My husband pointed me to a twitter thread by a Muslim American who has never celebrated Christmas, before, who is letting his Quarantine Roommates teach him how to have his first proper Christmas. It’s a funny and relatively short thread that has some good commentary on the way Americans tend to observe Christmas. I like his first characterization of Christmas as being a part-time job from mid-November to the end of December. I’ll link to the thread at the end of this post.
A proper Christmas means different things to different people, and I think that’s a good thing. I remember a few years ago when I was discussing this topic with a couple of friends, that one explained that what she liked about Christmas was that she could put up pretty lights and ornaments. The other friend interjected that what he liked about it was that you get to decide what “pretty” is, and if other people comment unfavorably on whatever outlandish or silly decorations, you could just gasp and claim that this is how your family always did it, and the person was socially obligated to accept that that was your tradition (whether it actually had been a family tradition or not).
It got me thinking about what sort of informal family traditions my family had observed. Most were pretty mundane, and some were the result of other circumstances. Unless there was an overwhelming reason, we always spent Christmas morning at my paternal grandparents’ house. Sometimes Dad’s sister’s family was there, too. Because Dad’s oil field job was nomadic, how far we had to drive to get there varied most years. If we got to the town where my grandparents lived early enough on Christmas Eve, we’d get to go visit my maternal grandmother and great-grandparents this evening. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get to see them until after Christmas dinner1.
By the time my great-grandparents died, my maternal grandmother was living 1200 miles away. But then my parents divorced and Mom, my sister2, and I relocated to the same part of southwest Washington, where I found out that grandma hosted a Christmas Eve open house every year, attended by relatives, in-laws, old family friends, and others. So for the next many years one of the traditions became you’d see all the extended family on Christmas Eve3, then Christmas morning would be each individual family opening presents together.
All the Christmas trees put up by my extended family were a bit chaotic. Everyone seemed to have some special ornaments that had been passed down from earlier generations, as well as an eclectic collection of glass balls and the like. The trees would thus have a whole lot of different colors, and since any kids in the home had done part of the decorating, there often wasn’t any sort of design involved in the placement of the ornaments, other than the star or angel4 always went on top.
I think I was nine when I saw my first non-chaotic tree in the home of someone I knew. I can close my eyes and still see it: a flocked white tree decorated with dozens of identical blue satin balls and blue satin ribbons, with a blue and silver angel on top. I was really shocked, and couldn’t imagine why someone would do that. A few years later another family I knew had a tree where the ornaments were red, green, and gold, and the mother of the family had very strict rules about which size of ornaments went how high on the tree6, and that the three colors had to be as evenly distributed as possible.
Of course, many years later Ray and I did trees all in a fairly simple color scheme… but even then there was a bit of chaos, because either of us could pick any “favorites” to go on the tree no matter what the color scheme was. Just as this year’s tree at our house has mostly purple and pink ornaments, but some of the traditional ones I put on every year7, and then just about anything I could justify as being gay.
I find that I am more concerned with food at Thanksgiving than at Christmas. I have certain favorite dishes that we always had at Thanksgiving when I was a kid that I crave on that day now, but Christmas food doesn’t get me quite the same way. I don’t know if that is because as a kid that the big part of Christmas was the presents and everything else was secondary, or if the family dinners were just more flexible at Christmas. I mean, as far as I remember, anything that was an accepted side dish at Thanksgiving could appear on the Christmas dinner, so you would think I’d always have a strong craving for some of those things.
Michael and I have had the tradition since our first Christmas that we make a nice dinner for Christmas Eve, as well as a big dinner for Christmas, and a nice dinner for New Year’s Eve. And we start planning the three together a few weeks before the holidays. But we don’t do the same things each year at those three events. Mostly. I mean, New Year’s Eve is often beef… unless we had decided to do steaks for Christmas Eve or something. At this point we’re a few days out from Christmas Eve/Christmas, and the plan is that we’ll pull either the ham, or the turkey breast, or the pork roast out of the freezer for those, and the small prime rib roast I found at a not entirely outrageous price we’re saving for New Year’s… maybe9.
When I started this blog post, I thought I would vamp for a little bit on some odd traditions, and then start talking about one very specific tradition I started about five years ago. But I see that the word count of this entry is getting up there, so maybe I should save that for later.
In the meantime, you should read the whole twitter thread if you haven’t yet.
1. When I was very young, this just seemed to be the way things were. It wasn’t until I was about 10 or 11 years old that I realized that Dad’s parents (specifically his mother) always got priority over everyone else, or else.
2. My half-brothers and half-sister remained with Dad and their mother, of course.
3. And you could use Grandma’s party as an opportunity to deliver gifts, but generally opening presents that night was frowned upon.
4. Almost everyone had either a star or an angel. I mostly only saw the spire or steeple style tree-toppers in stores or on neighbor’s trees. As an adult, for a while it was always either a star or one of the spires. Until we started getting more creative. This year, for instance, we have a flying fairy5.
5. It is most definitely not an angel.
6. Largest at the bottom of the tree, medium sized in the middle, small one near the top.
7. I have three small glass ball ornaments—one red, one pink, and one green—which belonged to my great-grandmother. I have three sets of crocheted bells that were made by my grandma. We have a pair of December Diamond Goom Mermen that were a present from a group of friends on the occasion of our legal wedding on the first day we legally could in our state—which happened to be in December. The two of them go on the tree side by side no matter what the theme is8.
8. This year they just happen to fit the Gay part of the theme.
9. I an totally blaming the pandemic on why we are less decided on the meals at this stage than usual10.
10. I mean, we’ve also got a beef brisket in the freezer, and we were talking about doing in on New Year’s… and then the prime rib could get shuffled to one of the other days11.
11. And I still need to run to the store before the holiday because I know we’re missing some ingredients for some of the side dishes we’ve discussed… and I might find something on sale that would completely change our minds on the other possibilities.