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Ghosts of Christmases Past

After a Christmas Eve sermon, a few years back, in which I’d referenced the traditional Christmas pomegranate that my younger daughter and I share, Linnea said to me, “and what’s with that traditional pomegranate we’re always eating. We only did it last year.”

No, no, I said. You know, we buy a pomegranate at Christmastime and you and I cut it open and get juice everywhere and talk about the cellular structure of the pith and membrane.

Yeah, she said. We did, once. And once does not a tradition make.

She was smiling as she said this. Which is how Linnea delivers the truth.

So what, I said. I love pomegranates. I buy one every year. We can eat one every year. Or I can eat one all by myself and remember that one, untraditional year that I spent eating it with you.

Not one to suffer fools, Linnea didn’t say much in response. Besides, I know she values our quirky traditions, the ones that have lasted more than one year: baking such a surplus of cookies we are mandated to share with relative strangers, leaving the state to cut down a Christmas tree and lunching at Stewarts (Stewarts, for lunch?) along the way, eating latkes while we decorate the tree because that’s what I did when I shared my first Hanumas with the roommate in New York many years ago.

But there are those experiences that, even if they can’t be repeated, year after year, have the emotional significance—or the humor—of tradition.

For example, the very first Thanksgiving I spent away from my family, I was living in Kurt Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen, Wash. It was not a promising place to live. My boyfriend and I were there for reasons that had everything to do with young love and wanderlust and nothing whatsoever to do with reason.

We were broke. That’s putting it mildly.

I was selling menswear during the Christmas shopping season and my boyfriend was moving furniture for Selmer Schlacht, who owned the only furniture store in town. Selmer, in a fit of uncharacteristic generosity, gave us a turkey for Thanksgiving. And since the rest of your typical Thanksgiving spread consists of root vegetables and cranberries, I figured I could afford to fix us a feast.

And I did: candied yams and mashed potatoes and chestnut dressing and cranberry sauce and rutabaga puff and creamed onions and homemade bread and pumpkin and pecan pies. Remember, there were just the two of us.

And we didn’t have a table. Normally we ate off the reinforced cardboard trunk that I’d used throughout my four years of college. We’d sit on the floor, light some candles and eat dinner. Very romantic, of course.

But I’d made a feast. A feast required the formality of a table and chairs and we had neither. Nevertheless, undeterred, we put on our best Salvation Army duds—for him, a purple and red bowling shirt, for me an embroidered schmatta that I thought made me look like a young Joni Mitchell.

And then, for a banqueting table, we unscrewed the hinges and took down the door to the bedroom. We laid one end on the trunk and the other end on the only chair we had. I piled all the festive trimmings of the feast on the door, taking care not to spill too much. And we tucked in.

It was a memorable Thanksgiving. If we missed our families—his in Denver, mine in New York—we didn’t talk about it. We were young adventurers, as grateful as the Pilgrims on their first feast and it all seemed like such rightness to be feasting on our bedroom door.

Needless to say, we talked about that feast for years. And one year, we talked about doing it again. Only by then we were married. We were living near family, and how could we explain that I was going to serve our dinner on a door? Besides, we also had a child. And a high chair. Somehow, taking down the door seemed superfluous. And maybe just a little stupid.

On the other hand, wouldn’t it have made a great tradition?

Because some things, even when only done once, are worth remembering over and over again, with the same purposefulness of an annual ritual.

—Jo Page

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