All these people who try new things at Christmas? I don’t get it. ’Tis just not the season.
Christmas is not the time for innovation. It’s the time for repetition. Doing things the same old way as always, over and over, without significant variation each and every year.
OK, let me amend that. You can increase the number of traditions and customs. But you can’t subtract any.
Let me give you the example of the Christmas cookies. For the first 18 years of my daughters’ lives I made eight kinds of cookies: shortbread, espresso and plain; chocolate pepper Christmas trees; anise angels; chocolate-dipped coconut pyramids; Grand Marnier truffles, lemon-coriander crescents and my mother’s pecan sandies. One year I suggested to them that we try something new. What about chestnut fingers? Cranberry pistachio biscotti? Linzer torte cookies?
Sounds great, they told me. But when I asked which of the traditional cookies should be dropped out of the line-up, their faces fell.
So now we make about ten or 11 kinds and fortunately for me, my younger daughter is an ace baker and we split the work.
There is also the business of the Christmas tree, which involves an entourage of cars—my sister and her husband in one, her son and daughter and their families in two others, Linnea and I in ours—heading out to Vermont to pick and cut the ideal tree (by the way, they’re all ideal).
This year Linnea and I arrived first, only to discover that the place we always go to was closed this year. There were some moments of near-panic, with my sister asking Linnea on the phone if we were sure we were at the right place, if we were sure it was closed. We were.
Never fear, I assured her. There are other places in Vermont that have trees. We found one and all four cars convened back at the Stewart’s on Route 7, our roofs festooned with trees. (At Stewart’s, of course, we ate the traditional macaroni-and-cheese at the Formica booths and tried to reassure each other that change was good. Or that we could at least accept it. We did have trees, after all. And that was the main thing.)
In days of yore (hey, it’s Christmas—I can say “yore”), I used to make potato latkes the night we decorated the tree. It was an homage to a Hanumas I shared with my roommate Diana when we lived in New York, long before she moved to Seattle and both of us became mothers. My kids loved the latkes, one time prompting four-year-old Linnea to look up from her plate with dreamy eyes and announce “Latkes are my future!”
There was always the traditional trek to Candicraft in Guilderland on Christmas Eve. Both daughters and I would choose stocking candy (always the same kinds, of course) and drive home listening to listening to the BBC broadcast of Lessons and Carols from Kings College, Cambridge.
We haven’t lived near Candicraft for some time and have had to content ourselves with lesser incarnations of candy stores. But this year Linnea suggested we stop there on the way back from a dentist appointment in Delmar—it was sort of on the way and stopping at a candy store after getting a cavity filled is kind of subversive. Nostalgia flooded our hearts as we swung open the door. The salesperson didn’t understand, at first, why we were taking a picture of ourselves with all the jars of sweets in the background, but soon she got on board with our highly particularized selections.
Since her older sister, Madeleine, moved out of the house, Linnea and I have developed our own odd ritual here and there. There is the annual watching of Love, Actually, each of us promising the other not to notice that we cry through almost the whole thing. There is the must-see Vicar of Dibley episode “The Christmas Lunch” in which Vicar Geraldine wins the Brussels sprouts eating contest, the air-headed Alice butchers the carols and Owen serves up bowls and bowls of stuffing.
There is also the annual podcast of David Sedaris reading “SantaLand Diaries.” (OK, I listen more than once each year. It’s funny, it’s sad and Sedaris does a better Billie Holiday than Lady Day herself.)
On Christmas Eve itself there is the wrapping of the stocking presents (in white tissue paper with red ribbon, just as my parents did it when I was young). And the furtive delivery of the filled stockings at the foots of our beds, each of us pretending to be asleep
My own Christmas Eve ritual, when I was still serving a parish and had to get to the church early to prepare for the services, included a solitary McDonald’s cheeseburger right before driving up and down the luminaria-lined streets of my town. I never eat McDonald’s. I never see luminaria. It was a prized, weird personal pleasure—and just the sort worth repeating.