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Beloved Christmas Traditions

By William Shelton • December 08, 2022

Be it revelry in the commercial consumerism so railed against by Charlie Brown, or a feast of seven fishes, or further still the quiet solemnity, incense, and psaltery organ of a midnight mass service, many different traditions are upheld as we approach Christmas. Over time our traditions have grown beyond religious observations or holiday cuisine (although we should observe a moment of silence in honor of tamales), to also include what television programs we watch, friendly competition around how many lights we can drape over objects both immovable and movable, as well as a fairly new tradition of get-away travel to exotic locations. However you celebrate, it is important to remember that it is the memories you make, for yourself, and more importantly for others, that are the enduring gold we take with us once the eels have been eaten, the lights taken down, and CBS has returned to its regular programming schedule.

How we greet people during the holiday season can be as telling as rubbing your ear while playing Poker. Having studied in London during my university days, it took quite some time before I stopped greeting people with "Happy Christmas" once I returned to the United States. "Happy Holidays" is always a safe bet, but can ring a bit hollow in the season of joy. Thanks to the snappy tune, even we non-Spanish speakers revel in wishing "Feliz Navidad!" to passers-by. Being the first person to call out "Christmas gift!" when meeting an acquaintance on Christmas morning is an old custom in my native region, and it was fun to be awarded a small prize of candy, or a quarter, if you beat the other fellow to the punch.

Music plays an important role in our Christmas traditions. Future historians might very well mark the break in epochs by calling them Before Mariah Carey, or After Mariah Carey. Her famous Christmas song is inescapable from Thanksgiving to Boxing Day. What Christmas would be complete without singing "Grandma Got Runover By a Reindeer," or "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas?" Personally, "Dahoo Dores (Welcome Christmas)" holds first place for me among secular Christmas songs. The decades of the 1980s and 1990s produced many beloved pop songs celebrating Christmas, including Madonna's cover of Eartha Kitt's masterpiece, although I would prefer the '54 convertible, light blue, rather than the outer space model. My most cherished experiences with music at Christmas are the memories of my mother at the piano, blending the 19th century melodies of traditional hymns with a marked boggie woggie beat.

Trimming a Christmas tree is perhaps the one tradition that is a universal part of our celebrations. I have friends who immigrated to the United States from South Africa, and the zeal with which they approach selecting and decorating their Christmas tree is awe inspiring, even though it is not a custom of their Hindu faith. I have another friend who decorates her live tree with scores of flaming candles held in little brass clamps, but then again, she is an opera Soprano and they are fearless by nature. At home, as a child, one of the most exciting events leading up to Christmas was accompanying an elderly aunt into the woods to chop down an Eastern Red Cedar tree for our Christmas. Watching a lady in a dress deftly swing an ax, of course in a manner which Emily Post would approve, was always a sight to behold. Once the tree was stoutly displayed in the parlor we would decorate it with an array of ornaments which knew no social pecking order: a sterling silver snowflake from Neiman Marcus was placed beside a felt covered Santa Claus from the local dime store, while my aunt would tell how during her girlhood in the Great Depression decorating the Christmas tree with strings of popcorn and "snow" made from cotton bolls was de rigueur.

What would the Christmas season be without delicious food? Sugar cookie Fir trees iced and ornamented, gingerbread men with merry raisin eyes, fruitcake suitable not only to be served on the table, but also stout enough to serve as a prop for a wobbly table leg. For some reason candies, both mysterious and delicious, appear around Christmas: Divinity, light as air and topped with walnuts, fudge of chocolate or peanut butter, and the noble Buche de Noel. Who knew a snow and holly covered log could taste so good? While living in New York City I learned of Latkes topped with sour cream and applesauce, which coincide with the celebration of Hanukkah. Therefore, let not the Christmas season pass without a few gastronomic indulgences. Afterall, "...Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat..."

In this season of light and plenty, let's take a page from the playbook shared by Good King Wenceslas and the Ghost of Christmas Present. Need is not solely defined by want of food or material goods, it also takes the form of loneliness and sorrow. Countless people view Christmas as a burden either because they cannot afford to make merry, or perhaps they mourn the loss of people and times passed. A kind word, a smile, a sincere expression of care, these gifts are more priceless than rubies, and are inflation-proof.

Whichever traditions bring added joy to you during the Christmas season, may they be abounding this year. So, join Auntie Mame at the spinet for a few carols, keep your eyes peeled for Rudolph, make Clark Griswold proud when decorating the tree, light a candle in the name of peace, and, oh, pass the tamales please.

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