Christmas, to me, isn’t about the new things that come my way every year. It’s about the old things that get repeated again and again. The traditions that my family holds have been in place for almost a decade (things changed a bit when my grandma passed away, but we did things the same til then and we’ve been doing them the same ever since). They require a bit of tweaking since I’ve been in college, but mostly things go like this:
First, the movies. We have many that we just *need* to shuffle through. They include, but are not always limited to: White Christmas, Love Actually, Elf, The Bishop’s Wife (the Cary Grant version), Scrooged, The Polar Express, and A Christmas Story. This year we switched up Elf for Happy Feet– not technically Christmas, but we wanted to see some snow, and we knew my dog (an avid movie fan) would love it. Then a couple days after Christmas, we always pull out “It’s a Wonderful Life,” because it’s hopeful, and James Stewart always ties everything up perfectly.
Sometimes Christmas traditions entail a little caroling with whatever singing group I’m involved with at the time. This year I didn’t participate.
One family friend makes hundreds of the same type of sugar cookies with the same types of frosting and sprinkles every year and gives some to us. The number is always divisible by three and they never, ever get old (meaning stale or tiresome).
On Christmas Eve day, we go skiing at our favorite local mountain, Lookout Pass. It’s small, but comfortable and cheap. There usually aren’t very many people there and the snow is usually very decent, even if there isn’t much new snowfall.
Christmas Eve has changed the most since my grandma died. She used to come over to our house for dinner. We had green jello salad (a 50s classic, with lime jello, mayonnaise, pineapple pieces, pecans, and cottage cheese. It sounds gross… but, I don’t know, it has some sort of guilty thrill), red hot apples (granny smith apples that soaked in the juice of red hot candies for hours and hours), yams, and other equally unhealthy-but-what-the-hell-it’s-once-a-year foods. Then after dinner, we would drive her home and go out of the way to beautifully, elaborately decorated neighborhoods with the best lights and baby Jesus or St. Nick scenes. We would come home and, for a few years, I would write my letter to Santa and put out cookies (and carrots for the reindeer).
In more recent years, somehow we adopted the tradition of having smoked salmon hors d’oeuvres and grazing for a couple hours while watching “A Christmas Story.” Then we each open two presents (one from each person) and go to bed early.
We have always gone to my grandparents’ in Spokane for Christmas Day. Dinner starts early, around 3 or 4, and it’s almost always healthy, and always delicious. My family isn’t religious, so we don’t pray, but we do make a toast and express our thanks to whomever has granted us the good fortune to have an abundance of good food on our plates, wine in our glasses, and the company of one another. We eat luxuriously and always seem to talk about the English language, food, travel, household projects, pets, and art. It’s not filled with gossip, complaints, laments, too much pop culture, or any other unsavory subjects. Most of all, sometimes the talk isn’t talk at all; it’s a sliver of silence while everyone genuinely enjoys the food and doesn’t force conversation. My family is excellent at silence, and I think it’s a trait that other families would do well to adopt. Afterwards we open presents, but that tradition has waned over the years. I think we’ve found that we’re all pretty generous with one another throughout the year. Christmas is just another day, and perhaps we decide to put lights up and wrap up a check in an envelope, but perhaps not.
My favorite tradition of all, though, is one we’ve held as long as I can remember, regardless of the state of my grandmothers. When my mom and dad and I return home after the Spokane dinner, we put all the leftovers away. We let the dogs out and pour hot water for tea. We get into our pajamas, curl up under blankets in the living room, and listen to Dylan Thomas reading his short story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” His raspy voice and Welsh accent caress the beautiful lines of the story and all the alliteration and literative devices that he uses.
And then, I say some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I sleep.