Holiday Traditions — The Good, the Great, and the Green Pajamas

The importance of holiday traditions cannot be underestimated or undervalued. Family traditions define and distinguish us from other families and give us some of our individuality. And though they’re often goofy and seemingly senseless, I believe that as we slip quickly into mass reliance on technological contact, we need more than ever to maintain time-honored…

Published December 19, 2011 3:44 PM
6 min read

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tradthumbThe importance of holiday traditions cannot be underestimated or undervalued. Family traditions define and distinguish us from other families and give us some of our individuality. And though they’re often goofy and seemingly senseless, I believe that as we slip quickly into mass reliance on technological contact, we need more than ever to maintain time-honored traditions.

 

By Annette McLoughlin

 

The importance of holiday traditions cannot be underestimated or undervalued. Family traditions define and distinguish us from other families and give us some of our individuality. And though they’re often goofy and seemingly senseless, I believe that as we slip quickly into mass reliance on technological contact, we need more than ever to maintain time-honored traditions.

 

In the spirit of the nosey neighbor (and as thrilling to me as peering into other people’s carts at the grocery store), I conducted a survey of about 50 local friends about their holiday traditions. And from my responses, some of which were extracted more forcefully than others, I compiled a loose collection. Please note, this survey is not in the least bit quantitative and only one of my Jewish friends participated, so Hanukkah is admittedly under-represented.

 

tradOur culture provides us with an endless source of entertainment as the backdrop or soundtrack to the holidays. In terms of what people listen to or watch this time of year, it’s the old classics, including: “March of the Wooden Soldiers”, “Rudolph”, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, “Meet Me in St. Louis”, and, of course, “A Christmas Story”. One friend plays Judy Collins at the Biltmore every year when she and her family drive to a tree farm to chop down the tree (bet her teenagers love that!) And while most of us, of a certain age, had to wait patiently for these programs to air, our kids can tune in to the ABC Family channel and enjoy a holiday classic every night throughout December. For many, this daily helping of holiday entertainment has become a household tradition.

 

Nearly everyone I consulted read Clement C. Moore’s “A Night Before Christmas” and put out cookies and milk for Santa (and carrots for the reindeer) on Christmas Eve; and many received (and now buy) matching pajamas. In one instance, one of the kids had a “Walmart-toy-aisle magnitude meltdown during the gift opening, exclaiming tearfully, ‘I hate green pajamas!’ in front of the entire extended family.” From then on, every year at least one person in that family gets green pajamas and when opened, everyone yells in unison, “We hate green pajamas!”

 

Plenty of people go out and cut down their own Christmas tree. You can make a whole day of it with some festive tailgating (maybe throw in a few jaunty carols) and it certainly offers up some very classically charming photo ops. One friend says that hers have always been fun and seamless, “except the year that one of the kids peed her pants, another tromped through dog poop, and the tree fell off the car on I-95.”

 

Another friend told me that every year they wrap the door to the living room like a giant present and, on cue, the kids run through it (with grandparents on the other side, cameras at the ready). If you didn’t know already, it’s sure proof of the fact that our children are the best gift of all.

 

Food is, of course, a major element of any holiday and sometimes the means by which we reconnect with our cultural heritage. I have Irish friends who shop Jerry’s (Post Road Market) for their annual Christmas morning Irish breakfast of sausages, puddings, and soda bread, which is “always cooked by dad.” Another friend’s family has an annual soup-off. Her grandmother always made Italian Wedding Soup (“the best!”) at Christmas, but since she passed away, her grandchildren compete to see who can come closest to Grandma’s. Her father — “who can be bought” — is the judge and the winner gets bragging rights for the year and the same elf statue, “which we would all kill for; it’s crazy!”

 

Another friend tearfully recalled the elaborate New Year’s feast her grandmother would prepare for the two of them in the 1970s, “complete with tea sandwiches, cookies, a small glass of champagne for Mimi, a ginger ale for me, and, of course, deviled eggs, without which no party was complete in the Seventies.” For the record, this friend continues to bring deviled eggs to any family gathering. “I never show up without a dozen or so of these cholesterol-laden golden gems sliding around a crystal platter with frilly toothpicks to dress things up. It’s like showing up with Mimi in some way.”

 

Another local reveler’s parents always ordered Kringle from O & H Danish Bakery in Racine, Wisconsin, for Christmas morning. She has continued that tradition with her children and recommends the Almond over all the other flavor options.

 

New Year’s Day was my parent’s homage to our Canadian roots. Lunch was highly anticipated by my aunts and uncles – God knows why – and featured an old Canadian (and obscure) dish called Poutines. They’re boiled potatoes that are squeezed of water and formed into fist-sized balls, stuffed with salted pork, and then boiled again (just to be sure they’re good and tasteless.) Done right, they look like dirty snowballs and, in my opinion, essentially taste like them. Of note: that entree item was dropped from the menu by subsequent generations. Much better to reconnect with a Canadian heritage via a delicious, maple-flavored dessert, or a great beer.

 

The biggest part of the holiday rigamorale is gift-giving, and the approach varies widely.

 

My family opened gifts after midnight mass and I remember other families doing that too, but I can’t name a single one who does it before dawn now. As families get older (and bigger) the trend seems to be toward a gift swap with a variation on the structure of the swap – from the straightforward (picking names) to the “Yankee Swap” and the “Pollyanna”.

 

One friend had (and still has) such a long and elaborate format of Christmas Eve traditions and gift exchanges with her extended family that there is a timeline posted to the fridge on Christmas Eve morning. First, the grandparents take them out for their gift distribution; and “reindeer dust” is sprinkled around the yard. This is followed by a themed dinner (themes change every year); then a niece’s birthday is celebrated; and Santa shows up on the lawn (with reindeer!), after which the adults have a gift exchange for just the kids. The adult siblings then have their gift exchange.

 

Finally, there’s a “white elephant” exchange of gifts with everyone. Sounds very fun, seriously chaotic, and financially debilitating.

 

It’s a great loss to our society that caroling seems to have lost its general appeal. One of my interviewees, however, grew up caroling for their neighbors through the Orchard and Brown Avenue neighborhood, “and ended the night in a Partridge in a Pear Tree dance.” The tradition stands and they continue to carol there even though none of them live in the neighborhood any more. “The people who live there now wonder who the heck we are!”

 

Of today’s newer Christmas traditions, one of the more popular with young families is the “Elf on a Shelf” doll and book (by Carol Abersold.) The idea is that this magic elf is perched — strategically — to watch over the children throughout the season. Each night the elf reports back to the North Pole all of the naughty and nice goings-on in that house. Parents move the little spy every night (“because they love to play hide-and-seek”) and if the kids touch it, it loses its magic. (I can’t help but wonder how many kids stuff the little tattletale under a bed or at the bottom of a closet.) This whole elf-spy business is creepy (albeit ingenious), and is the current No. 1 book on the Barnes & Noble website.

 

One fun new tradition is the ability to watch the North Pole and track Santa and his team’s progress through the season, and most excitingly, the night before Christmas, via NORAD (noradsanta.org). It starts every year December 1 and is available as an App for your phone.

 

For those who eschew the holidays and their burdensome traditions, I have to include one friend who reluctantly shared her mother’s no-tradition tradition. “When I was about 6 and my sister 7, my mother stopped doing anything for Christmas except giving us presents. There was no tree (too messy) and no lights (too dangerous.)” And I’m willing to bet that given the stress that too often accompanies this time of year, there are more than a few parents out there who secretly find this pretty appealing. As one friend shared memories of a particularly happy childhood New Year’s Eve, she began, “…long before the celebration was to be driven by determined drinking and contrived celebrations…” And at least in terms of New Year’s Eve, I have to concur.

 

So whether you throw a cookie exchange, go caroling, visit those crazy, over-the-top neighborhoods in Queens that are lit up to be viewed from the moon, make gingerbread houses, or host parties, I say make it your own and stick with the ones that are fun or embarrassing to your children.

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