The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 20, 2002


Building holiday traditions slowly

About a year ago, I caught myself in a moment of genuine hypocrisy. "I always make truffles at Christmas time," I like to tell people whenever the subject of holiday traditions comes up, and I admit that I can get a little bit smug about it. "Every December, I make dozens of chocolate truffles, then put them in little tins or decorative bags to give as gifts. It's one of the holiday traditions I treasure most."

Sure it is — the first eleven months of the year. Then December comes and I find myself in a moment like the one that occurred last year, when it was quarter to midnight on a Friday evening and I was up to my elbows in sweet, sticky chocolate, an enormous pot of truffle batter hardening faster than I could roll it, knowing that if it cooled, I'd be wasting an entire batch of ingredients and would have to begin the whole project again the next day, which I didn't have time to do because the rest of the weekend was booked solid with holiday get-togethers. "I hate these stupid truffles!" I snarled between clenched teeth. And then I remembered. This was supposedly one of my most cherished holiday traditions.

(Photo by Midge Eliassen)
Once the truffles are rolled, there's the poem to draft. The first Christmas we were married, I wrote an eight-stanza poem in iambic pentameter summing up the events of our year, and we sent it out as our Christmas card. By October of the next year, people were asking me if I'd be writing another poem. So far I've managed to spin out an annual year-in-rhyme continually for the past 11 years. Like the truffles, though, the poem carries the luster of a cherished tradition the first 11 months of the year, and feels more like a daunting obligation when mid-December arrives and I haven't begun it yet.

"How does your family celebrate the holidays?" It's a question I ask other people and am asked myself every now and then throughout the year, sometimes as small talk at a dinner party or getting-acquainted conversation with a new friend; other times because we're all looking for inspiration and hope to borrow someone else's ideas to use ourselves. I'd love to be able to offer a complete rundown of my family's traditions, describing how each one is meaningful in its own way, unique and yet classic at the same time, honoring some important aspect of the holiday season, and of course none of them involving anything as crass as going shopping for gifts at the mall.

I'd love to be able to do that. And maybe in another 20 years I will. But traditions are not quite so easy to implement, I've come to realize. Surely I am not the only one who wants to be able to boast — outwardly or inwardly — that my family has found the perfect set of practices to make the holiday season replete with merry moments and cherished memories, year after year.

(Photo by Midge Eliassen)
In reality, traditions evolve slowly, sometimes painstakingly. During the holidays, just as throughout the entire year, I try hard to create beautiful events — birthday parties, Sunday dinners, summer vacations — that will become longstanding traditions. But traditions have to stand the test of time. There's no real way of knowing at this point whether the things we've enjoyed one or two years in a row will have staying power.

So if you ask what my family's traditions are, I can tell you what I hope we'll be doing on Christmas. Last year, we had a lovely and memorable holiday, one I'd be happy to replicate this year. The three of us (now there are four) went to a late-afternoon church service on Christmas Eve, ate pizza for dinner, headed to the town center for caroling on the Green, then came home to put out milk and cookies for Santa (of whom my four-year-old son is still afraid; he prefers to hear that Santa stays outside of the house, so we left the cookies on the front stoop). It was a quiet, calm evening. For contrast, we spent Christmas Day with four generations of my husband's enormous extended family, whose traditions tend to favor large get-togethers with lots of food, abundant presents, lively conversation and fast-paced merriment.

In his wonderful book on how to have a more meaningful, less commercialized Christmas, Hundred Dollar Holiday, Bill McKibben states that "Instead of an island of bustle, [Christmas] should be an island of peace amid a busy life. We want so much more out of Christmas: more music, more companionship, more contemplation, more time outdoors." I always take a few minutes on Christmas Eve to go outside, just to stand in the dark, breathe in the cold air, look at the sky, listen to the stillness. I'll try to do that this year, and I hope that some of my family will come outside with me. On Christmas morning, we'll observe another tradition inspired by the McKibben book, and scatter bread crumbs for the birds so that they can share in some of the holiday abundance.

I'll continue trying for the perfect holiday, one full of peace and serenity, music and companionship — and, realistically, hours and hours devoted to rolling truffles. But the reality is that I'm not sure yet what our traditions are. Someday I'll write about "How my family celebrates Christmas," and have a definitive story to tell. But right now, we're still working it out, one year at a time.

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito