Each month, we pitch a new question to our staff and readers. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, email it to us. This month we asked: What are your untraditional holiday traditions?
As families go, I don’t think we had that many traditions. Thursday night was pizza night. We went to New Jersey for the high holidays, except for Christmas, which was spent in Cleveland watching A Christmas Story and eating roast ham. It was sort of a royal sampler of traditions, which I imagine is how most families go about being traditional. But this wasn’t for lack of trying. Every so often my dad would foolishly try to force family-oriented quaintness down our throats by way of family talent shows.
Little did he realize what a vise-like grip TV and video games already had on our attention spans. He had good intentions, but when we put up resistance, it could get awkward. Sometimes it would end in him yelling something like, “You’re going to recite the Gettysburg Address for everybody and that’s final!” If you didn’t think of something to present, then you’d have to do something overly Christmasy, like singing holiday songs in a turtleneck sweater. My brother and I would scramble for any kind of alternative. Sometimes that might mean reciting the lyrics to pop songs in robotic lawyer-speak (MC Hammer always worked well for this). When running out of time one year, I was able to make an entertaining show out of a sock puppet reading from the book Famous Welsh Battles of the 1600s. The lip syncing may not have been perfect and the battles never ended well for the Welsh, but I think it made my dad content to have a holiday not spent watching A Christmas Story for the bajillionth time.
Rule 1 of Christmas Day: The family shall have Fresh Air. There will be Walking. It doesn’t really matter when this happens, but it has to happen at some point. It might be a hill, a beach that someone has carelessly left empty, or a scrap of scrappy woodland. None of us really mind. But there has to be a fresh, face-stinging wind, perhaps a bit of light drizzle. We need weather that makes us feel better about spending the rest of the day stuck inside, consuming consumerism, telly, and food with the relaxed abandon that we only consume them with on Christmas Day. We will probably meet other Christmas Day walkers while out, and we will raise our hats and cheerfully wish them all the merry festives we can muster. As we drive home, we’ll be thinking about Christmas evening. These days, that means Doctor Who and an early night.
It seems like every other year the universe tries to goose us on Thanksgiving—we’ve had fires, emergency room visits, power outages, delayed and canceled flights, death, divorce, and even the edge of a hurricane one year. But it’s also the one holiday my entire family (Jewish and Christian) celebrates in common, and it comes within two months of five of our birthdays, so that’s when we take our heroic measures to get home despite work and weather and exchange the gifts of the year. I totally recommend it—by the time the winter holidays roll around, the chaos is behind us and we can actually enjoy the season.
The holidays in my family are always a show. I mean that: there’s always a show. Once my uncles sang and danced to “Jingle Bell Rock,” once there was about an hour of nonsensical knock-knock jokes told by family members under the age of six, and once we all dug through my five-year-old cousin’s dress-up box and fashioned makeshift Wizard of Oz costumes. My sister wore a leopard-print unitard and a pink tutu around her head and I swear, looked just like the cowardly lion.
The reason there is always a show dates back about 15 years, when my two closest cousins and I started disappearing upstairs in the middle of the family Christmas party, where we’d either play with the Ouija board or choreograph a short dance number. At some point, it occurred to us that our friends and relatives had started to expect us to come downstairs with a show, and so we decided to choreograph something spectacular ahead of time. We met up two days before Christmas and came up with a routine to a poppy holiday song, which we performed as a surprise in the middle of the gift exchange. It is still expected of us (including the “surprise” part). The exhausting 2005 number set to “Feliz Navidad” remains the one to top. I think I lost four pounds just in rehearsals.
I had a co-worker who grew up with the tradition of her family watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? every Thanksgiving. She had no idea how it started but from a fairly young age, she and her sister and parents would watch it. I’ve toyed with doing it in my own family—should my daughter ever think she has horrible parents.
I am not quite sure what the family dynamic was, exactly, that started this—my parents have varying explanations—but December 24th and 25th always find my family in the California desert. It’s almost cold enough for snow at night, except of course there isn’t any moisture in the air to freeze. We drink cocoa out of little plastic cups, and, if it’s a Hanukkah night, light the candles and try to shield them from the wind with our bodies as our dogs try to wiggle in between our legs for warmth. In the morning, it’s cold and clear; the sunrise is spectacular, the Joshua trees are so pretty that I don’t envy anyone their tinsel-covered evergreen, and there’s nobody but us for miles and miles.
For about five years now, my family goes out for Japanese food on Christmas Eve. We are not Japanese. But we love sushi, and we appreciate being the only people in a restaurant beside the kitchen and wait staff. There aren’t any rituals to enact, no gifts to exchange. We eat with chopsticks and talk about local gossip, celebrity gossip, and the death of our respective industries. We are thankful for our food and for each other, but we don’t need a pageant. The end of the ceremony sees my father driving us home while my wife, my sister, and I scream along to FM-band carols, or, more frequently, commercial hip-hop and R&B. We love each other very much, and that’s what counts.
My parents’ dogs play, to my nieces’ and nephews’ delight, an integral part in our family’s annual gift exchange. They get to not only gambol around in the torn paper (we recycle it, promise), but also to rip a lot of the wrapping themselves. Despite the dogs’ all-around chewy, licky, not very decorous oral tendencies, they are surprising deft gift openers. Not once have they ruined anything. A few gifts in, though, they get visibly bored with opening people presents and lay their heads on the carpet despondently until they get their one annual gift each, which they identify by its undeniable rawhide smell. Those presents they have Santa’s permission to maul.
As a tactic for keeping us kids occupied one Thanksgiving afternoon, my parents charged me and my brother with the task of putting on a show for the whole crowd of family and friends. It was such a success that the next year, our family made it a requirement to do some sort of performance if you were one of the lucky ones attending the Walsh-Besecker Thanksgiving Extravaganza. No performance, no turkey. Notable presentations include Celebrity Jeopardy (featuring a dog, Sean Connery, and Hitler), a parody of the Home Shopping Network, plays with cardboard sets and bedazzled costumes, a formal debate on which animal is “the best,” and rousing renditions of baroque recorder tunes. Nowadays, the younger set takes the lead with karaoke versions of Phantom of the Opera songs and interpretive dance. I must say, it’s quite the instant icebreaker when your newly introduced significant other is forced, in front of your entire extended family, to argue with your dad about whether the sheep or the black-footed ferret is the better animal.
My buddy Chris and I dug a turkey hole in his backyard a few years ago. Each year for Thanksgiving, I show up at dawn and start a raging fire in the hole. We drink liquor all morning and feed the flames. After five hours, we sit a butter-rubbed bird up on a Miller High Life that we’ve stuffed with rosemary. We place it in a dutch oven and cover it with a fluffy tent of foil. In a test of drunken manhood, we lower the beast into the scorching pit with our bare arms. Then we cover the hole with wet burlap and dirt. Exactly four hours and countless beers later, the turkey is done. Whoever is less fucked up scrapes the warm soil away, rolls back the burlap, and wrangles the smoking bird, which is balanced atop boiling beer, out of the hole. The meat is exquisitely moist and smokey with earthy overtones, sometimes actual dirt. I think the Pilgrims and Indians would have wanted it this way.
What’s the first dish that comes to mind when you think of Christmas in a shambling farmhouse on the high, flat snow belt of southwestern Ontario? If you said oysters, you’re a wiseass. But you’re also right. In London Township during my great-grandmother’s youth, oyster stew completed her every holiday feast. Four generations later, the recipe hasn’t changed: plain milk/cream broth, nothing floating in it but fresh bivalves and butter. The veil-ripping, blinders-crushing, time’s-golden-aura-sucking internet claims we aren’t the only family with a history of yuletide mollusks. But other recipes call for scary ingredients. Ours has remained pure. Mayonnaise? Not a chance. Celery? Get a haircut, pinko. I live in one of the most diverse culinary cities on the continent, with flavors undreamt of by my ancestors. So I know our humble stew is obsolete. We all know. But, like an antique, we treasure it for what it represents, for what it evokes. And late at night, when hubbub turns to repose, it still tastes pretty damn good.
I’m a condiment person. Some people just are. When I order a sandwich, mustard and mayo come first. Sometimes I eat ketchup packets, plain. At one point when I was five or so, I looked up from my gravy-covered cranberry sauce to announce to the table, “The best part of Thanksgiving is the gravy, because it goes with everything!” It was cute, everyone laughed, and the next year someone brought it up for me to say again. And the year after that, and the year after that—it’s our only tradition. In actuality the best part of Thanksgiving is being together with family, but now with us three kids scattered across the country, the next best thing is to text that old worn-out phrase to my parents’ and sisters’ phones every last Thursday in November. Traditions can adapt, but family stays constant.
After opening presents Christmas morning, we have lunch at a Japanese steakhouse. It’s the only place that’s open, so it’s always packed. Makes for a festive atmosphere!