Tips From The Top

What are your holiday traditions – ???

Tradition . . . Tradition!

If you’re a musical theatre aficionado, that little “earworm” from Fiddler on the Roof will follow you through the day, as it has me, in thinking about this topic, which I was recently asked to write about for a Mother’s Club newsletter.

Most kids grow up with some sort of traditions tied to this time of the year. It could be making Christmas ornaments, stringing popcorn into the trees for the birds, or perhaps the ceremonial dusting off of the menorah from the bookshelf.  If you’re a parent, it’s your “responsibility” to figure out which of your and your spouse’s traditions will be carried forward.

Speaking of menoroth, by the way, Thanskgivvukah (Thanksgiving and The First Day of Hanukah) takes place on the same day this year for the first time since 1888 (and the last time for the next 77,798 years). Even if you’re not Jewish, Gobble Tov!

Back to those traditions. On Christmas Eve, from the time I was three months old, my father has read me The Night Before Christmas. A few years later, I started writing a letter to Santa and laying out a “Santa glass” of milk and a plate of cookies (plus carrots for the reindeer).

The next morning, the glass and plate would be empty, and Santa’s response to me would be written on the back of my letter. Even before opening stockings, I would have my Dad “help me decipher” Santa’s response to my missive. (Both Dad and Santa have suspiciously similar spidery handwriting.)

The book, glass, and tradition exist to this day. Yes, I still cuddle up on the sofa with my 80 year old dad and feel like a little girl again, while my husband and Mom look on with “humoring” expressions.

The thing about traditions is that you want to keep at them, even if you don’t “feel like it.” I’m sure that some time in my teens, I’d had the standard “Oh, this is silly, I’m not a baby any more” reaction to this tradition. But my parents persevered – in fact, my Dad even called when I was studying abroad, to read me the book over an echo-y TransAtlantic line, with me pushing coins into a slot to keep the line open.

When I was in my 20s, I visited a friend’s house. Her parents had kept – then framed – a “best of” version of letters that she, her brother and her sister had written to Santa. They were extremely funny; retaining the letters back and forth with Santa was added to our family’s tradition. Now, there are decades of letters in the same box as the book. Though it’s fun to see what was going on in my 20, 30, or 40-year old life, I wish I could review my grammar school letters, explaining to Santa annually how good I’d been, and inventive ways in which we could fit a horse in my folks’ tract home backyard! If you’re thinking of instituting a “letter to Santa” tradition, keep the letters – and Santa’s responses back.

My husband and I instituted a tradition for New Year’s Eve about 15 years ago. Back then, I lived on a farm in Petaluma and had a huge outdoor campfire. We directed folks to bring anything that they wanted “out of their lives in the new year” to burn on the fire. They could show up any time from 3:00 p.m. New Year’s Eve. We had many things go into that fire – ex-husband’s clothing, mortgage paperwork, student loans . . . just about anything you can imagine!

After you dump out the “old” and discuss it (or not) with those in the circle, you bring a glass decorated with stickers, pens, ribbons and such, of things you want in your life in the upcoming new year. Back in Petaluma, these were thrown into the campfire after a rousing toast, smashing and “releasing” these wishes to the Heavens with the campfire smoke.

A personal tradition for me was raking the ashes the next day. I’d sometimes find small bits of twisted glass or metal from items thrown in. My favorite was the bottom of a glass, crackled by the heat, in which the word “HEALTH” had been etched as the ink in a silver metallic pen reacted to the flame. I had it on my desk for years.

The New Year’s Eve celebration has moved to our suburban outdoor fireplace, but still involves throwing into the fire now (usually) a written representation of what folks want “out of their lives.” While folks don’t smash their glasses into the flames, they still come with decorated glasses and discuss what they’re “toasting into” their new year. We love this tradition so much that we have planned international trips so that we are home in time to light the fire for our friends! It’s always fun to see who shows up – the invitation goes out to many, and folks trickle in all evening.

In fact, talk around the fire on New Year’s often turns to traditions. As such, I have quite a list of holiday-related traditions that people remember fondly. I will list some here, as well as some of my own:

1.     Previous Year Recap. As part of their Christmas Eve tradition, one friend’s family shares their most memorable (for good or for bad!) memory from the past year. The best part of this is what the kids remember. My friend takes notes on what everyone remembers, and keeps it in a box as a way to sum up her family’s perspectives on their travels down the road of life. Often there is some competition among the adults, with poems, limericks, and even songs to detail the year’s experiences.

2.     Party it Forward. I read about this one online. Each year one large neighborhood has a Holiday Dessert & Champagne Party. Everyone brings a small gift ($10 or less) for a deserving family. The folks hosting the party choose the family or person – it could be a family they know that’s financially struggling, or a soldier they have heard about who has been posted abroad leaving his wife and kids at home. On the invitation, each guest is given a general description of the person or family they’re buying for. Once all the gifts are collected, they are dropped off anonymously.

3.     Let Your Inner Designer Out. One tradition that takes place on Thanksgiving for one extended family is to first decorate the Thanksgiving table, then to design holiday ornaments for themselves or as presents. A table is set out for the ornament decoration, and everyone brings items, such as pine cones, shells, wire, wood, and such. The Thanksgiving table decoration “ingredients” include colorful leaves, a cornucopia, squashes, candles and the like.  The table is decorated by the kids before the meal, whereas the ornaments are made before or afterwards. I’m not sure that this wouldn’t lead to a brawl in some extended families, so I’d try this one with caution!

4.     Treasure Hunt. This tradition actually comes from my own family, and was generally a birthday tradition for your “big” birthday present. After all the other gifts were opened (and a list kept for the Thank You notes!), my Mom would hand me a card. This card would have a clue leading me to some destination in the house or yard. There, there would be another clue. You’d read this clue, then try to find the next spot. There would typically be 10 clues. This “tradition” was something that I brought into my teenage career as a babysitter – I would make a Treasure Hunt for the kids to follow the next morning. At a Holiday party last year, I ran into a now grown woman, wife and mother for whom I had done Treasure Hunts when babysitting her. I didn’t recognize her after so many years, but she not only knew who I was, but she still remembered the Hunts and had instituted it as a Tradition with her own kids!  

5.     The Tamale Can. This is such a funny tradition. Years ago, before my parents or their friends had kids, they went to a friend of my Mom’s for dinner. She had been attending some “personal empowerment” seminars (this was the 60s, mind you). Dad had brought some canned tamales for them to share as an appetizer; when he asked off the cuff if she liked them, just as he was starting to open the can, she surprised him with a rousing “NO!” This friend was very much the “mild-mannered, seen-but-not-heard, never-voice-her-own-opinions, agree-with-her-husband” type, and, as my Dad tells it, he “nearly fell over” when she said this. Then he burst out laughing – more at the look on her face than anything else! And the Tamale Can tradition was born. 

That tamale can has been baked into cakes, served under a chafing dish cover at The Top Of The Mark restaurant, you name it. Whoever has possession of the can thinks of an ingenious way to get it back to the other side. Some day, that tamale can might actually explode and kill us all . . . until then, the “other side” waits with trepidation to see where it will show up “next.”

Often, things like this happen, but the moment is lost. Keep on the lookout for Traditions you can make with friends over something silly like this, or with your spouse. My husband and I have a couple of traditions, one involving a small plastic Kung Fu Panda that shouts “Hiiiii-yaa!” But remember – if you decide to start such a tradition, it’s immensely important to laugh when the trick is played “on you.” I have found that often if we are going through a trying time, as all couples do, the Panda will show up somewhere unexpected. Especially as I’m building up a head of steam for an argument. You must allow the tradition to trump your desire to “win” – because often, your friend or spouse is using it as an olive branch. Don’t ever, ever let the anger win. It will ruin the Tradition and your relationship will die a little on that day.

6.     Mystery Gifts. One family wraps their Christmas Tree gifts without names, so their kids don’t know which belong to them. They wrap each with some sort of a theme or ribbon, so that they can pass them out to the correct child on Christmas morning, but this keeps everyone wondering until that time.

7.     Stockings. In my family, there is a set “archaeology” for the stockings. Starting at the toe, there is a quarter and an orange. This is a tradition from my Dad’s side, where money and oranges were hard to come by in the New Hampshire winter.  Next always come chocolate nonpareils and a candy cane, then other food-related items. The nonpareils and candy cane are generally the only candy in the stocking – the food-related items these days have gone from shortbread and jams to gluten-free cookies and mustards! Next come three magazines, which of course change depending on what is “of interest” that year for the recipient. My Dad usually is taking my Mom on a trip that she discovers through her stocking – he puts in it foods from the place they will be travelling, guide books, etc., and the “quarter in the toe” is money from wherever they plan to visit. He once told me when they were planning a trip to some out-of-the-way place that it cost him about 500% more to get a coin than the coin was worth!

8.     Christmas Brunch. It has become one of our traditions that our whole family helps plan Christmas Brunch. This means that just one person is not stuck in the kitchen, and everyone picks their favorite dish to add.  Everyone has a small breakfast at home, then gathers at Mom and Dad’s for the reading of Santa’s letter and opening stockings, then it’s brunch time, then Christmas Tree gift time. It makes for a great lazy day – my favorite part is that usually it’s raining, and you have your new magazines to peruse lying lazily on the floor or one of the sofas. Television is banned until the afternoon and even then, is mostly DVR’d.

What sort of Traditions are you carrying forward into the New Year? Perhaps you’d like to adopt some of these. . . or this might help you to be on the lookout for “habits” that you’d like to turn into something a bit more ceremonious . . . a full fledged Tradition!

Here’s wishing a wonderful Holiday Season to you and yours.