For many families, the winter holidays are a time of special rituals and traditions. When we celebrate the changing seasons and the holidays that mark them, we elevate the sacred from the everyday, the way people have done for thousands of years. At the same time, we strengthen our own family bonds by adding to our unique family memory banks.
Winter holidays are also a time when families tend to spend quality time together during school vacations and longer nights. For my family that often means more time to settle into our favorite books. We love to read by the fire and anywhere else in each other’s company. I asked my compatriots at Bookboard to share some of their beloved family holiday traditions and memories as well.
The holidays are easily my favorite time of year (cliché, but true). These days they’re an opportunity to head back to my hometown – I’m a Canadian expat living in San Francisco – and spend time in real winter with my extended family. A few traditions have stood the test of time:
The Post-Present Jigsaw Puzzle : It’s a guarantee in my family, for as long as I can remember, that someone is given a 1000+ piece jigsaw puzzle as a gift. It’s usually -20°C (-4°F) outside around Christmas, so spending a ton of time outdoors is usually not an option. Once the presents are all opened, the puzzle pieces are all placed on a large plank of plywood on the dining room table, and the family (usually starting with my dad) spends time moving in and out of the lineup of people devoting 5-10 minutes to getting a few pieces linked up. As various meals are served, the plank and all the pieces are moved to a safe location (this is serious business), to be restored to its rightful place afterwards. It’s usually the better part of four days before it’s done.
Socks and Underwear : My Nan (grandmother) has had an impish delight every year in making sure each of her grand-kids gets one bag of socks and one of underwear. Nothing fancy, just bought at the dollar store, and this has been going on since we were kids, well into adulthood, as some mildly embarrassing running joke. In homage, one of my (grown-up) cousins returned the favor in his gift to her a couple of years ago.
Paper Crowns and Christmas Log : For some reason, “crackers” are a staple around the Christmas dinner table in my family. They’re those weird gunpowder-enhanced paper party favors that you extend to the person seated next to you, then attempt to pull apart quickly enough to activate their small explosive payoff. For reasons unknown, these crackers always contain paper crowns, which everyone at the table is required to wear for the duration. Also a requirement at the dinner is Yule Log Cake, possibly the richest dessert ever made, which we somehow manage to stuff ourselves further with post-turkey.
Honoring Dad : Growing up, we always chose “the weekend closest to Dad’s birthday (December 11th) to put up our holiday ornaments and Christmas tree. It was a sentimental choice made way back when that made sense. When I married in my 40s, long after my dad’s passing, I asked my husband if we could still time our holiday decorating around my father’s birthday. I feel like my dad is with us as we string lights and hang ornaments.
A Parent’s List : As a child, I remember my father taking a certain mean delight in making us wait to start opening gifts Christmas morning until he had done “his list.” This meant we had to wait for him to a) get up, put on his robe and slippers and “use the facilities,” b) make a pot of coffee; c) get a roaring fire going in the fireplace. It probably took ten minutes total, but it felt like ten hours. Yet as a parent today, I find myself driving my child bats the exact same way!
Evidence of Santa’s Visit : Like many kids, I remember always putting out treats for Santa and his reindeer: christmas cookies on a plate, carrots in a bowl for Rudolph and friends, and a glass of milk. And like many parents, mine dutifully sipped and nibbled on everything while we lay sleeping in our beds, dreaming of morning surprises. I always loved looking at “the evidence” first thing in the morning; it fascinated me almost as much as the gifts and stuffed stockings. Now as a mom, I love watching my daughter leave the same treats on the hearth Christmas Eve, then fixate on the crumbs, “bite marks” and last drops of milk the next morning. To ratchet up the excitement a bit last year, we left a “stepped in the fireplace soot” boot print mark on the hearth. Our daughter literally shrieked “HE LEFT A FOOTPRINT!” and got on her hands and knees to stare. It took a few minutes to get her to even look at the pile of gifts that had arrived! A new tradition was born.
Pass the Sherry : On New Year’s Eve, when I was a kid, we often hung out with some of my parents’ best friends who were originally from Liverpool, Sheila and Johnny Robinson. They had fantastic accents and laughed a lot. The adults would break out the sherry and gab away in the living room until midnight. I usually had my best buddy Cheryllyn over, and every year we watched Fiddler on the Roof, ate Toblerones until our bellies hurt, and tied dish towels around our heads while singing “Matchmaker matchmaker, make me a match!”
When midnight rolled around, our tipsy adult companions would do something that was supposed to bring luck or prosperity or something else that you’re supposed to wish for at New Years: at the stroke of midnight, my dad and Mr. Robinson would go outside and knock on the front door. They’d come in bearing a piece of silver and a chunk of coal, at which point they’d laugh like loons, kiss their wives and have another go at the sherry decanter and eat mini hotdogs. Good times, good times.
Pass the Sherry.
Holiday Light Displays : Every year since my daughter was small, we’ve dedicated an evening or two to driving around various neighborhoods, in search of the best holiday light displays. Often these are publicized in the local paper or sites like these which highlight Christmas lights around the U.S. and Christmas lights throughout California. It’s so much fun to see the creative decorating and the timeless magic of lights against the winter sky. One year, we stumbled on the most magnificent house, the Rombeiro House in Novato, CA, which was elaborately decorated, inside and out, and whose owners incredibly welcomed all inside. We’ve since returned every year to see the fantastic decorations, which change yearly. The family dedicates about half their year to decorating for Christmas. And guess what? They still decorate for Halloween and Easter, too!
Cookies and Gingerbread Houses : We really enjoy baking and usually bake our favorite Christmas cookies to bring to an annual cookie exchange, at which participants walk around a table that bears everyone’s cookies, and take one of each until the cookies are all gone. It’s such a fun way to gather and try lots of new cookies! We also like to make and decorate gingerbread houses. In fact, since the decorating is the most fun part, we often get right to that, by covering milk cartons with frosting and decorating with a variety of candies. One year, in addition to candied walkways and sledding snowmen, our houses included barbecues made of orange halves and satellite dishes made from ice cream cones. See the many ways we’ve decorated gingerbread houses.
Nutcracker Suite : My son recently had the part of a toy puppy in a preschool production of The Nutcracker Suite. It was his first time on stage and he told us that the had “a lot of fun.” After a full day that included a rehearsal and a performance, he wanted to perform the play again. Before going to bed, he asked to see himself in the video, so it looks like we’ll be adding a new tradition to our family — participating in a play or watching The Nutcracker Suite every Christmas.
Here’s wishing you a very happy holiday season, complete with your own favorite new and old traditions.