December 23, 2011

What Are Your Most Treasured Holiday Traditions?

Happy Christmas Eve eve, friends! Are you up to your neck in wrapping and bows? Are you buried under sacks of sugar and flour? Well, as long as you’re captive, I’ve got a little holiday tale.

A couple weeks back, I cashed in a very generous gift certificate. On a Friday evening, after a particularly bad week, I walked into a very fancy spa in a hotel. I was the only one there, so I headed to the snack area in my robe and grabbed more than my fair share of almonds and dried apricots. I hurried back to the “heat experience” room, eager to wring out every dollar’s worth of the whirlpool and sauna. Beaten by jets, pores purified, I let a woman named Karen attack the knots in my neck and shoulders. Afterward, I climbed back into my clothes, feeling as sleepy and relaxed as a baby whose been driven around in the car until she falls asleep. And while I waited for the elevator to take me back down to reality, I was transfixed by the scene in the hotel bar. It was crowded, high above the glittering lights of the city and the dark trees of Central Park. Women were holding glasses of champagne and little handbags that cost as much as my rent. You know when someone just looks expensive? It was like I was seeing dollar signs everywhere I looked, on ring fingers, hanging from earlobes, in slim martini glasses being knocked back one after another. It all started to make me sad.

Let me explain: I was very lucky to have received such a luxurious gift, and I was grateful for it. At the same time, I realized that in my own life I was regularly participating in an exchange I wasn’t sure I liked very much. My time for money; my money for things to make me feel better. Spending mindfully on objects and experiences that enrich our lives is one thing. But pissing away dollars to make up for the fact that we’re stressed, that we’re tired, that we work too hard and take too little care of ourselves––it’s a cycle all too easy to get caught up in. And there I was.

Which brings me to Christmas. There’s plenty of noise this time of year about buying. There are sales to go to, coworkers and family members to buy for; the list is long. And actually, I meant to get caught up in the whole tinsel-y shebang. Instead, I got a cold, and my shopping plans went out the window. Rather than thank a particular friend for all she’d done for me this year with something extravagant––or even something homemade––I stopped into a deli one night on my way to see her. I bought an amaryllis. It was a quiet gift, and I finally got what Emerson meant about fruit, flowers, and gifts of the self being acceptable gifts: “Flowers, because they are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world.”

What is the point of all this long-windedness? Only, I suppose, that there are things money can buy that are worth more than their cost, and that this seems especially important to remember this time of year: the bunch of greens and a chicken that become dinner for people you love; a Christmas tree that warms a corner of a little Brooklyn apartment; paperwhite bulbs, rooted in soil and shooting up bright stalks in the dark December evenings. This is what so many of us love about the holidays. That our beloved traditions, repeated over the years with intention, become imbued with meaning.

What I want for Christmas is our annual Christmas Eve Mexican Fiesta: icy margaritas, a giant bowl of guacamole, my mom’s chile con queso, and my little brother’s incomparable chicken enchiladas. We stand around in the kitchen by the fireplace and eat and drink; it’s the most convivial moment of the holidays, and my hands down favorite. After that, I want a cozy New Year’s Eve that celebrates all our blessings of the past year and glows with all the possibility of the one ahead. And somewhere in between, I want a new tradition to hold tight just between my husband and me.

They can be grand or quiet, easy or involved, but what do come back to year after year with excitement? What traditions help make this season meaningful?

And happy, happy holidays to you, friends. Thank you for being part of what made this year meaningful to me. In the days ahead, I hope there are plenty of moments of joy, gratitude, warmth, deliciousness, relaxation––and plenty of outright fun.

Images from Peter Spier’s Christmas

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  • Tina: Just wanted to tell you that the illustrations in this post are as lovely as the words:) I decided many moons ago to give up that whole notion over stressing over things that are of little to no importance. I so cherish just being with people I love – whether that is with traditional foods or not, whether that involves a gift exchange or not. The prettiness of my tree, the fact that smiles are abounding with family and friends, the joy of just being with my family and having some time off to relax are enough:)

    Merry Christmas!6 years ago

  • Cadi: Happy Christmas Eve eve to you too, Sarah! I’ll admit, I poked in here just now and said a silent prayer that you would have something beautiful to say about the rush and rumble of the Christmas season – and here it is. I needed this. Love, love, love this.

    I look forward to decorating our tree and our mantel above our fireplace each year; the house dark except for the glow of the lights slowly winding their way up the tree, the cat chasing them as they drag across the floor, a cold glass of champagne to keep the festivities going, and a warm fire in the hearth, Charlie Brown Christmas playing in the background. That’s my favorite tradition: lighting a small corner of my wine country bungalow with the glow of something special.

    Well, that and the pitchers of Ramos fizzes that we drink while we open presents on Christmas morning. Because in our family, there can be no presents without the presence of a gin fizz. Period.

    Its so true that money can buy things that are worth more than they cost, and Emerson, yes, Emerson! Thank you for the reminder that this is what the Christmas season should be about (and not so much about that last minute crappy gift card for the person you forgot).

    Speaking of long winded, whew! Better leave room for some other folks. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you, Sarah!6 years ago

  • Sara Rose: Absolutely perfect. We got a bit too carried away this year and really, I’m none too pleased. I would have much rathered have STUCK TO MY guns of simplicity, quietude, and remembering gratitude and blessings. Instead, I really got too carried away. Sigh. And I feel burnt out. But this was perfection and a wonderful reminder.6 years ago

  • Melissa: Ya I agree…the ladies with the ‘spensive clutches may actually only be celebrating themselves…who knows? Mr. Hausfrau and I have a few treasured traditions that come to mind: hawaiian-meatball dinner with my Swiss-Canadian family on Christmas Eve, booking a Saturday night in December to go into Downtown Vancouver to look at the amazing shop windows with our two young children, and refusing to bake (I make a very low-tech apricot, nut + chocolate cluster batch every year tho…)! Happy, merry holidays to you and your family, Sarah.6 years ago

  • Kelly: I too, forgot the impact of the more “quiet” gifts, until I baked about 6 dozen cookies for friends and family this year. It felt great to give something homemade, and the gifts were so well received. Just makes you remember, it’s not always about “the gift” itself, but rather the spirit of Christmas. Merry Christmas Sarah!6 years ago

  • Doris: Dear Sarah,
    Happy Christmas Eve to you. Here in Germany we unwrap our gifts on Christmas Eve, so I am spending a few moments here before “Bescherung”. 🙂 Our holiday tradition is to meet my husband’s kids and his brother and girlfriend for brunch on Christmas Eve. Well, not really brunch but Weisswurst, which is a very Bavarian thing. Boy, it was stress this morning to get out of bed, run the last few errands (we had totally neglected the fact that we did not have any candles for our Christmas tree!), go to Munich and get to my husband’s daughter’s place. But it was a fun morning with laughter and great company. Tonight it is just us, plus our cat who is eager to go explore the Christmas tree. We will have a quiet evening, and I will be thankful for many, many things that happened this past year. This last week was mainly stressful with work and getting everything ready for the holidays, but I feel I can unwind now. 🙂
    Merry Christmas to you all.6 years ago

  • Today I’ve been rushing to pack and get of town. Reading these comments settled me right back down and reminded me of everything I’m so, so grateful for. Ladies, you are a fine bunch indeed! Thank you as always for being such a wise, thoughtful bunch!6 years ago

  • MrsB: Merry Merry Christmas, Sarah! Some years are tougher than others….but don’t we just grow through them?! I have so enjoyed reading your blog. Soulful, inspiring and honest x much love Mrs B x6 years ago

  • Amy: On Christmas eve my husband reads ‘the night before Christmas to our two little boys.On Christmas morning wherever we are my husband and I open a bottle of champagne and share a glass. With our Christmas dinner we have mulled wine sorbet (Delia smith recipe) after our starter and before our turkey. All these things are ours, special, year after year. Have a lovely Christmas xx6 years ago

  • Mel: Hi Sarah, thanks for writing this post – it was a wonderful piece to read on Christmas Day!

    This year I have found myself sickened by the materialism and blind gluttony that some people get into, too – the other day I found myself in a store with people pushing others, swearing and muttering and I was getting more and more annoyed by the minute when suddenly it dawned on me that I… could opt out. So opt out I did. This year I have given just one gift, a few cards and cookies and decided to give my time where I can… and took a long walk in the countryside, no glitz, no glamour, no bling… and it… was wonderful. I feel like life should be celebrated in all its ordinariness/special-ness every single day.

    I had sushi with my folks. We made it ourselves at home. Simplicity, time with loved ones… my sort of Christmas!6 years ago

  • Doris: Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.

    ~Norman Vincent Peale

    🙂6 years ago

  • cristina: very much feeling the “quiet” gifts, too. got a little carried away and burnt out – though merriment was had by all. but when i realized I was spending half our xmas party still cooking ambitious dishes instead of spending quality time with our guests, i made a new resolution to manage my own expectations of being a great hostess and focus more on being a better friend. still it was a wonderful time and i am so grateful for many blessings. thanks for your blog – it is an oasis of coziness in a digital world : )6 years ago

  • Lana: Love. This. Post.
    That’s all. 🙂
    Merry Christmas, to you!6 years ago

  • EB: I started something this year that I’m pretty sure I’m going to be doing as a tradition from here on out. Instead of gifts, I gave my friends little wooden tokens that are “Good For One Homecooked Meal.” I did it because I’m on a tight budget like most of us and I figured this was a good way to spread out the cost of ‘gifts’ throughout the next few months. My friends LOVED their ‘gift’. Requests for certain dishes poured in– they really were excited. The friends I bought things for (and not given a token) were bummed out when they heard. I told them that of course, the more the merrier and that they were welcome to join when the tokens were cashed in.6 years ago

  • Michelle: I am big into traditions and my husband sweetly goes along. My German-American family does the big shebang on Christmas Eve, leaving Christmas Day quiet. Thus we decided to leisurely open presents, watch basketball and make pizza. This is our first Christmas as a married couple and it went very well, so I think we have found our Christmas Day tradition.6 years ago

  • Ivana: I’m from Macedonia, and Orthodox Christian, so we celebrate Christmas on 7th January (Julian calendar). We have a saying, ‘Wherever you are, be home for Christmas’. On Christmas Eve we gather around a table with food that has no meat or animal products, because it’s lent. We have baked trout (for some reason fish is not considered as meat here…) baked beans, boiled potatoes, roasted carrots and cauliflower, walnuts, mandarins, boiled chestnuts…Then we symbolically invite God to dine with us and my father then brakes the round bread I made previously and see who gets the coin hidden in it. It’s supposed to give luck. The bread is made with no yeast, just a tea spoon of soda bicarbonate. We eat and leave the table as so until morning. We do not exchange gifts. We go to church in the morning and listen to the liturgy and light candles. Then on Christmas Day we feast on roast pork, potato salad, red wine, home made rolls and brioche with raisins for desert. My favourite tradition for Christmas is making the little soda bread. It’s easy, and I get to hide the coin 🙂 Happy Christmas everyone!6 years ago

  • Doris: Ivana,
    Thank you for sharing the insights on an Orthodox Christian Christmas Eve, this is really interesting. 🙂
    Happy Christmas to you!6 years ago

  • Margaret: Love Doris’ Pale quotation above! And I love that people have found this space to stop and say lovely things to each other. Now it’s time to spread that circle of support and care out a little farther for the new year, right, gals? That’ll be my goal, alongside a whole lot of new hopes I’m nurturing from seedlings…happy holidays, PoP Readers!6 years ago

  • Roxanne: My favorite tradition is one that my husband and I started after we got married. About midway through November we order a bunch of goodies from the Holland Shopping Center down in Vancouver, BC. When it arrives we open one thing to ease the cravings while the rest of it goes and hides in a cupboard until Christmas Eve. It’s one of the things we look forward to all year long, because it’s the only time we get them 🙂6 years ago

  • Lana: I hope that you have a great New Year! I am so thankful that I stumbled across your blog and can’t wait to hear what your resolutions are going to be!6 years ago

  • Kelly Jeanne: I’m 29, and Christmas still wouldn’t be Christmas without a viewing of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” My mom taped it when it ran on PBS when I was young, and it remains the most beautiful, funny, well-done Christmas film I’ve ever seen. We watch it on Christmas Eve, right before bedtime. Amazingly, it’s out on DVD now: years ago

  • Jenn: The last few years family finances have been too tight for us to buy presents for one another. It has turned out to be one of the best Christmas presents of all to NOT have to deal with the stress and the mess of buying an appropriate gift for everyone. Instead, I had ample time to decorate my house, hang out with family, and prepare a yummy Christmas day feast for all of those I hold near and dear. And of course, no Christmas would be complete without watching Love Actually and the Muppet’s Christmas Carol.6 years ago

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