My first grader came home with a project called “My Holiday Customs and Traditions.” It included a list of questions to answer about how our family spends the holidays and a requirement to make a poster to accompany an in-class presentation. The underlying theme is to celebrate differences in both the holidays celebrated and the traditions that the families have created for themselves.
As I helped him start to work on his project, one of the first questions was “During this special time we _______________.” I asked him which of our family traditions he would like to include. He couldn’t think of anything. It wasn’t that he was being an uncooperative six-year-old, but he actually could not identify anything that we do as a family that was a recognizable “tradition” in the context of the project. Examples from the teacher were sentences like “My family eats polenta on Christmas Eve because my mom got the recipe from my Italian grandmother.” As I prodded him more, he still could not come up with anything.
It made me a little sad because I thought that I had created a holiday season rich with experiences for our family over the years. We do not live near family, so have had to cultivate our own season of traditions. His responses led me to think that nothing we had done together as a family meant anything to him. He finally decided that “Brunch with the Grinch” – an event we have attended for several years.
Thinking back to when I was growing up, Christmas was always picturesque. The coulee where I lived would typically be blanketed in snow. We had a mound in our front yard and a nice, steep hill across the street on my aunt and uncle’s land where we could go sledding. My mom always decorated our 100-year-old farmhouse so that it looked like something out of a Christmas catalog – not a room left untouched. We would always visit Rotary Lights, a spectacular light display in Riverside Park. With an impressively large display, to this day I have not seen anything that rivals it, even living in much bigger cities. We also had a VHS of Christmas movies that my mom had taped from TV with such treasures like “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” and “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Because we were so far from town, the quality of the picture was often subject to the signal strength of the antenna on top of our house. I have a copy of the movies, burned to a DVD that my kids now watch. Probably the best part is the inclusion of 1980s commercials, including the Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial and McDonald’s talking McNuggets in puppet form.
On Christmas Eve, we would drive up to the end of the coulee and my aunt and uncle’s house for oyster stew. Over the years, we would sometimes do Christmas gift exchanges, and my cousin would do a reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Lora’s Sugar Cookies were always a staple, a recipe from my mom’s piano teacher, a huge batch of dozens of cookies because everyone swore that the recipe could not be cut in half. On Christmas morning, we would wake to a loud blast of holiday music coming from my dad’s record player. He would position speakers from the upstairs master bedroom over the grates that connected the upper and lower levels of the farmhouse to enhance the effect in the living room below where the tree (a real one) stood in all its glory.
As I grew older and moved away from home, I tried to capture all of that magic of the coulee Christmas wherever I went. I bought decorations for my first college apartment from Pier 1 Imports, at a time when I probably should have been buying more important things like food. Ger and I would continue to travel to my aunt’s house for oyster stew on Christmas Eve, staying at my parents’ house overnight. Even as our own family expanded to include Theo and Quentin, and we moved farther away to Madison and then Illinois, we still made the trip every year.
Then my parents moved to Arizona and sold the farmhouse. The trip became more complicated as well when Theo became more aware of his surroundings and the idea of sneaking Santa presents in the trunk of the car for the drive to Wisconsin seemed risky. It was time to stay home and form our own holiday traditions.
While Quentin may not yet appreciate, below is a list of everything that I love doing for the holidays. It is only beginning last year and this year that I began to find ways to honor Nelle and Iris as well. The first years were just too painful and I was also navigating pregnancy after the holidays – too stressed to think of anything else.
Our Family Holiday Traditions:
- I decorate, with my collection growing every year. We always do this on the Friday after Thanksgiving, with a whole day dedicated to the huge switch that must occur as I put away the “everyday” and Fall decor and haul out boxes and boxes of Christmas decorations. Ger is in charge of putting up the (artificial) tree and adding ornaments with the kids. This year, I added another, smaller tree to our master bedroom that is going to be our “travel tree” bearing souvenir ornament from our adventures when we travel together as a family. So far it only has a few, but over the years it should become quite the interesting tree.
- Our Elf on the Shelf – Daniel – arrives that night, bringing Christmas pajamas for the kids and also copies of the award-winning books of the year: the Caldecott medal, the Newbery Medal, the Michael L. Printz award, and the Pulitzer prize. We move that damn elf every day until Christmas, but the kids love finding him each morning.
- We visit the Museum of Science and Industry in early December every year, usually with friends, to see the Christmas Trees Around the World display.
- We have done Brunch with the Grinch in mid-December at a local country club for several years. The food is spectacular, the old 1966 movie is playing on large screens in the background, and at the end of the meal the Grinch himself makes an appearance. Last year I messed up and tickets were sold out so we did Brunch with Santa at the zoo instead but it paled in comparison to the Grinch event.
- We always attempt a gingerbread house, usually with Epic Fail as a caption. Trader Joe’s sells kits but one year they were sold out so I had to get a kit from Target. It arrived with broken pieces which we ended up trying to hold together with packaging tape. Sometimes we pose a toy dinosaur next to the house as an explanation for its appearance.
- Every night during the season, we gather around the tree. Lights off in the living room so that only the tree is glowing. We take turns choosing a Christmas carol to sing. This started as a result of the Grinch movie, when the Whos gather around the tree on Christmas morning, singing, and one of the kids thought that it would be fun to stand around our tree, holding hands, doing the same. I must say that I am the only person who knows ALL of the words to the Christmas songs.
- On December 23rd, we do Christmas Movie Night. Sometimes with friends, sometimes alone, but always with one of those big tins of holiday popcorn sold in stores.
- On December 24th, once it is dark, we pile the kids into the van, in their pajamas, and drive around following a Google Map of houses that have such elaborate light displays that they are paying more for their electric bills in December than I am paying for my mortgage. We stay snuggly warm in the car and oooh and ahhhh over the lights. After, we go to a restaurant for dinner, usually something simple. The one year that we tried to go to a “fancy” restaurant, we ended up waiting two hours for our food, even with arriving at 4:45 and having a reservation.
- On Christmas morning, the kids are allowed to wake up as early as they would like, an exception to the otherwise “stay in your rooms until 6:30” rule. The same with when I was growing up, Santa does not wrap presents. I instill a policy with gifts of “one thing you want, one thing you need, one thing to wear, one thing to read, and one thing to share.” Daniel already took care of the “wear and read” with his appearance earlier in the month, so Santa will bring a want, need, and gift for the kids to share. “Mom and Dad” will give one gift also, usually also a shared gift. Stockings are simple with an ornament, pair of Christmas socks, and one of those candy canes filled with M&Ms. We lounge around the day doing practically nothing except watching the infamous Burgess Family Christmas Videos on DVD, but then try to cook a special meal for dinner.
For Nelle and Iris:
- I have a tiny tree added to the mirrored tray where I keep their footprints on display. It has three ornaments: two with their names and birthdates, and one made by a friend in honor of her son, Andrew, who was stillborn. The ornaments with their names were almost a disaster when I ordered them last year, as for some reason they were shipped separately and Iris’s ornament was lost in the mail. I frantically tried to order another one from Pottery Barn, only to find that it was no longer available for the year, with no guarantees that it would return the following year. I was devastated, but then, by some Christmas miracle, the ornament arrived after Christmas.
- On the tray I also put a tiny winter rocking horse, a reminder of the childhood that they never had.
- Birds have become my way to symbolize their absence in our home by becoming a presence. I start with Thanksgiving and two carved wooden birds that sit on our table. For Christmas, this year I added two small winter birds that sit atop a box where I keep ultrasound photos, cards, my hospital bracelets, and other small items I have for them.
- For gifts, I always make a donation in their names during the holidays season to the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep foundation. Even though we opted not to do photos of either of the girls, I want other parents to have the option of photos with their precious children, the only family photos they will ever have.
So there, six-year-old. Take your pick from all of the traditions I have created for your school presentation.