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?

Holiday Concerts


Every year we attend at least one school holiday concert, events which are as much a part of our family traditions at this time of year as seasonal music, books, and presents.

School concerts are not my favorite special events. I find noisy, chaotic environments very stressful, I find it frustrating to have performances disrupted by restless toddlers and to see adults blatantly disregarding the principal’s directions to keep the aisles clear and to wait until the end of each piece for pictures (really! what kind of example does that set?), and I struggle with the ‘everyone participates’ ethos for band and choir that means there’s no baseline skill demanded–which, for the school band especially, means the playing is typically dreadful but must be applauded nonetheless. (I’m all for kids participating in band, don’t get me wrong, but not every beginning effort deserves a captive audience.) And then between the need to be inclusive and inoffensive and the difficulty (or so I assume) in acquiring rights, the music itself is hopelessly tedious pablum. Add in the likelihood of icy roads and you have a perfect storm of reasons for me to grumble and whine every time one of these events draws near.

And yet for all my grumbling, I’m always won over by the events themselves–not by any specific performance, but by the spirit they embody, by the ideal they bring so naively to life. There in the shabby school gym, on the uncomfortable plastic chairs lined up in rows that are always too close for comfort, with terrible acoustics and (except for the lucky winners of the ‘front row seat’ lottery) pretty poor visibility too, we are brought together because we love our children. Different as we may be from each other in some respects, this is something we in the gym share. We love them, and we want them to flourish. We cherish their innocence and the wide-eyed delight with which they look out at a familiar space transformed for them by our presence. On these occasions we also get a glimpse of the life they lead without us: we see their trust for their teachers and their friendships with each other. Though they sing for us, they sing with each other, and there is no more beautiful, more hopeful sound.

I was busy with work and put off writing about the concert we went to last week. Then on Friday, like everyone else I was overwhelmed with the news of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. Since then it has been very hard to think about how or what to write – not just about the school concerts, but about anything. There’s a sense, of course, in which that terrible event has nothing to do with me. I wouldn’t presume to have anything special or useful or important to say about it. But I don’t know how to not say anything about it at all and just go back to writing about my life and my books and all the rest of it without at least acknowledging it. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” says Donne in his famous Meditation. The deaths of these beautiful, innocent children and the brave, dedicated women who loved and cared for them diminish us all.