I recently got an email from two of my siblings asking my opinion on a family matter. Apparently, one of our aunts used to send a tub of popcorn to each of her grown-up nieces and nephews, every Christmas, to share with their children.
My siblings thought that this year, as our aunt passed away six months ago, our mother should carry on this tradition.
“Huh?” I responded. “What are you talking about? I never got any popcorn…”
I’ve lived abroad for the past 13 years. While there are many things to recommend expat living, one thing that’s never quite the same is the holiday season. You can institute new traditions within your own family, but you will always feel slightly bereft.
I was reminded of this when reading a delightful account of Thanksgiving traditions by New York Times medical columnist Perri Klass. Klass talks about how, once she had children of her own, she could no longer travel to her parents’ home for Thanksgiving.
But she quickly found herself replicating many of her mother’s Thanksgiving traditions, which ranged from singing the hymn “We Gather Together” before eating the meal to preparing the requisite Indian lasagna.
I could relate. Like Klass’s mom, my mother also hails from the so-called traditionalist generation. On Christmas Eve, our family would light the advent wreath before dinner and recite the Roman Catholic hymn, “Drop Down Dew Ye Heavens From Above,” my mother intoning the refrain.
After dinner, we would take turns reading aloud from the Christmas story in the Bible. We didn’t read from the Good Book itself, but instead, from a yellowed Life Magazine version of the story my mother must have obtained circa 1947.
Beneath each segment of the story, she had carefully inscribed a designated Christmas carol that matched the text. So, at the appropriate junctures, we would sing “Joy to the World” or “Silent Night” in unison.
Afterward, we would hang our stockings and one of us would read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas aloud to the rest of the family. As we got older and had our own children, the youngest available grandchild became the designated reader.
I don’t do any of that with my own family here in London. For starters, my husband is Jewish, so we celebrate Hanukkah with our kids. The 24th is also my son’s birthday, so that has added a new element of tradition into the mix.
On Christmas Day, like all good Jews, we now go out for Chinese food and watch a movie. Plus, in England, you have the whole Boxing Day thing to contend with on the 26th. Personally, though, I’ve had enough celebration by then, so I usually stay inside and read.
I’ve managed to sneak in a few holiday rituals over the years. I’ve amassed a random assortment of dreidels and non-religious Christmas ornaments which I delicately array in a sort of Omnist collage on our dinner table every year throughout the month of December. (As a Jewish boy who attended a Christian high school, my husband is allergic to overly-Christian iconography.)
In keeping with my dual British citizenship, I also dutifully ensure that we have a sufficient supply of Christmas Crackers, so that we can all be a bit silly at the annual Christmas Eve/Hanukkah/Birthday celebration.
I also try to attend at least one carol service a year at a random church of choice. Last year, I went to the local Unitarian Church. The alter featured a chair made entirely of conch shells, while doll-sized toy Unicorns adorned the windows. It all felt oddly appropriate.
I don’t think I’ll ever quite recreate the intense holiday traditions of my youth. It wouldn’t suit my family. And at this point in my life, it probably doesn’t suit me either.
But the virtue of being part of an inter-faith, bi-national family is that you always have a chance to try something new.
This year, for example, I’m hosting a “Christmas Drinks” cocktail party at my home for a bunch of friends from my old job. I never host large gatherings, but I’m really excited for this party. I think I’ll wear some reindeer antlers to mark the occasion.
I’m also making a huge batch of Christmas cookies with some Christmas Tree and Santa-shaped cookie cutters I inherited from the previous tenant of this house. He left them when he moved out, whether by choice or by accident, and I feel that I’m carrying on some of his traditions by employing them myself.
The holiday season will still be a patchwork of traditions. At the 11th hour, I’ll need to rush out and buy those special, slender candles you need to place in the Menorah.
Hanukkah falls on the 23rd this year, so I’ve invited a friend’s son, who enjoys cooking, to prepare a special feast for my own son, who’s been away at college in America for four months.
There will always be a bit of sadness mixed in with the merriment. But as the Christmas carol of my youth, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” would have it, “Oh, tidings of comfort and joy…“
Perhaps we’ll sing that too.
What are some family traditions that you had in your youth? Do you still keep them? What traditions have you created for yourself? Please share some of them with our community!