There is an interesting mix of contradiction this time of the year: light and dark, new and old, anticipation and reflection. There’s excitement of course: sleeping in, great food, good friends, familiarity. It’s an opportunity to celebrate traditions that go back decades, or invent new ways of marking the holidays. Sometimes a bit of both.
I am a sucker for tradition, every year lugging in plastic bins from the garage, in order to unpack the treasures carefully wrapped within them. It’s tradition to recall the story of each ornament or tchotchke, gifting myself time to reflect and remember.
Here, the twin sparkly seashells from Hawaii, from the first house and serious relationship two decades ago. The crocheted Nova Scotia lighthouse, bought the summer my mom and I traveled across Canada on the train. The tiny canvas sailboat from Bequia, purchased on the bareboat charter through St. Vincent and the Grenadines, newly pregnant and adrift. Interestingly, another boat, a cruise ship replica of the one my infant daughter my Mom and I took to Alaska in celebration of her 75th birthday. Several vibrant play dough stars and trees, decorated by the same daughter during our crafting phase. Back then, making and painting decorations felt like it would be a forever tradition. And that’s the thing with traditions, they evolve. As an almost 14 year old, my daughter is more interested in sleepovers with friends than Saturday nights painting play dough, and that’s okay. No one wants to be smothered by obligation, or weighed down by traditions that no longer represent us. We have to be willing to roll with life and our traditions do too, providing comfort amidst certain change, lifting us up, not dragging us down.
Re inventing traditions is, ironically, the only way to preserve them.
For example, this year my daughter will be spending Christmas in Mexico with her Dad’s family. It’s an opportunity and an adventure for her. Any child with two houses will tell you the best time of the year is Christmas, with two trees, two traditions and (of course) two visits from Santa.
We’ll still have Christmas the way we always do: eggnog and Classic holiday movies the night before, topped off with the Opening of the Pajamas. Traditionally, flannel and two-piece, they have evolved over the years into hipster onesies (my daughter) and practical nightgowns (my Mom). There is nothing better on Christmas Eve than flannel PJs on flannel sheets. Sometimes, if the humidity is really low, flannel on flannel will create sparks in the dark! (Trust me, it’s pure Prairie alchemy). My Mom no longer sleeps over on Christmas Eve, preferring, instead, the comfort of her own bed, her own flannel sheets. We wait until she arrives well rested on Christmas morning. She’s a limited time offer, my beautiful Mom, and I am grateful every year we have her. Life and traditions change whether we want them to or not.
This is the first year my niece won’t travel home to be with the family, the first Christmas without my friend’s Mom, the first year for Baby Brody, the first Christmas in a new house for Al and Cyndy. Life changes, families change, we change. So it makes sense that our traditions do as well.
Sometimes it’s a time thing. A generation ago women would bake dozens of their favorite cookies to exchange with others…a way to get ahead on baking, prepare for the holidays and catch up with old friends. While we still love a good visit, many women simply don’t have time to put together shelves of shortbreads. What if you could bring whatever you wanted to share with your friends? What would be your special holiday treat? What would provide comfort and joy today? Behold Cookie Exchange 2.0!
Although a baker, what I wanted to share with my friends was not the Mexican chocolate chili cookies, (sweet and spicy) but something for the table. Decor. Magic. In this case, British Christmas crackers (the kind with a paper crown inside) and a tall candle. Candles are essential this time of the year; a way to prolong the light long after the sun has scrambled out of the sky.
What if everyone else made shortbread?
One friend did, and they were delicious! The depth and breadth of the offerings were inspiring: home made bath salts, sparkly tapered candles, peppermint chocolate bark and French macaroons. Incredible chocolate covered Jujubes, tiny sweets from Moscow and brightly wrapped British bon bons. Practical things too, like a packet of turkey gravy mix (when things don’t go as planned) and a stuffing bag, tea lights and Scotch tape. And lyrical: a beautiful poem to ponder at the beginning of a dinner, an exquisite notebook to record potent thoughts.
Treasures to be shared and savoured, conversation and connection. Friendship and family, and the possibility that we will do it again next year.
Traditions bring context and comfort, and the potential to embrace what’s happening now in our lives. Families change, friendships fade, children grow up and move away. New people enter our lives as others leave it. We need to be agile, creating traditions that tell new stories, as well as the old.
At our house, the last thing we put on the tree is the angel, made by Godmother Dianne before she was a Godmother. This year my almost 14 year old, the former painter of play dough, was positive she was tall enough to put the angel on the top of the tree. Of course I was nervous as she stood on tiptoe, full height, barely taller than the full dressed fir. She leaned in and over, keeping her balance, concentrating, confident she could bring the angel in for a safe landing.
And she did. And just like that, a new tradition is born.