Every family has its firm traditions for holiday times, and as families merge, because the kids dare to go off and start their own families, the matter of what constitutes the perfect turkey stuffing has been known to cause brawls in the homes of newlyweds. When to put the tree up. When to start playing carols and winter songs. I’m not speaking to the commercial tendency to put wrapping paper and Christmas goods on the shelves as soon as Hallowe’en is over. Take down the black and orange; put up the red and green. Jingle Bells in the mall November 1st. It’s ludicrous. It’s crass. It has nothing to do with Christmas.
What does have something to do with Christmas is what to eat Christmas Eve, when to put the presents under the tree, what vegetable must be served on the day–every family has its ritual for the major events of its culture. These are the things that tell us who we are, who our family is, how we know that this is Christmas. This morning, I sat with my daughter and son-in-law, waking up with coffee, and we chatted about how things were done in his house, in my house, in our house. The children have been waiting for the Terry’s Chocolate Oranges to be opened, but we can’t do that until Uncle Ben gets here. Obviously. The decorations will go on the tree on Saturday; through my childhood and my children’s childhood, the decorations went on the tree on Christmas Eve. Then the presents could be placed under it.
Everyone knows that it isn’t Christmas unless there are mini-mincemeat tarts, made in Grandma’s tart tins. The only real Christmas pie is the pumpkin, and turkey stuffing has cubed bread and sage. Sausage is ridiculous. I say this knowing that there are houses where the family would be crestfallen if the bowl (the centrepiece of the meal, really) came to the table with anything but sausage stuffing. The year that I lived in the Czech Republic, I experienced carp and potato salad as Christmas dinner. What? Turkey isn’t a universal? These things are part of our story, our family story, chapter Christmas.
When I was a child, because I had a diabetic brother, our mother hung a blanket across the archway between the dining room and living room so that we couldn’t see Christmas in there. Christmas couldn’t happen until we had breakfast. It was agony. But it’s part of our story, one of the small things that makes our Christmas ours and nobody else’s. Christmas is not a giant generic one-note story. My daughter has taken some of our rules with her, and she has some family decorations for her tree, things her Grandmother made, fragile glass ornaments from her great-grandparents’ tree, construction paper gingerbread her own children made. The Christmas tree is a family tree, more than any chart. The decorations have stories.
In all our houses, we tell our traditions and stories to keep them alive, to tell our children who they are, to confirm our belonging. This is the oral tradition, something people think is passing, but it isn’t. We keep it alive by the calendar. It’s all for the record. Even the time I fell into the tree and said my brother pushed me. All on the record.