The holidays are defined by traditions.
One of my favorites is the arrival of the Restoration Hardware Holiday “Sourcebook,” which is a snooty synonym for “catalog.” I remember when this mall staple had a Mayberry hardware store vibe, where you could drop four grand on a roll-top desk and pick up a few Moon Pies at the cash register on the way out. Now the brand resembles the mournful sparseness of the mausoleum interior from the cult horror flick Phantasm.
When did decorating for the holidays become so somber? Flip through the pages of “melancholiday” home decor ("This candle holder was meticulously hand carved from weathered casket wood..."), and you half expect Angus Scrimm to appear behind you and scream, “Ho! Ho! Ho! The funeral is about to begin!"
It makes great kindling—the smell of smoldering pretentiousness always reminds me of December.
Speaking of pretentiousness, the cringe worthy "Lexus December to Remember" commercials have returned, and manufacturers of giant red bows have been doubling shifts and working overtime to meet the demand. Just once I’d like to come home with a $70,000 car wrapped in a bow and surprise my wife, just to see her reaction. It wouldn’t be giddy elation, I assure you.
But the traditions that define us don’t arrive in the mail or pop up on cable; it’s the weird stuff only your family understands. The misfit traditions that you don't necessarily plan or acknowledge, but the holidays just wouldn’t be the same without them.
Like the Three Wolf Moon Christmas sweaters your Aunt Edie bought for everyone seven years ago when she and Uncle Gordon stopped at Wall Drug on their way to Branson, MO. She’s always lived on a fixed income, but when she saw these next to the crochet toilet seat covers, she couldn’t resist splurging for her family.
And when she walks in the door Christmas morning, you had better be wearing yours or she’ll be crushed. Besides, rumor has it she made a fortune when she sold her secret cobbler recipe to Betty Crocker, so you’ll want to stay in her good graces come inheritance time.
Or your cousin Dave who always brings a new, younger girlfriend and a bottle of Dewar’s White Label that somehow never makes it to the dinner table. Long before the ham is out of the oven, the increasingly louder sound of ice clinking coming from the family room is a signal that he’s slurring through his seasonal diatribe about how everyone thinks they’re better than him, and “I’m not tashin my shoos off jus' 'cause your mom was stoopid nuff’ to buy white carpets, and I woulda been in the big leagues if I hadn’t gotten pancreatitis after high school and...”
That’s your mom’s cue to chase the dog off the couch and move the pillows because Cousin Dave is going to be taking a little nap before dinner. Twenty-six years and he hasn’t made it through a meal yet.
But that’s the good stuff. Those are the moments (however dysfunctional) that make the holiday special, that make it personal, that make it yours.
My extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins, consiglieres) used to gather at my beloved Nonna’s split-level ranch for Christmas Day dinner, all of us crammed in the basement at a long, rambling assemblage of mismatched card tables lined up like derailed boxcars surrounded by folding chairs. The volume in that room rivaled that of a Slayer concert, and it wasn’t the kids who were making all the noise.
For most families the holidays are a time to set aside petty grievances and focus on fellowship and love. In our family it meant the relative you’ve been mad at all year was sitting across the table so you had the perfect opportunity to tell him to his face exactly what you thought. At any one moment there were 30 such conversations occurring simultaneously (English and Italian) while the wine flowed and the temperature reached a muggy 86 degrees from the heat of all the accusations.
At least one (and usually three) of my aunts would succumb to the cacophony and require someone’s assistance to reach a plastic-sheathed couch upstairs to lie down—that is until dinner was over and it was time for bingo. Then a miraculous healing breeze would sweep the house, and the same relatives who were earlier overcome with weakness would spring back to life from the living room and descend into the basement faster then a pat of butter across a hot skillet. The medicinal powers of the plastic spinning drum of bingo numbers is legendary in my family.
Anyone attending as a guest (especially if they didn’t speak Italian) would have thought they had stumbled into Parliament in the Ukraine. But we didn’t know any different. This was our normal, our tradition.
I’ve never known a Christmas Day where my grandfather didn’t spend half the afternoon sobbing alone at the kitchen table because he knew this was going to be the last time the family would ever be together while he was still alive. From the time I was in grade school straight through college, he would be planted in the same chair, overcome with raw emotion and soaking in every last moment of the family swirling around him. He was oblivious to the fact that after several decades of waiting for the reaper to spoil the party, he was still there.
Usually all it took was a hug from a grandchild to snap my grandfather out of his melancholy and he would take his place at the head of the table, playing referee in case things started to get out of hand.
His presence at the head of that table is the one tradition I miss the most.
Its also a tradition my children never got to experience, so we’ve tried hard over the years to create some new ones for them to look forward to. Last year we celebrated Thanksgiving at our house, and I was hoping that would be our new tradition. Unfortunately it seems impossible to recreate anything consistently year after year anymore. Marriages, divorces, job relocations and the passage of time have all conspired to make the holidays a patchwork assemblage every year, just like that line of tables in my Nonna’s basement.
Thanksgiving morning found us packed into the minivan for a featureless eight-hour drive to Erie, PA, to celebrate the holidays as the pilgrims did—at a buffet in a casino (don’t ask). Nothing says Happy Thanksgiving like drinking Yuengling Ale and dropping your bank roll at the three-card table.
But there's hope on the horizon. Christmas Day is just around the corner and “Joy,” the Elf on a Shelf, has assumed his role as conflict mediator for the kids, who wouldn’t dare bicker or disobey within his watchful gaze. His annual appearance on bookcases, wood casings above doorways and the occasional light fixture is a new holiday tradition around our house. It’s not as strange as fainting aunts or the healing powers of bingo, but its a tradition the kids look forward to.
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