I love that word. It brings to mind memories of times past and occasions and activities that were so special, unique, or fun that they became incorporated into our souls and repeated over and over again.
No season seems to echo the thought of tradition more to me than the winter holidays.
For me, it’s Christmas and all that goes with it. A visit to the greens market with my friend Jan. Cookie decorating on Christmas Eve with the kids. A holiday gift exchange with good friends where we choose our gifts based on the theme of a favorite holiday song.
For my friend Jane it is baking biscotti at Hanukkah. For my interfaith cousins with a large extended family, it is a way to make gift giving for Hanukkah and Christmas both fun and economical.
My holiday decorating begins on Thanksgiving weekend. And with that seasonal launch comes the revisiting of treasured ornaments, favorite recipes and memories of all the past seasons.
When I pull out the giant Gingerman my dad made for my mom, it reminds me of a tradition we used to share with our family, long before marriages and illnesses changed those holidays, making it difficult for us to get together. We would have an original gift-wrapping contest with various categories (“Best disguise of an obvious object,” “Best wrapping paper,” “Most unique”). Both adults and kids — we were all teens or in college — participated, spending hours dripping candle wax over a small, square box to create a faux candle or turning a rolled-up poster into a trumpet.
One year, after Mom had been making tiny stuffed gingerbread-man ornaments, Dad stitched up a giant one, leaving a small hole in its side where he hid a pair of earrings. It’s now the topper on one of my trees.
Other ornaments and decorations remind me of special times and people. An Eiffel Tower or dangling piece from Japan recall trips Rick and I have enjoyed together. The creche my parents bought in Mexico has a spot, along with the Santa my friend Mary Jane made for me several years before she passed. They’re all part of my Christmas and they will all be on the tree or in my home, no matter where I might one day live.
When Rick and I joined forces, his boys were quite young. That’s when we started the Christmas Eve cookie decorating tradition. I made the cut-outs ahead of time and after our dinner was tidied up, we’d get out the frosting and go to town. Some of the creations were artistic and elegant. Some were just obnoxious sugar bombs. The cookies would end up as dessert the next day, with some headed off to their mom, others shared with friends or neighbors.
Those boys are grown now and one even has two boys of his own. And we still do cookies. It may not be on “official” Christmas Eve. But we’ll gather at the table, cups filled with colorful frosting and enjoy our time together.
That’s the other thing. Traditions evolve over time. Families expand and we learn to “share” those we love with others. But we hold tight to the feelings, the essence of the holiday.
My Cleveland cousins started a new shopping tradition several years ago when getting presents for the extended family of 17 or more became a financial nightmare. With all the children as adults now, this became a fun, easy way to cut down expenses. Each person would get a one, five, ten, and twenty dollar gift that could go to a male or female. These would be exchanged by drawing numbers. They would draw a name for a special present in the thirty dollar zone for one person.
The exchange brought loads of laughs, the financial cost was significantly reduced (they used to all exchange!), and it was a fun challenge to find the right thing. (Dollar Tree certainly benefited from this!)
About fifteen years ago we started a tradition with another couple of choosing a holiday song as our theme for gift giving. We set a twenty-five dollar limit and pick a song. Sometimes we interpret literally (when we did “The Christmas Song” we both found “chestnuts” to roast on an open fire!). We’ve done “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Let it Snow!,” “White Christmas,” “Deck the Halls,” “Christmas Island,” “Jingle Bell Rock” and many others. The changing theme helps the concept never get old!
I will always make my cousin Bonnie’s “Jingle Balls,” (which you may know as Italian wedding cookies or snowballs), along with several other cookies that are holiday “musts.” We’ll have the roast beef Christmas Eve dinner that Rick’s grandfather used to make for them and the strata
breakfast casserole that goes in the oven while we open presents on Christmas morning. We will watch “A Christmas Story” and “Love Actually” and I will be sure to watch “White Christmas” (by myself, probably, since everyone else burned out on that one.)
And that’s OK. Because for me, traditions are both those shared with others and those we hold close to ourselves. That moment of quiet to remember those no longer with us, a review of photos from Christmases past. When I decorate the little tree in my bedroom that has fishing ornaments and other things that remind me of my dad, he’s there with me, just as mom appears when I set the table with her Spode Christmas tree china and silver. To others, it might just be a tree or a pretty table setting. But I know.
As time evolves, new traditions emerge and those that no longer work are gently set aside as sweet memories.
What are your treasured holiday traditions? Hold them close and share them, too. Pass them down to the next generation. They’ll change in time to be sure. So will we. But they will remain in our hearts as we recall family, friendships, holidays and most of all, love.
About the Author: Jeanie Croope
After a long career in public broadcasting, Jeanie Croope is now doing all the things she loves — art, photography, writing, cooking, reading wonderful books and discovering a multitude of new creative passions. You can find her blogging about life and all the things she loves at The Marmelade Gypsy.