the bells were – I'm guessing Mom's.

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As we got older, we would join our neighbors to make ornaments for the trees at Church on the Saturday before Christmas. The parish meeting house would be full of balsam, red ribbon, paper and glue. It was a pretty jolly time. We would go to the Christmas service at on Christmas Eve, in the late afternoon, participating as little angels attending the group at the manger when we got old enough. Then, after eating a quick dinner we bundled up to join the caroling group that consisted of our extended family with a number of lovely neighbors thrown in for good measure. We went house to house singing the songs we knew the best as loudly as we could, hopefully to brighten the holiday for our older neighbors who were staying in for the evening. Then we returned back home for some hot chocolate and cookies and to get ready for bed, leave the cookies out for Santa & reindeer, and experience The Reading of TTTNBC and finally wait for Santa's visit.

Christmas morning ca. 1956

Christmas morning, according to the photographs, was probably pretty average for the 50's and 60's. A morning full of opening presents, followed by visiting with neighbors to see what they got, followed by a big family dinner with, in our case, a roast beast with all the trimmings. Our family favorite happened to be beef rib roast with Yorkshire pudding. Every. Year.  

Christmas dinner ca. 1967

After that – sledding if there was enough snow. Followed by more hot chocolate.

sledding party c. 1954

As we all aged, so did the traditions. Eventually, I became the big angel ushering the little angels around the stable and watching over the the holy family. After the service, dinner and caroling, the hot chocolate and cookies gave way to going to a neighbors' house for a rousing Christmas Eve party. The party lasted pretty late but broke up before midnight, so the younger ones could get to sleep before Santa came. My brother at this point was designated reader. It was pretty hilarious. I'm also fairly sure that the eggnog – surely the best recipe ever* – had a hand in it.

As we children started leaving home for school and work, the traditions changed. We didn't all get together for one thing. My brother had left for England, but later came back with his new bride. We got to embellish our Christmas traditions with treasure hunts and new dishes to amplify the dinner table – our newest member of the family happened to be a wonderful cook and lots of fun.

Leaving home, and starting our own families and traditions, I hope that we left trails of Christmas crumbs that our children are still following. When they were young, my kids experienced the late-night reading of TTNBC, when we returned from faithfully tromping off to grandmother's house for roast beast – on Christmas Eve, to accommodate having two families to share Christmas with. 

We are all spread out over the globe now, and Christmas traditions change from year to year. I know my kids still put up a real Christmas tree, when they can. And then they go out to a movie. No roast beast for them – unless they have a vegan version that I don't know about.

Christmas 2007

A few years ago, when I was caring for my mother before she moved into an assisted living apartment, I was making gingerbread cookie buildings on her kitchen counter in preparation to host the annual Christmas party for my husband's office. I needed to really dress up the house and make it look pretty, and chose to make Martha Stewart's gingerbread village. It was a fairly ambitious project; Mom and I were repeating an old family custom, but with the roles reversed. When Mom reached out and snitched a bit of dough and promptly put it in her mouth, time stood still for a moment. I recognized the gleam in her eye and the smile on her face. We didn't have a lot of coherent communication at that point, but her message was loud and clear.

Christmases have been different now that our parents are gone. Released from the family rituals, we can, and have, traveled to Italy for Christmas with my husband's extended family. We have hosted Christmas at home with our kids who have gone off on their own; and now that the grandchildren are older, we travel to where they are on a rotating basis now. 

This year it is Christmas at home and the new twist is that a new grandchild is coming to celebrate his first Christmas. We will have our traditional Italian-Polish-Finnish-American-English-Indian Christmas this year. What about you?

Enjoy your holidays!

* The best eggnog ever recipe: I know it had melted plain vanilla ice cream as its base, and I'm pretty sure bourbon was involved. When I was old enough, I got to try it out (officially).  Yep, it was good. These days I'm thinking amaretto might be a good choice.