To kick off the holiday season, we asked writers, bloggers and Facebook fans to share their family's favorite holiday traditions. Some were, well, traditional (Turkeys! Trees!). Others not so much (Pickles! Antibiotics!). Some date back to childhood; others are beginning for the first time this year. Despite the differences in these rituals, a tradition has been and always will be a bread-crumb trail to our past. So pull the hand-stitched cardigan out of the closet, and cozy up to these holly, jolly essays.
Growing up in Boston with my extended family in Korea meant holiday celebrations required improvisation. Thanksgiving came with turkey, stuffing and a side of kimchee. A random assortment of guests were invited to fill the dining room table, so as to make this whole big to-do seem more warranted for the bigger crowd.
But on Christmas, it was just my parents, my sister and me. And instead of doing another big meal at home, we would find the nicest restaurant that was open on Christmas Eve (not always an easy task), doll ourselves up in our best velour and enjoy a fancy night out. For a little girl, the quiet streets and prix-fixe menus made it all seem extra special.
Now, with a family of my own, our Christmas dinner has switched from fancy restaurant to takeout meal. My kids are lucky to have the benefit of their entire extended family nearby. But whether it's filet mignon or sesame chicken, a family can make anything a time-honored tradition.
-Jeana Lee Tahnk (@JeanaTahnk), a mom of three.
Growing up, Thanksgiving meant football, hanging out with my siblings and watching Dad and Pop-Pop bicker over who got to carve the turkey. Using an ancient family recipe of guilt and passive-aggressive bullying, Pop-Pop usually got his way. In a show of childish one-upmanship, Dad would refuse to eat Pop-Pop's carved bird. Instead, Dad would spend Thanksgiving picking at the turkey's carcass—making everyone that much more uncomfortable. Pop-Pop could have cared less.
It was nice to have strong, sane male role models.
I loved standing at Pop-Pop's knee and watching him carve the turkey. He would slide me little scraps of meat, pretending that it was our little secret. After a 30-year run, age caught up to him and it was time for Pop-Pop to relinquish carving duties. By that point, Dad had lost interest. I was the heir apparent.
While Pop-Pop had always been supportive of my love of cooking, he was oddly ungracious about my carving skills. In hindsight, I realize that Pop-Pop's nitpicking over my carving wasn't about me at all. It was about a proud old man facing his own mortality.
Now, at the ripe old age of 40, I, too, feel protective of my carving role within the family. These days, while Dad watches football from his La-Z-Boy, I quietly slide my daughters little morsels as they sit and watch their proud pop carve the bird.
Last Thanksgiving my 11-year-old nephew, Luca—whip-smart, handsome and funny—suddenly became interested in learning how to carve a turkey. As I carve, I see the older, doughier version of me in the reflection of that carving knife. I wonder how much longer I have before Luca pushes me aside. Looks like another La-Z-Boy may be in order.
Hide the Pickle
When I married my husband, I was introduced to my new favorite game, Hide the Pickle. That sounds wrong. Let me explain: My in-laws hang a pickle ornament on their Christmas tree each year, and whoever finds it gets a lovely coin.
The thinking is that a tiny green pickle in a big green tree is tough to spot. And it is—for amateurs. But I'm Jewish: I've spent my entire life staring at pickles. (I'm pretty sure I had a pickle crib mobile.) For a while, I was killing it. As the others squinted and scrutinized, I'd give the tree a quick once-over and locate the camouflaged Kirby—stat. Year after year, I'd get the coin, while my brothers- and sisters-in-law would politely hide their sour (or half-sour) feelings at my winning streak. Eventually I bowed out, feeling the fight wasn't fair.
Now that we all have kids, we're the spectators. It's my daughters' turn to try to out-pickle their cousins, and they usually don't. Our family today is an even greater mix of beliefs and backgrounds, so in a sweet way, Hide the Pickle is a tribute to our nation's great melting pot. Just fill mine with matzo ball soup.
-Deborah Skolnik, a mother of two.
The Christmas Walkabout
One of my family's most beloved photos features a couple of Christmas trees dangling from a ship's mast at the South Street Seaport in New York City: tiny, festive pines peeking through tangled rigging, their sparkly branches brightening a muted gray sky. It feels akin to Rudolph breaking through the gloom with his small, ruddy nose.
My husband took the picture on Christmas Day 15 years ago, after an impromptu walk with his family over the Brooklyn Bridge. No one remembers who initiated it. As my husband explains, the presents took forever to open, and the inevitable claustrophobia of family in close quarters set in. The serendipitous adventure conjured more Christmas cheer than the usual holiday rigmarole. It's been an annual ritual ever since.
My daughter is only 2, but this year we're establishing our own Christmas walk. Christmas Day can feel a little melancholy, when the only thing left to do is to tear everything apart. Being out when it's quiet, on an open-ended walkabout, seems like the right fix to put the Big Picture into focus again.
Symbolically, it's a bit like the wise men making their pilgrimage to the manger. But instead of looking up and seeing the North Star, it's evergreens suspended in midair. Who knows what we'll see next.
-Shelley Preston (@shelley_life), lives in Orlando.
My Christmases are not how I ever imagined them. I grew up alternating years between my mother and father, dreading guilty Christmas Eve calls to the absent parent, dreaming of “un-divorced” holidays full of big families, spending the whole storybook day in one festive house.
So as you might expect, the reality of a co-parenting Christmas has been a bit of an adjustment. When my ex and I split three years ago, I was worried about how we would make it work. But somehow in dismantling our ten years together, we've assembled our own family tradition, something my 4-year-old son can rely on to be the same, year after year.
He knows that each snowy Christmas morning he will leave my parents' country celebration, having feasted on mounds of meringues and torn countless sheets of wrapping paper asunder. He will board a train and later arrive at my ex's boisterous family feast, greeted by squealing cousins his own age, whom he will chase around the dinner table.
He knows that the next morning, he will spend the day in his plaid pajamas with his parents together, opening gifts we bought separately but present together. He knows that Mama sets up the most beautiful tree, with galaxies of twinkly lights that glimmer of good things, and Daddy decorates charming, candy-filled gingerbread scenes.
Everyone insists that sooner or later, his father or I will tire of this sharing, that one of us will remarry and things will have to change. But this family will always be my first. That's a tradition that never ends.
You've likely been reading story after story of fun, loving holiday traditions. This is not one of those stories. This is about a holiday tradition my family is desperately trying to stop.
It all started when our now 3-year-old daughter contracted the chicken pox on her first Halloween. Our 10-month-old wore a witch costume and countless red spots. That incident set off a string of bad luck for my family that's stretched through every single holiday season since, with at least one, two, or all three of us being sick on either Thanksgiving or Christmas. Bronchitis. Double ear infections. The flu. Sinus infection. Stomach bug. Upper respiratory infection.
But this year we're taking a stand. We will wash our hands and take our vitamins. We will avoid all human contact in October. We will finally be able to see our families during the holidays without the use of Purell and antibiotics. And I bet we break this vicious “tradition” once and for all. I'd shake on it, but you know how that goes.
-Scott Neumyer (@scottneumyer), has written for Wired and Popular Mechanics.
The Turkey Olympics
For most of my boys' lives, we've celebrated Thanksgiving the same way: with grandparents, relatives and friends in our home. My wife, Liz, blankets the table with the bird, the sides and her family's recipe of Irish soda bread. And when all is said and done—the dishes cleaned, the waistbands compromised—we all appreciate the celebration of food and family.
But last Thanksgiving, I snuck out of the house. With thousands of calories waiting to be consumed, it seemed like the perfect morning to log a ten-mile run. I completed the miles, but something just wasn't right: I ran alone.
That's when I decided to contribute more to our Thanksgiving than just cutting the blemishes from the raw potatoes. I want to play. I want to sweat. I want to (mildly) pull a groin. And I want to do so with my boys.
Starting this year, we'll sign up for a turkey trot, or earn our 6 p.m. calories with a 9 a.m. game of hoops. It'll be a new tradition, one I hope they pass on to their families.
I want them to be thankful not only for what they put into their bodies, but also what they get out of them.
-Ted Spiker coauthored You: The Owner's Manual with Mehmet Oz, M.D.
The Wishing Tree
It began when I was in the third grade. I would carefully creep down the hall and turn on the Christmas tree lights. I'd lie beside it and make a wish. They started off so simple. A baby doll; a Barbie dream house. As I got older, they grew deeper. A call from a boy in my class. And more meaningful. Please say it's not malignant. The ritual was all mine. Until last year.
“Come with me,” I said, scooping my 7-year-old daughter from her bed. “What are we doing?” she asked, half-asleep. While I was making my wish that night, it dawned on me that my daughter was deep enough to appreciate this. This was a girl who, at 5 years old, said she was waiting to be born because she always wanted to meet me.
I placed two couch pillows on the floor, guided her to look deep into the blinking lights, and make a private wish. She softly giggled, squeezed my hand and insisted we tell each other what we wished for because we could help each other's wish come true. We breathed our wishes in each other's ears. Me: A safe family ski trip to Lake Placid. Her: A supersize stuffed teddy bear. Yikes! That was not on her list.
-Janene Mascarella, writer.
The 40-Year Itch
The air popcorn popper whirs, producing another large bowl of white kernels. At the kitchen counter, my 6- and 9-year-old daughters sort brown paper bags in various sizes. My husband reads us Thanksgiving trivia from the iPad. Before today, my favorite Thanksgiving was spent alone in bed with a 102°F fever.
Why do we subject ourselves to dysfunctional holidays with relatives? Why did I tolerate the hissed quips from my sister and mom? Obligation and guilt, I suppose. When I turned 40 last year, I realized I could spend the next 40 years dreading the holidays, or start something new: spending the day alone, just us.
I help the girls stuff a large brown bag with popcorn, closing it with a clothespin. We fill two lunch bags with more popcorn, close them with rubber bands and tape them to each side of the large bag. Drumsticks!
We set our “turkey” in the middle of the table, surrounded by glasses of milk and goblets of sparkling juice.
Forty years. That's enough to make anything feel like a tradition. But this year, I believe ours will start to feel like one, too.
The next day, I found a gigantic teddy bear at Marshall's. I drove him home feeling lucky because I know one day her wishes will extend beyond my reach. They will grow as she does—deeper, and more meaningful.
-Melissa Taylor, writer.