When you surround yourself with internationals at holiday time, you can often find yourself swapping traditions, customs and tales of holidays past. This year I realised how much I don’t think of our holiday as just Christmas anymore, but rather as a whole set of days.
There was a time when the only “strange” thing we did around Christmas (apart from never going to Church or discussing any of the religious associations of the holiday), was opening presents on the evening of the 24th. Now that we moved back to be close to relatives and we adopted new traditions, the holiday season seems to have taken on a life of its own, the rituals taking almost a whole week.
It all begins with the kid’s return home. Generally K and I make this early because by the time the middle of December rolls around we miss the warmth, double beds, sweets and Christmas treats, the big house, and maybe even the fact that Mam can still be persuaded to do the laundry and proofread important documents for us. Our return is usually closely followed by cookie baking. How many different types of cookies are made can vary, but we always bake Cranberry Almond Cookies. I even used to give them to my primary school teachers. That means that the recipe, initially from and advertisement for a brand of spices, has been adopted into the family tradition for at least 15 years.
We soon move on to finding ourselves a Christmas tree, which is always a cause for great discussion. Every year someone tries to suggest that we don’t need one, others chime in that we should find a small one, and finally we end up taking one home that nearly fills half of the living room. The whole family has a fondness for real trees, which means if we have the time, we’ll drive out to our nearest tree farm. There, saw in hand, we walk in circles for an hour or so until we have found a compromise. The tree gets cut down, lugged to be measured, wrapped up and manoeuvred more or less elegantly into or onto the car.
Once the tree reaches the living room and has been freed of its traveling corset, the furniture has been carefully arranged and the small led lights hung, we dive into a box of memories. Our decorations are jumble- a mismatch of old hand me downs, gifts, and tokens from past travels. There are poorly decorated reindeer shapes which our parents still consider art from when we were four or five. There are ornaments to represent our hobbies, including small pianos, violins, trumpets; and our travels: kangaroos from Australia, felt ponies from Iceland, Red Double-decker busses from London, and even a lonely zebra. Of course, there are also ornaments without big symbolism, straw stars or snowflakes, or small men in red shirts, scarves and hats which hide among the needles like good fairies.
Decorating brings up stories, stories bring back memories and with them, laughter.
Following the decoration, Christmas can begin. The official holidays are all based around food. We come together for two big family meals, one at home and one at the Grandparents’. We avoid the traditional roasts and instead eat over the course of the day- coffee and cake, biscuits, then cheese raclette. The roast is saved for the biggest celebration of all: Thanksgiving. For us this takes place a few days after Christmas. Each family member invites guests, our adopted “cousins”, and soon we are a group of 15 to 20 people. The noise of conversation overpowers the backdrop of classical music; people who only see each other once a year catch up, tease, and start discussions.
It’s these days which matter in this family; the days where we get to be together planning, cooking, arguing and reminiscing. We sit by the fireplace with hot drinks, even when there is no snow and the sleigh bells don’t ring. We engage in conversations and debates, relive the past year and formulate hopes for the next. We finally have time for each other, and we make the most of it.