If you know me personally, you’ll know that I’m not much of a one for observing tradition for the sake of it. Sometimes, in my opinion, traditions can become tyrannical. If they don’t add value, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate.
You’ve probably heard this story, if so, skip to the end of the indented section:
A newly married young man and his wife are preparing a roast for dinner with her parents. He notices that she lops a slice off the end of the little joint, which she then carefully places on top, before popping the roasting pan into the oven. He’s never seen that done before and asks her why she does it. She looks at him blankly, “Because that’s how you cook a roast.” He tells her he’s never encountered that method before. She is puzzled by this and tells him that’s the way she learned to do it from her Mom.
When her parents arrive, she asks her Mom about the slice of roast taken off the end and placed on top before cooking. Her Mom says, “That’s how you cook a roast.” Her son in law explains that he’s never seen it done that way before. And her husband admits that, although he hasn’t mentioned it in nearly 30 years of marriage, he had never seen it done that way before he married her, either. The Mom is puzzled by this and tells them that’s the way she learned to do it from her own mother.
Fortunately Grandma is alive and well, so Mom phones her and tells her, “We’re discussing the correct way to make a roast.” Grandma says she doesn’t think there’s a single right way. Mom reminds her how she always cut a slice off the end of the roast and put it on top. Grandma thinks for a while, then laughs, “I had five children. My roasting dish wasn’t big enough to hold a joint that would feed all seven of us, so I sometimes had to improvise to make it fit. I stopped doing that as my children left home and the joints got smaller.”
And yes, it’s an urban legend, but it serves my purpose.
Sometimes, we follow traditions simply because that the way it’s always been done. Christmas (and Thanksgiving, I suspect) is particularly rife with traditions for their own sake. We roast a turkey, even though few of us like it very much, and wind up with leftovers enough to last through to the end of January. Probably not a bad thing, since we spent all our money on expensive gifts (another tradition) and are feeling the pinch somewhat. We place a large bowl of brussels sprouts on the table and throw most of them away afterward because only two members of the family actually eat them – and one of those will practically suffocate the family with his flatulence during the Queen’s speech.
When I was a child in South Africa, it was completely normal to have a full roast dinner for Christmas, even though it was 35C outside… and hotter than that in the kitchen. Tradition.
Now, if stirring up your late grandmother’s Christmas cake recipe puts you in touch with your treasured memories of her, that’s a tradition that serves a purpose. But perhaps, if nobody in the family eats marzipan, you could find a different way of decorating the cake, and make a tradition your own grandchildren will want to follow.
When I married my Mr Namasi, I encountered a different way of doing Christmas. He is Swedish, and their traditions are very different. Most notably, Christmas dinner is eaten and gifts exchanged during the evening of 24th December. Since this means that children have all their new gifts to keep them occupied on Christmas morning, parents are afforded the luxury of a late lie-in. Particularly useful if the traditional levels of alcohol consumption are also observed by the family on Christmas eve!
Swedes also tend to have a sequence of smaller courses, rather than a massive roast.
My children’s early Christmases alternated between the two families. And neither family was particularly purist in their observance. The Swedish side compromised based on the weather and available ingredients. And, once my grandmother had died and my own mother became matriarch of Christmas, her ‘rebellious’ streak came to the fore, as she opted for Christmas dinners that suited both the climate and her less than enthusiastic relationship with the kitchen on a hot day.
Then we emi/immigrated to the UK.
Christmas suddenly shrank down to just four people. We decided to do Christmas our own way, to make it special for our children. To pick and choose from among the habits of our respective families and to fill the gaps with what suited us and our own preferences. As we approach our 19th Christmas here, I realise that the practises my children consider ‘traditional’ are largely those of our own invention. Perhaps they will incorporate them in to their own family Christmas observance in due course. Or perhaps the Christmas traditions of their chosen life partners will dominate.
I would hope that they would choose to blaze their own trail and build their own family traditions.
Just for the record (and you’re free to skip this bit, if you prefer), this is how Christmas looks in our house:
- We have Christmas dinner and exchange gifts on 24th December
- This year, we have a tree (an upcycled one I made out of a mooring rope). This isn’t always the case – we are far more likely to have a manger scene.
- We make a Scandi version of mulled wine called glögg, which we drink throughout December.
- Santa/Father Christmas has never really been a feature of our celebrations for various reasons, some of which can hopefully be deduced from the points below
- Our sons take it in turns to set the Christmas menu: starter, main course and dessert. We have never yet cooked a turkey. We have had everything from salmon to beef stew to roast lamb for the main course.
- Mr Namasi usually does the roast (if that’s on the menu) in the Weber outside, which is interesting when it’s cold… but then he is a Viking. 😉
- The son who isn’t setting the menu is in charge of designing and decorating the table. The table has never looked the same twice. We’ve had everything from red-and-silver, to wood-and-ceramic. And no, I don’t give in to the temptation to improve on their design/decorative efforts. Their contribution to the festivities is as much a part of things as my own.
- We avoid expensive gifts and major on lots of small, thoughtful things, with a good dose of silly thrown in.
- We emphasise the value of handmade gifts. The imperfect fruit of a young child’s hands is far more precious than a mass produced, store-bought thing any day. Especially to my sentimental husband! And this is part of why Santa doesn’t get the credit. Of course, the children are adults now, but the principle still holds.
- We support the local economy and/or small businesses as much as possible.
People often ask us how we spend Christmas day itself, if all the celebrations take place the day before. And the answer is: we relax. We sleep late, eat far too much chocolate, watch schmaltz on TV, play games, take le mutt for a walk. That kind of thing. A distinct upside is that our sons’ girlfriends are able to join us for our Christmas this year while still spending Christmas with their own families.
What traditions have passed their use-by date in your family? What new ‘traditions’ have you invented that your children consider an integral part of the season? I’d love to hear your stories.