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Holiday Traditions

Posted Dec 30 2010 8:31am

Every family has holiday traditions. We learn them from our parents – as they probably did from their parents - pass them on to our children with annual repetition, perhaps inventing some new ones along the way, or drop some that don't seem to work anymore.

Before the season ends, it might be fun to share our rituals. I'll start.

When I was a kid Christmas began the day after Thanksgiving when my mother and I made round cookies she called Mexican Wedding Cakes, that gained their sweetness from being rolled in powdered sugar while still warm from the oven.

Then they sat in decorated tins until they “cured,” and we ate them throughout Christmas week. I have done that myself ever since as gifts, and I'm always careful to save plenty for me.

Decorating the tree was an evening ritual about a week before the big day. Dad strung the lights and Mom was exacting about how the ornaments were hung. My favorite was a glass bugle that really tooted. We added tinsel last and Mom was a demon about adding one piece at a time carefully draped over the tree limbs – no throwing it at the tree. Does anyone use tinsel anymore?

Sometimes we strung popcorn and cranberries for the tree too. And I recall making Christmas cards with colored paper and pens, cutouts, glue and glitter.

Each year, Mom made a holiday scene on the mantle with candles (never for burning) in the shapes of carolers, fir trees, reindeer and Santa. The only overtly religious item was a white church about a foot tall with red cellophane windows that glowed when the light was turned on. We could wind up the music box inside that played Silent Night.

We opened our gifts on Christmas Eve, but not until after dinner. It is amazing how long grownups can linger over coffee. My anticipation was excruciating but still, they dawdled and talked and no amount of begging - “Can't I open just one, now, Mom, pleeeeze” - would move them.

It took until I was well into adulthood to figure out they probably did that deliberately.

We had stockings on Christmas morning from “Santa” and sometimes those little gifts were even better than the big packages the night before.

The tree stayed up until New Years' Day and every year, as we put away the ornaments, Mom commented that she had a friend who loved Christmas so much she left up her tree until Valentine's Day.

With my brother and Isa this year, we repeated the gift opening on Christmas Eve after dinner and they had made stockings for us for Christmas morning.

This holiday made no impression on me – that I remember – as a kid. I vaguely recall that my parents sometimes held a grownup party that didn't start until my brother and I were in bed.

It's been nearly 40 years since I last “celebrated” on New Year's Eve by going out. I clearly remember what caused me to give up parties away from home.

A friend had asked me to accompany him to his cousin's annual “gala” dinner - a dress-up affair at her penthouse on Park Avenue that was always reported on the society pages of The New York Times.

Family obligations required him to attend, he said (he didn't sound happy about it), and because he was not “out” to his family, having a woman with him would help alleviate the kinds of questions he got when he attended these affairs alone.

I told Ken that even in my fanciest evening clothes, I would be under-dressed, but he said not to worry; it wouldn't matter – these were not his favorite relatives. I did look terrific for a glittering evening by my standards, but not Park Avenue's.

The apartment was right out of Architectural Digest, perfect in the way of the very rich. Waiters glided about with hors d'oeuvres and champagne, candles shimmered in every room and the three Christmas trees were gorgeous enough for the windows of Bergdorf's.

Diamonds, emeralds and rubies dripped from the ears and throats of the women in dresses that undoubtedly cost several months' worth of my salary.

The men in their tuxedos gathered in the wood-paneled library. From what I overheard, they talked entirely about stocks and Wall Street. I didn't have much to say with the women either – their conversation was mostly gossip about people whose names I knew only from newspapers and glossy magazines at the hair dresser's shop.

I thought it was odd that except for dinner, no one ever sat down. The meal was exquisite, of course, and I enjoyed every bite.

For me, the evening was a rare peek into a world I'd seen only in movies or read about in books. But it wasn't my world and I was relieved when Ken whispered, “Let's get out of here and go downtown.”

I know, I know, you're waiting for the tradition part of this story.

The weather that New Year's Eve was bitter cold, threatening snow when Ken and I left the Village. But he'd picked me up in a taxi, so no walking was involved. By the time we left, however, the wind was gusting and snow was falling and – what else is new on New Year's Eve – not a taxi in sight.

There was nothing to do but walk to the subway – 10 or 12 blocks from where we were – with me in my strappy, sexy, high-heeled shoes and a light, ankle-length, evening coat.

It was the longest walk of my life. Every time I stepped off a curb, the hem of my coat got further soaked and slapped against my heels. My feet hurt and my toes turned numb. The wind was icy against my face and as far as I could tell, my nose had fallen off.

I thought I couldn't be more miserable until we waited on the freezing subway platform for nearly an hour before a train arrived.

When I finally got home, I soaked in a hot bath for another hour.

And that's when I decided never again. It's always cold in December and there will never – until the end of time - be an available taxi on New Year's Eve.

So I invented a tradition from which I have never strayed in all the years since then.

I prepare a special meal just for me – something I don't eat often because of cost or health. Lobster or foie gras or, once, a full-blown banana split with three kinds of ice cream, hot caramel sauce, nuts, home-made whipped cream and a cherry on top. This year it will be wine- and maple-cured salmon I bought last week in Astoria.

Always, too, there is a book to read, something I've been looking forward to. A favorite author's latest novel, maybe, or just a fun mystery. And I'm always asleep before midnight – I wouldn't think of watching the new year arrive on television.

Occasionally, no more than half a dozen times through all these years, I've had company – a current boyfriend or other friend in town who is staying with me. Even then, I insist on the ritual – a wonderful meal and good book – a quiet evening they are welcome to share.

Nothing can entice me to leave the house. I love my private, little ritual and I cannot imagine spending New Years any other way.

Now it's your turn. What are your traditions for Christmas and New Years or a special one you particularly like to recall.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Terry Hamburg: Grooowing Sleepy

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