In my travels, one of the few things that caused alarming homesickness was missing out on family traditions. Being in Kingston this year means we can, if desired, share some of our favourite traditions again. This month, my kids, my sisters and I are celebrating the season together. All week, we’ve been discussing family traditions to a level of near euphoria and it makes me wonder why these things hold so much value. I think I understand it a little, after the past two years.
I think family traditions reinforce stability. They’re things you expect to find, like a landmark in a familiar place or a welcoming face in your hometown, your pet dog or cat’s enthusiastic greeting. When expectations are met, you feel that all is right with the world. It gives the same sense of satisfaction as comfort food, and prepares you mentally and spiritually to go out and do good. Your soul is fed.
Our family was big on building traditions when the kids were little. We had a Jesse tree to count down the days of the month, as well as a (fake) Christmas tree. The tree was decorated with either hand-me-downs from our parents or handmade objects that family members contributed each year. Having musical roots, we all sang in choirs, and kept a huge range of Christmas-related tunes on the radio and players. The kids knew all the words from an early age.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas Eve, the kitchen was constantly busy with holiday baking. We liked our squares and our baked puddings. I loved making mincemeat pies and apple pies and pumpkin pies. Over the years, we discovered several Christmas cookies that became necessities if the season were to be properly feted: Amaretti Biscuits, Snowballs, Cherry Balls, Gingerbread, Shortbread, Thumbprint Cookies, Sugar Cookies. Last weekend, Meg and I spent a companionable afternoon making Candy Cane Shortbread cookies, as well as Candy Cane – Chocolate tree ornaments. Just being with my daughter in the kitchen was rejuvenating.
With these ornaments, you place two canes into a heart shape on a cookie sheet and heat them to soften. Press the ends together to form a solid heart. Mug appropriately for the camera.
Melt chocolate and pour it into the form on the parchment paper. Let the chocolate harden in place, et voila!
One Christmas morning in my youth, I was forced to endure breakfast before opening gifts. It was torture. As a result, I wanted my kids to be able to do both at the same time, so I always served hard-boiled eggs and a special, homemade Christmas bread, things we could nibble on while we sat on the floor together and opened gifts. One of the first conversations my daughter and I had this month, when she had invited me to celebrate Christmas morning in her new home, was the bread.
“What do you want for breakfast?” she asked me hesitantly.
“Well,” I texted, also with some hesitation, (not wanting to step on any of their new, married-life traditions) “We could have bread.”
“Yes, please!” she texted right back. “I have the recipe in that cookbook you made me!”
When she’d gone away to university in Ottawa ten years ago, one of my gifts to her had been a handmade, personally designed cookbook of all the family favourites. I’d forgotten that the Russian Kulich that they both loved was included.
“Yay!” I responded, relieved. Not only did I want to see this tradition continued, but I was eager to contribute my part to the festivities. Besides, I’ve been hankering to bake bread.
Finally, my children’s favourite tradition has always been the stockings. When the kids were small, I knitted four stockings, one for each of us. Our stockings always included small, functional items that addressed the small, often unrecognized needs we all had—socks, desk calendars, bars of soap and favourite sweets. You felt someone had noticed with these gifts of things you wouldn’t normally ask for. There’s an intimacy to our stocking stuffers. Now that the kids are adults, the stuffed stockings have become the main focus of the morning.
We’ve become serious in our intent to build community with the items with which we stuff our stockings. For instance, yesterday I was directed to visit Living Rooms, a favourite shop of ours, to collect a specific item. On Christmas morning, my daughter’s focus won’t be to see who gets the most. Instead, it will be about including as many local businesses as we can. After all, it’s in our best interest to ensure those shops are still around in 2014.
Over the years, my daughter has become a champion stocking-stuffer. Last year, her enthusiasm worked its magic on Matt, her new husband. He made her a stocking of his own, out of masking tape. I adore its weirdness.
New traditions are as welcome as the old stand-bys, because they too encompass the sense of community, affection and landmarking time and place. Matt’s stocking will have the same regenerative powers this Christmas morning.