(Posted December 23, 2015)
When I was growing up in upstate New York, our town was still a factory town. One thing that absolutely made my holiday season was anticipating that, at midnight on Christmas and again at the stroke of the new year, we could crank open our windows and listen to every factory whistle in the city greeting the happy day. I remember so clearly the sound, as the frigid central New York air cascaded into the living room. Years later, imagine my surprise when, at the new year of my married life in White Plains, we cranked open the windows at midnight to the sound of – nothing. Somehow I thought every town, whether it had factories or not, saluted the holiday season.
The fact is, it’s up to us to make our own Christmas traditions. Your family probably had a few of your own. In our house I waited up for Santa until a certain time, when I was shuttled off to bed. I was absolutely sure I could hear the sound of his reindeer and sleigh. But I did NOT want to be found creeping around in the living room when Santa came down the chimney to tromp across our carpet to leave ashy boot prints from the hearth to the tree and back. I was always relieved in the morning to find nothing but cookie crumbs and the skim coat of milk in the glass I had left him. As I grew, so did Santa. Eventually I started leaving him beer and hors d’oeuvres instead. I miss seeing those boot prints.
Yes, it’s up to you to find your own traditions, which vary greatly among different families and ethnic groups. Where I grew up German, Irish, Italian and Polish heritage was very strong. And, quite candidly, some traditions grow out of folklore that no one knows where or how it started. In many a German-American household, on the Christmas tree you’ll find a glass pickle ornament. If you ask, you may be told that the glass pickle – which, when found first thing in the morning by a child, entitles the child to an extra present – that glass pickle tradition is hundreds of years old, from “The Old Country.” Another family may tell you that the tradition started in the Civil War era, when a grateful starving prisoner of war was given a pickle to eat at Christmas. But, if the truth be known, the glass pickle is strictly a modern American tradition that calls to something inside a family about who they are, and what they feel at Christmas.
So often our ethnic customs have culinary roots, which extend beyond the members of the family sitting around the table. My husband’s Aunt Yetta was responsible for a killer stuffed cabbage recipe enjoyed by the entire family around Hanukkah, but regretfully she never passed it on to the rest of us. However each year we’d attempt it, and just for an evening Aunt Yetta was in our midst. In my Scots-Irish-Polish family, Christmas Eve included a particular curried cheese dish, along with pierogis and cabbage soup. An even more enduring Irish tradition is to keep an empty chair among the family for each person who has departed “beyond the pale.” For my father, who insisted on being the boss of the Christmas dinner table, nobody could move until grace was said, and my father slooowly inched the cork out of a champagne bottle, until it flew up like a bullet and bounced off the ceiling. Most years this was fine and only left a little dent in the ceiling. But, on occasion, that cork would carom off the ceiling at breakneck speed, and dive squarely into the big bowl of peas on the table. Those peas made such a lovely fountain of legumes spraying up and out to every corner of the dining room.
Why are traditions such a part of Christmas? Because in an unspoken manner they reveal the gift we are to one another whenever we gather, no matter whether we are all visible to one another. My wish for you this Christmas season is to smile, relax, breathe in the peace of the season, and remember that your circle is still unbroken, when you wait for the gift of the Word made flesh. – Pastor Pat Kriss