Holiday traditions are as close to culture as we get in the States. Most families create their own little mini-culture of menus, activities, rituals and celebrations during the November and December months, and my family has been no exception. For most, we hold our traditions sacred and cannot dream of changing our tried-and-true ways.
Eventually, however, families do change — people get married and have kids of their own, people pass on, unexpected events cast an unwanted shadow — and with these changes, holiday traditions often change, too. With a dash of adaptability, we can all learn to turn lemons into pumpkin pie and forge new traditions that further enrich our lives and expand our mini-cultures.
Here’s a peek at how my family’s traditions have changed (for better or worse) over the years and how we’ve tried our best to accommodate those changes.
Growing up, my mom created the most amazing Thanksgiving experience possible. Dinner was more than turkey — it was a sumptuous feast for both eyes and tummies.
Mom was very aesthetically oriented (something she passed on to me), and therefore, ensured our dining room sparkled. She would pull out linen, china and silver that dated back hundreds of years and belonged to my family or had some other interesting story. She’d polish the table, layer it with linens and set rows of cutlery, pillars of crystal and stacks of plates. Candles and elegant ribbons and hand-embroidered runners would add an unbelievable “ahh” factor. At dinner, Mom would present the food in perfect timing, course after course, pouring the appropriate beverage in the appropriate glass and it would go on and on.
Even with the fanfare, our Thanksgiving never felt stuffy — the dining room table and the dining room itself shone like jewels and were always warm and inviting. Truth is, Thanksgiving dinner was only slightly more formal than our everyday meals; you’d only know it was the holidays because of Mom’s handmade and superbly appointed decorations that appeared to be perfect replicas of New England colonial traditions. I have a college friend who still talks about being in awe of my family’s “casual” dinner that was more like a ritual fit for a king.
Mom continued her tradition as long as possible. Since I was the first of the kids to get married and have a centrally located, large house, one could argue I had the chance to inherit the tradition from her. I knew, however, I couldn’t begin to imitate her meal without feeling competitive or like I’d be taking something away from her. So, rather unconsciously, when my husband Daryl and I started our own family, we decided to let the opulent dinner tradition fade away.
Instead, we took a very unique approach to Thanksgiving. Our very dear friend owned a string of Popeye restaurants in the area and each Thanksgiving, he’d get up early, cook an enormous amount of food and invite one and all to dine for free.
One year, my husband and I and our two sons decided to help my friend and his wife, along with a few other volunteers. We arrived at 8:00 am, cooked and prepared the food, and served whoever walked through the door until 5:00pm. Then we’d eat what remained as we cleaned it all up. That’s how we all came to fall in love with the Southern tradition of deep fried turkey — our traditions grew and expanded!
After doing this for many years, my friend sold his business. None of us, especially our sons, have ever gotten over it, and even though we are self-proclaimed “foodies,” we cannot sit down to a regular Thanksgiving dinner. It doesn’t seem right without the side dish of satisfaction from doing a good deed and accomplishing hard work. My oldest son, however, has recently married and adopted his wife’s family tradition of going to a large family gathering, so he is now enjoying a Thanksgiving tradition once again.
Unlike Thanksgiving, I have easily carried on my family’s Christmas traditions which start by attending Christmas Eve services, hanging the stockings, opening one early gift, tracking Santa’s location and, even as teens, going to bed early so Santa could come and place the gifts with no one watching. After the kids are asleep, I add extra baubles and decor to give that morning entrance an extra wow factor.
The next morning, we all come (with jaws dropped) into the living room. We have coffee and pastries while opening stockings, which has to be done slowly, all together, as we admire everyone’s gifts. Then, Daryl takes his seat on the floor by the tree and passes gifts out one by one in rotation. (This was my dad’s role before he passed away.) We all watch as the giver explains the gift and the recipient opens it and exchanges thank yous. This has been the rule, even when my kids were as young as one and two and they’ve abided by it. Even now, they tell their younger cousins the rule (I mean tradition ☺).
Half-way through opening gifts, we stop to enjoy a leisurely brunch consisting of a specific, passed-down menu. We then resume our places around the tree and complete the gift opening. (Once, when we were kids, my siblings and I once stretched this process out to 5 pm! A huge feat.)
After the gift opening, we usually take a nap or spend quiet time with our gifts and then spruce ourselves up to have as fancy and formal a meal as I can conjure.
Another tradition we’ve added is to talk about the family members who have passed and recall the funny things they did on past Christmases.
It has been comical to see Daryl’s family try and adapt to all of our traditions. The kids in my family were never allowed to open gifts with abandon as Daryl and his three brothers did. Heathens!!! ???? Daryl’s father has been known to wander off to play with his gifts, disrupting the flow and making us all very uncomfortable. On several occasions, Daryl has had to round up his dad, who’d chuckle at the unwritten or spoken (or even conscious!) rules.
Daryl’s mom once opened her stocking before the rest of us. When she realized she broke the tradition, she thoughtfully restuffed her stocking and pulled the gifts out again with us. Obviously and luckily, my in-laws have been very flexible and adaptable.
My sons routinely tell me the gift opening is their very favorite holiday family tradition and love to go through the routine each year. Thankfully, my daughter-in-law’s family treats Christmas Eve as their big event, so there’s no competition between the family traditions. But you never know what the future will hold.
As you enjoy your favorite holiday traditions and rituals or attempt to adapt to someone else’s, we at Team Dabney wish everyone the brightest of holidays. See you in the New Year!
To your emotional health,