Holiday Traditions

Tree 2013

On Sunday, while the snow and sleet and freezing rain made a mess of things outside, we stayed cheerful inside as we carried on one of our favorite holiday traditions: decorating our Christmas tree while listening to Michael Bawtree’s recording of A Christmas Carol. There aren’t a lot of activities, holiday-related or otherwise, that all four of us are equally enthusiastic about, so one reason this is such a special time is that we really feel together during it — even though we all  participate in different ways (Maddie and I do the actual decorating, while the other two get cozy and just listen).

Rituals of one kind or another are of course fundamental to a sense of belonging, whether to a family or to a community, and one feature of academic life that I’ve written about here before is that because you rarely get to choose where you settle, you’re likely to be transplanted, and thus to be disconnected from the traditions that helped shape your identity. That’s not always a bad thing, I realize: when you are separated from your family it’s perfectly possible to idealize proximity! But rituals are something my own family was (is!) always very good at. Things weren’t absolutely the same every year (we used to joke about coming up with “brand new traditions”) but when I think back on my childhood I remember fondly (to give just one example) how we would “always” play charades until midnight on New Year’s Eve and then wait on the front porch until we heard the ships in the harbor before banging wildly on pots and pans to welcome in the new year. (We weren’t the only ones in the neighborhood who did this, so it didn’t make us pariahs…I don’t think!)

When my husband and I were first married, we usually traveled to stay with one or the other of our families at Christmas, but winter is not a good time for trips, especially if you’re teaching on both sides of the break. Then after we had children, the increasing costs and complications made our decision to stay home overdetermined. We’ve had the occasional visitor out here, if not for Christmas itself, at least for the lead-up to it (and one memorable year, because my brother was also living in Halifax, all the rest of my family came out!), but now by and large the four of us are on our own through the holidays, and we’ve gradually figured out what traditions work for us. The tree decorating is one. Another is an adaptation from my past: one of our traditions was “Advent Brunch,” a festive occasion usually on the first Sunday in December which marked (for our wholly secular family) the launch of the Christmas season. We broke out the holly-patterned china and the Santa decorations and the Christmas mugs and all the other paraphernalia that of course can’t have been, but seemed, eternal. We unpacked the Christmas records, too, and the books, and we got tiny presents (I especially remember, because I still have most of them, the new holiday pin tradition!).

Advent Treats

Something like this (though with a more modest menu and not quite so many trappings) has also become part of the Maitzen Family Christmas. We try to stick to the rule that there’s no (or very little) Christmas activity before then: though local stores had their Christmas stuff up before the Halloween decorations had quite come down, there were no carols or decorations in our house before December 1!  (I’m with Monica: “Rules help control the fun!”) The kids mock me about this rigidity sometimes, but I think they actually appreciate that special occasions stay special because they aren’t every day.

One ritual we came up with ourselves is our unusual strategy for gifts: we dole them out one per day once school gets out, keeping things relaxed and allowing time for appreciation and gratitude. We used to go on a Christmas lights drive around town on a suitably ice-free night; this tradition was cut short by a tragic car-sickness episode a couple of years ago … but we used to really enjoy it, so we are weighing the risks of trying again. Or maybe bundling up for a Christmas lights walk around our quiet neighborhood: that might make an excellent brand new tradition! Then there are the Christmas movies: we all love The Muppet Christmas Carol, so that’s another good time for togetherness, and then different combinations of us can be counted on to watch ScroogedWhite ChristmasA Miracle on 34th Street, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and It’s a Wonderful Life at least once over the school break. All through December, we also enjoy our Advent calendar routine: we have one that has an (abridged) installment of A Christmas Carol for each day, so the kids take turns reading it — and, lately, acting it out (as of today we’re up to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come). This year we got another beautiful calendar that has an ornament in every window that then gets hung on the tree you can see as the centerpiece in the picture of our Advent Brunch table.

Holidays 2010 028

Because of our one-a-day present opening, Christmas Day itself is not the hyped-up occasion it is in many households, but we do keep up the tradition of putting out and filling Christmas stockings. I find it’s an excellent way to restock the kids with socks! I have a lot of fun picking out other little goodies for them too, and I keep up another of my family’s traditions by always topping the stockings off with a book. We have a traditional Christmas breakfast (pancakes) and dinner (roast pork with fixings), and dessert (apple crumble). The predictability adds to the pleasure: for one thing, it makes the preparation easier, and we all know we will enjoy the results. (Last year I actually made the radical decision to serve lamb instead. It turned out well, but it also turned out that Maddie doesn’t like lamb and we don’t like it a lot, or not as much as we like the pork — so this year we’re going back to the usual, though I have flirted with doing roast beef, which is what my grandmother “always” served us when we went over to her house for Christmas dinner.)

We’ve arrived at our family traditions through some trial and error. It was important to realize that we needed to find rituals that worked for us, with all our quirks and idiosyncrasies, rather than trying to relive our childhoods (or at least not entirely!) or live up to some imaginary ideal of what families should do on holidays. It turns out that we like things quiet: we’d rather see a few friends than have a big party (or go to one); we have no urge to stand outside in a crowd to cheer in the new year but prefer to watch a movie and turn in when we’re tired;  a holiday for us means time with fewer obligations and stresses, not more. Every so often it seems a bit too quiet to me, especially when I get reports from back home about everyone going to and fro and having all kinds of sociable fun. But we rush around a lot as it is, and so now, really, my favorite tradition of all is just taking my book and my Baileys and sitting to read where I can bask in the calming beauty of the tree.

Do you have holiday traditions you particularly enjoy? I know I’m not the only one who’s far from the people and places, and thus rituals, that I grew up with: what brand new traditions have you developed that work for you where you are now in your life? Do you embrace the quiet or relish the social whirl?

11 thoughts on “Holiday Traditions

  1. Sarah Emsley December 19, 2013 / 8:15 am

    Brunch, books, and Baileys – sounds good to me! It’s too late this year for us to start a new tradition with Advent brunch, but I like that idea a lot. We have a new Advent book every year on December 1st. I’m definitely in favour of the quiet holiday, especially when it comes to New Year’s Eve. A friend once asked my sister what she and her husband were doing for New Year’s, and when she said “Nothing,” the friend said, “Great! You can come to my party, then.” But of course what my sister meant was, their plan was to do nothing.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 20, 2013 / 4:20 pm

      A new Advent book is nice. I didn’t really do that this year — last year’s lovely illustrated ‘Gift of the Magi’ was our last one in that tradtion! Though I wonder: are we really too old for picture books?


  2. Stefanie December 19, 2013 / 12:41 pm

    Your traditions sound lovely! My husband and I celebrate the winter solstice. I grew up with a secular Christmas and my husband’s family is Jewish and so as not to offend anyone and cause accusations of favoritism, we landed on the solstice. My husband has always worked in the retail area so it is a busy time of year for him making travel out of the question. So it is just the two of us. I spend the day cooking, the only day a year I cook as my husband is the cook in the house. I make something fancy we have never had before. We light a candle for the sun and put on Vivaldi’s Four Season’s with Patrick Stewart reciting the poetry between each season that Vivaldi wrote but that often gets left out when the music is performed. And generally sometime during December we end up watching A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation and my husband’s favorite though I don’t know why, Earnest Saves Christmas.

    Enjoy all your celebrations!


    • Rohan Maitzen December 20, 2013 / 4:21 pm

      I love the Four Seasons element especially! I worked p/t in retail for six years so I remember very well how exhausting it is. I did work in a classical record store (we sold actual records back in those days) so at least the music was nice.


  3. Alex December 19, 2013 / 3:11 pm

    This is another household where the Solstice is more important than Christmas itself. My mother was almost blind and the long dark days were very difficult for her so the day when the year turned was a moment to mark. Now The Bears light all the candles in the house and cries of ‘Come back Sun!’ echo round. personally, if I was the sun, I would run a mile, but the marvel is that every year it works.


  4. Susan Messer December 19, 2013 / 10:33 pm

    Thank you, Rohan, as always, for letting me/us into your thoughts. I like the sound of your family rituals. Very warm and cozy . . . and lots of books and stories. My family is Jewish, and the joke among Jews has always been that on Christmas we go see a movie and then go out for Chinese food (because those restaurants are open on Xmas). One of my friends, for years, had a Xmas day open house, and we would always go there before the movie and the Chinese food, but last year she decided she was tired of having that party, and it looks like she’s sticking with that (forget-the-party) tradition this year.

    There’s a really good open mic nearby (2nd Monday of every month), and every year around Chanukah time, I read a short piece I wrote about the holiday. I’ve probably been doing this for 7 or 8 years, and I usually introduce it by saying something like “Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Susan Stamberg’s cranberry relish, David Sedaris Santa Land Diaries, and Susan Messer’s Chanukah Stories.” All that, to establish the idea of tradition. The piece is in two parts (1, Song Sheets and 2. Latkes), and there’s a guy who is a regular at the open mic–a real tough guy/beat poet type with a shaved head–and one year, he started crying when I was reading. So now I share the reading with him. I read one part, and he reads the other part. And he chokes up every time.

    By the way, we are also familiar with the pot-banging on New Years Eve–introduced to us by a friend from California. So sometimes we do that.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 20, 2013 / 4:22 pm

      Have you ever recorded your readings? It would be a treat to see some of them! I’m glad to know there are other pot-bangers out there. My parents were grad students in California: maybe that’s where they got the idea.


  5. Peter Jobson December 19, 2013 / 11:09 pm

    Being on the opposite side of the planet – it is HOT here. We have just been hitting 40c around the country & it will continue right up to Christmas Eve.

    I grew up on the coast south of Sydney, so swimming in the Pacific Ocean is very important. Water was always an important part – locally caught prawns were my father’s contribution to the preparation of the Christmas meal & we often have a hot European meal on the day. Nuts ! I know 😀
    Boxing Day was always a picnic near water – either the ocean, or a stream in the mountains nearby.

    Over the years I have done various traditions: for a while I sang Midnight Mass in various churches/ cathedrals around the country (Being dressed in cassock & semple in the tropics & wearing shorts & t-shirt underneath is interesting); attended orphan’s Christmases in isolated camping spots: just the small group, the mighty ocean nearby & the vast open cloudless sky above; and now, I have been adopted by some special friends & fly to the New England Tablelands (between Sydney & Brisbane) for wonderful company, good food & cool weather after the scorching temperatures I experience living in the centre of the country (Alice Springs).
    Your skies might be grey & dim, mine are bleached pale blue with a hot white rim along the horizon & the strong smell of salt in the air.


    • Rohan Maitzen December 20, 2013 / 4:24 pm

      What a nice array of traditions: I love the image of the ocean and sky especially, and of your small group feeling special together.

      I actually went to Australia in December 2006 for a conference and I remember how odd it was to see palm trees with Christmas ribbons on them and of course just to be in hot weather at that time of year. I wish there was some chance I’d ever get back to Sydney. For one thing, as I’m a life-long Joan Sutherland fan-girl, the opera house is kind of my mother ship.


  6. Peter Jobson December 21, 2013 / 3:53 am


    In a former life I sang in the Opera House Concert Hall. I loved going in thru the stage door & sometimes it was necessary to get the choir thru fire stairs & back passages to get to different entrances for a special concert. Running my hand along the ribs of the sails in some obscure staircase, is a special experience that I shall always cherish (I’m an architecture fan-boy :-D)

    If Australia becomes an actuality, I would hope you could come visit Alice Springs & experience the rugged beauty of this desert town and the Macdonnell Ranges & Ayers Rock.

    Halifax & the Maritime Provinces have been on my bucket list since I was child. If it becomes an actuality, I do hope for a luncheon date 😀


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