What comes to mind when you think of Christmas traditions? As I drank my coffee this morning, wishing for colder weather (well, it is December in Maine!) I was thinking of what Christmas traditions mean. Traditionally, we have snow for Christmas. Today it is in the forties and I gaze on green grass. Definitely not a Maine Christmas tradition! I recall ice skating at Christmastime on local lakes. I’m usually singing “O Holy Night”, “White Christmas”, and let’s not forget, “Santa Baby”. And I bake up a storm!
As fall edges into the Winter Solstice, those of us who celebrate Christmas, persist in traditional Christmas carol singing, having friends over for a bit of nog, and merrily wishing those we meet along our journey, a Merry Christmas. Although, that last tradition, like Maine Christmas snow, seems to be disappearing in favor of the generic “Happy Holidays”. Christmas traditions – a mix of paganism, Christian religion and “make it what feels right to you”.
Like many newly married couples, our first Christmas challenge was deciding when to put up the tree. I was raised with the European tradition of Santa decorating it Christmas Eve. Santa would leave me a bit of tinsel to add for the finishing touch, in return for a cup of egg nog and a cookie, as well as carrots for his reindeer. The tree would stay up through the Epiphany. My husband, however, grew up with the tree being decorated right after Thanksgiving. Within a few days following December 25th, no sign would be had of Christmas. We decided to put up the tree right after Thanksgiving and it stays through the Epiphany. The art of compromise bringing a new tradition.
Perhaps like you, when I think of Christmas, I think of food. In October, my mother would start baking traditional fruit cakes, wrapping them in rum-soaked cheese cloth, to be in fine form for gifting. Her kitchen was larger than most kitchens today. It needed to accommodate all her culinary works of art. She would decorate the floor with bags of sugar, flour, dried fruits, and walnuts. The cutting board my dad made her, never was moved from its counter location, making it grand central for rolling out dough and kneading breads. As kitchen space cleared, her sewing corner, with the sewing machine now put aside for the holiday season, would become stacked with Greek butter cookies, pies, breads, and delicious jams, as the night of Saint Nick and the chosen birth day of baby Jesus, drew close.
Traditions connect us, as we linger with the old and lay claim to new. Years ago, I bought a charming “A Cup of Christmas Tea” (Hegg) storybook and matching tea cup. Last week, my friend who has been culling her mother’s previous home and knows I enjoy tea with my daughters, brought me her mother’s “A Cup of Christmas Tea” teacup and matching tea pot so that now my daughters and I may share tea and Christmas memories over this same theme. It was a charming gesture which I will treasure forever. Dishes are often vessels of love, birthing new traditions and allowing us to let go of that which no longer serves us while making room for that which does.
As my family grows, we continue the mingling of old and new traditions. We continue to bake for those who are hungry and donate a turkey to a family in need. We now have Cubanos on Christmas Eve, with all of the family that can be here, but in years past, I would assemble a spread of tortière, hot German potato salad, roasted pork, and desserts. Some Christmas food traditions have changed, but family favorites like my famous egg nog and divinity have remained.
Christmas traditions do not always bring bright smiles. For some, smelling Christmas cookies baking brings droplets of water running down cheeks. As the roast is being carved, we are wistfully wishing for everyone in the world to have enough; the sound of hunger throughout the world, too rapidly becoming a Christmas tradition. We are savoring a taste of penuche, trying to revisit the same flavor and flair of a former candy maker, but woefully finding it falls short.
What all Christmas traditions have in common is they reflect how we have been treated and how we treat other people, keeping us in touch with what is real. What comes to your mind when you think of Christmas traditions?