Christmas traditions

Tracee:  Merry Christmas Eve everyone! What are your Christmas (or Christmas Eve) traditions? 

My new tradition may be glimpsing the family’s collective senior dogs sitting in quiet splendor in front of the lit Christmas tree while I keep an eye on a very energetic puppy. (This is based on what happened Thanksgiving…. the living room tree was up on Friday and I kept finding my ‘old dog’ in there, on the sofa, gazing at the lights and enjoying a bit of peace. It is possible he was contemplating how to get rid of the puppy, but surely not.)

Connie: Great question for the holidays, Tracee! I may have mentioned this before, but my family always opens gifts on Christmas Eve—a Scandinavian tradition. There are also special cookies—Fattigman’s Bakkels, Krumkakker, Pepperkakker, Sandbakkels, and Spritz, which are put through a press, but always in either an “O” or an “S” shape, although no one actually knows why anymore. That’s the way it’s always done.

My most important family tradition is the Geraldson Family Christmas Party. Of all the Geraldsons in the U.S., probably 90% of them are my relatives. The name is rare. This year will be the 112th Geraldson Christmas. The family has been gathering in person for 112 years, through wars, epidemics, births, deaths, and personal tragedies—except last year when we met on Zoom. Over the years, we’ve had many guests, some prospective spouses  but most foreign exchange students from nations like Kenya, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Norway. This year there will be 54 of us out of a possible 130+. Not everyone can make it every year, but a tradition that long is worth keeping.

Susan: My church has a living creche. Back in the day they had sheep and cows, but now it’s just the occasional dog and some reluctant teenagers, dressed up in robes, but I still love to drive by it. I loved when my kids were in it. Maybe my little granddaughter can be in it if it’s not too cold.

Michele: We have always celebrated Christmas Eve and kept Christmas Day quiet. Lately, with the way the world has changed, we’ve followed Jolabokaflod, the Icelandic tradition with books, which I’ve blogged about before. Here’s how Country Living describes it: It’s Christmas Eve and after receiving a brand-new book from your family, you cozy up in your favorite reading nook or in front of the fire with a mug of hot cocoa and spend the rest of the evening reading.

That’s exactly how Icelandic people celebrate Christmas each year. This tradition is known as Jolabokaflod, which translates roughly to “Christmas book flood” in English.We actually crawl into bed with our new books. We’re more likely to have a chocolate treat with a glass of Prosecco, but the point is the same. 

Emilya: That sounds amazing, Michele. I would love that kind of tradition. 

Growing up Jewish in an atheist country, it’s safe to say I had no Christmas Eve traditions. In fact, I had no idea AT ALL what Christmas was. I’d been in churches and I knew people who believed in God, but that’s about as far as it went. 

When we arrived in New York on December 28th, we were horrified to see wreaths on every door. In Russia, you hang a wreath on a door only if there is a death in the household. We were convinced something terrible was tearing through the city. I very quickly learned what Christmas was all about–presents. The Soviet Union had done away with Christmas, but it couldn’t take God away from the Russians, so it moved it to New Year’s. We had the New Year’s tree (complete with a red star on top), presents at midnight and friends and family gathering. 

But then I realized that American children got to have their midnight presents a full week earlier, so I began to agitate to move Christmas back from New Year’s to its proper date. 

Now my Christmas Eve tradition is wrapping presents, because I always leave it to the last minute, and putting them under the tree after everyone is asleep. Christmas is a lazy day that often involves a hike. And, of course, a delicious dinner.

Tracee: Love all of these stories! Although Michele’s appeals to me particularly… I mean book and bed what could be better.  But Emilya… the wreaths… the entire city has what cholera? Flu? I can’t imagine how this felt. One year Henri and I ended up in Salzburg (unplanned) on Christmas Eve… after dinner we went outside to walk and it seemed as if the entire city was headed in one direction. Le lemmings we followed them… right into the cemetery! Where they chatted with friends over the (elaborate) tombs of their ancestors. We thought that was an excellent tradition- plus it is a gorgeous cemetery (as seen in the sound of music… although in real life it’s not attached to the convent).

Connie: I should add that my dream has always been to spend Christmas in an English country house. And while I wouldn’t want a murder, I wouldn’t mind a mystery to solve.

Emilya: Tracee, that sounds amazing too. Now I want to be in Salzburg on Christmas Eve. 

Actually, my first Christmas Eve and Christmas outside of the Soviet Union was in Rome, which I guess is the best place to be for that kind of initiation. I remember standing on the street, and it was snowing a little, and people were walking around being very festive. Lots of lights and decorations on the street. I asked my father what was going on, and he said, Christmas, and I said, what’s that? 

Susan: I stayed at Hever Castle one Christmas season and it would definitely be a great spot for a murder! 

Sharon: For years, when my daughter was little, we had a Christmas Eve ritual. This was in the 1970’s before companies started giving the office staff Christmas Eve off as a holiday, but we usually got out of work at noon. I would rush home to pick up my daughter and we would go to the movies, to see whatever age-appropriate blockbuster was hot that year. Of course, we pigged out on popcorn and candy. The movie usually got out about 3:30, so we would pick up a pizza on the way home, before the pizza places closed. We’d eat the pizza when her father got home from work, sitting around the Christmas tree and enjoying the lights. Then we’d each open one small gift and go to bed early. Then her dad and I would get up in the middle of the night to assemble all the gifts and put packages under the tree.

I started doing the movie thing because my daughter would get so excited on Christmas Eve that she drove me crazy worrying about whether Santa would come. The movie kept her distracted for a couple of hours. She’s all grown up now with adult children of her own, but I still always feel like I should see a movie on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Not this year though unless it’s on TV.

Alexia: This one took me a while to answer because the older I get, the more bah humbug-y I get and finding the Christmas spirit seems more of a chore.

When I was growing up, Christmas Eve was the time to get to bed early because I wasn’t going to risk making Santa mad by staying up late. (I’m a night owl, so staying up until networks went off the air–which they did way back in the day–was no big deal for me.) We’d go to church (I was a Methodist then) on Christmas Eve because the Christmas Eve service was more festive and better attended than the Christmas Day service. Christmas Day, I’d get up early (also unusual behavior for me), then try to psychically will my parents to get up so we could open the damn presents already. (Obviously, the church message from the day before had been lost on me.) We’d open a few before sitting down to Christmas breakfast, which was a mini-feast in preparation for the big feast of Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner was always served on the Christmas china (Holiday by Lenox and, yes, I have my own set now) with the good silver and crystal. We ate in the dining room, something we only ever did on holidays.

Mom and I would always save one or two gifts until the last minute so that we could go to the shopping mall (remember those?) and enjoy the decorations and carolers and Santa. She would always give me quarters to put in the red Salvation Army kettles. I kept that up even as an adult. Mom and I also made a tradition out of going to shop the after-Christmas sales when all of the leftover Christmas ornaments were marked down 50-70% off.

As an adult, after I joined the Episcopal Church, going to the late Christmas Eve service became my tradition. It was timed to end at midnight Christmas morning with the singing of Joy to the World, my favorite Christmas hymn, often with trumpets accompanying the choir and organ. I haven’t been to a late Christmas Eve service in a while. I moved to places where the local church didn’t have enough congregants to support a multitude of services so they opted for an early, family-friendly Christmas Eve service, even prior to the shutdown.

Nowadays, the traditions have shrunk down to serving Christmas dinner on my Christmas china, watching Borrowed Hearts, trying to track down a screening of The Bells of St. Mary’s (which has gotten darned hard to find), and listening to Christmas songs on the radio. (I confess they’re competing with true crime podcasts this year.) I may add the 1974 version of Black Christmas to that list. It’s surprisingly good for a slasher film. I’m trying to revive the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas, or reading them, anyway. I started M. R. James’s “The Story of an A Disappearance and an Appearance” this morning. I may also turn the podcast holiday special I did this year into an annual thing. I loved chatting with authors about their holiday-themed cozies and hearing their Christmas stories.

Tracee: Alexia, Oh the memories of stations going off that air! And I, too, grew up Methodist… however we went to the Baptist church’s midnight service (was it really at midnight? Surely not…) 

I love your adult Christmas ritual… Christmas China is a must. And I am going to watch some of your movie suggestions over the holidays. 

Connie: Oh, Christmas china! Many years ago my mother discovered the Pickard china outlet and started buying Christmas china—lots of it—in the now-discontinued Holly pattern. She loved to entertain and decided she needed at least a service for 24, plus all the serving pieces. Then she bought me a set for 12. Then she decided I needed a service for 18. When she died, I inherited the lot. I can now provide enough Christmas china for a banquet.

Tracee: Thank you so much for sharing your traditions…. past, present, and future!

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