I don’t have a lot of family traditions. Growing up we had big family Christmastimes that weren’t about religion – we rarely prayed before a meal and didn’t go to church – but over time my family drifted off or passed away, so there aren’t reunions to go to anymore. I don’t go “home” for the holidays. I don’t get carried away with decorations and for the most part I don’t spend money on the trappings of holiday cheer. I would never buy a Christmas tree just to fill up my living room with something expensive, flammable, and dead. I have a small box of ornaments I like, but if my apartment caught on fire, that wouldn’t be what I saved*. It’s just so much stuff, in my opinion.
That isn’t to say I get all bah-humbug when the winter rolls around. Far from it! I love the winter, can’t wait until it snows, and do like a warm and happy home to be in when it’s cold outside. It’s just that for me, the holidays aren’t about celebrating the size of your tree or how many presents you can afford to put under it. What matters to me are the people you spend your holidays with, and what you can do to make them feel loved. You can spend several days decking your halls or you can spend that time reading books to your child, making cookies for your spouse, putting another log on the fire, and enjoying your life. Which one is better?
For me, it’s the family time.**
The holidays in my house start at Thanksgiving, go through my birthday, Yule/Solstice, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and end on New Year’s Day. Thanksgiving is all about the traditional, warm, comfort food. My favorite part of it is that I can cook a huge amount of food on Thursday, stuff everyone, and have enough leftovers to last the weekend. Then I have more time for relaxing! Thanksgiving weekend is full of writing and reading and lying around in pajamas with a book in one hand and a turkey sandwich in the other. We’ve gotten all the house cleaning and running errands and even cooking done ahead of time. The one tradition I try to enforce for that weekend is no work!
My birthday is a few days later, and as I’ve already said, I think birthdays are a little more important than any other holiday. In a completely self-serving way, of course. For me, birthdays are the big gift-giving holiday, and if I’m going to give someone an expensive gift, it’d be their birthday that I did it on. It’s a way to show that for one day, you care about them. You’re giving them something without expecting in return. I think that’s sweet.
Plus it’s the day when I do my “next year I want to accomplish” list, and it’s a chance to celebrate that I’m not dead yet. I’m very fond of not being dead yet, and I’d like to keep that up for a while.
Growing up, my mom (a Vietnam-era hippy Buddhist who was open to me going to any church I wanted as long as I didn’t make her go with me) let me try out a few different things and never pressured me into accepting any particular flavor of religion. I was baptized in Baptist church, went for a few years, figured out that I was looking for a dad more than I was looking for a Saviour, and quit***. I’d always been drawn to history and ritual, so I tried Catholicism next, and while I loved the ceremony, I couldn’t agree with a lot of the rules. Episcopalian worked for me, and so did Paganism, which I found in spades when I moved to the Bay area.
So I still celebrate the Winter Solstice and keep a candle lit through the long dark night of winter****. It’s important to remember that ages ago, people sat and worried and prayed that they’d survive the night, the month, the winter. Whatever problems we have now, and however dark it can seem when the sun is gone and the sky is black, our problems aren’t really so bad. And the sun always rises again.
Christmas eve is for stockings and Chinese food. As a kid, my mom let us open our stockings the night before, so I let my son do the same thing. And the Chinese food? So the story with that is that when I lived in Sacramento, the night before Thanksgiving we’d order from this great Chinese restaurant called May Flower. Because Thanksgiving … The Mayflower … my kind of funny. And the food was wonderful, and I could prep T-day stuff like pies without having to worry about cooking Wednesday night’s dinner too. When we moved to NJ, our first winter my friend Fiona came to visit, and together we made fresh pork bao from scratch, for my roommate (who was missing a place in Palo Alto he adored, and who’d figured out there was no homemade bao to be found in Hamilton, NJ). Since then, it’s been our Christmas eve dinner, and I’m making the bao again this year, along with a spicy Thai rice with prawns I learned to make when I was missing Thai Basil too much. Next year we won’t be living together, and I’ll be celebrating my first holiday season in Ithaca, NY – I wonder what I’ll make then?
I’ve also started watching the annual Doctor Who Christmas Special on CEve. It’s the perfect night for some lovely fantasy and a happy ending. Another “tradition” I’ve started here was the making of Kraken Rum Chocolate Chip cookies. That went over really well last year
For Christmas day we get up late, make a big breakfast (pancakes! bacon!) and open presents. I try to do several small presents instead of one big one, the opposite of my birthday guidelines, because the experience matters more than the gifts, and for children, opening a lot of wrapping paper is a key part of the Christmas experience. For dinner I try to have seafood of some kind, a throwback to my childhood surf-and-turf family dinners in Santa Monica.
And while I don’t pray before we eat, we do take a moment to thank Cthulhu for not rising up and devouring us again this year.
New Year’s Day is another day to take off, relax, enjoy life, and do nothing, before going back to work or school and getting back to the grind. I don’t usually go out on NYE (kid, after all) but I do like to stay up late with my sweetheart, having a few drinks, kissing at midnight, and starting the year off properly. I won’t get to do that this year.
Not being with some of the people I love most is the part that makes me sad during the holidays. I can cook anything, we don’t need presents or a tree or holiday music. We just need to be together, which is what truly makes any of these holidays special. But, I will get to be with my son, who has just this year learned who Santa Claus is (against my wishes, actually – thanks, Hamilton Public Schools), and who will be cheerfully wonderful on Christmas, as always. And the person I miss most, hopefully, will be helping me make new traditions next year … and that’s a New Year I’m looking forward to.
What are your holiday traditions?
* In case of fire: child, roommate, pets, computers. The living, and then the tech.
** I know that a lot of people put up massive decorations because they want to recapture some rose-colored memory of their youth, a feeling of happiness they don’t have now, but that seems so sad. Better to make new memories, new traditions, and honor your past (or your deceased relatives) without grieving it. Do you think the spirit of your grandmother really wants you to drag out her “special ornament” every year and feel sad that she’s not there? She’d want you happy, I think.
*** Finding out, as a small child, that my dad wasn’t worth missing, turned me off the whole “Heavenly Father” thing. I never got it back, and I’m still not sure that’s a bad thing.
**** On Walpurgisnacht too, though May Day celebrates the coming of the dawn a bit differently.