The Season’s Best Gift
The Traditions We Share
by the Bay Weekly Family
Each year, Bay Weekly dedicates this issue to the season of giving. Yet the best gifts of all are the traditions we share with family and friends, many gathered from the holidays we loved best when the season was full of magic.
Cultural, religious or unique to our families, honored for generations or innovated, our cherished traditions herald the holiday spirit. As that special feeling fills our hearts, we are reminded that it does not come from the decorations at the mall, from holiday commercials or even from opening presents even the perfect ones.
So this year, our gift to you is an anthology of our beloved traditions, past and present, small but meaningful and always treasured. May you read with delight and renewed reverence for your own holiday traditions.
Christmas in a Foreign Land
I spent my first Christmas away from home in Turkey, a Muslim country. It was 1966, and I wrote home: I’m getting kind of excited for Christmas; although there’s some homesickness mixed in. In this land where there’s no external stimulation for the season from store windows, you have to conjure up your own enthusiasm. And we’ve done a pretty good job, if you can accept a Russian rubber tree plant for a Christmas tree with one bright green package under it.
That package was from my mother.
My Peace Corps roommates and I made the best of it. Our Christmas tree was decorated with cardboard circles covered in tinfoil to look like ornamental balls and a garland made of wrapped candy and string. Christmas cards from Turks and family adorned the window nearby.
We took care not to include any religious symbols and invited our fellow Turkish teachers and students over for punch and cookies. I gave a party for girls in my night course to show them Christmas, their Father Noel day, since Saint Nicholas was from Turkey. We played bingo, and I gave Little Lulu comic books for prizes. We sang and listened to Christmas carols.
A Christmas tree and sharing the joy of Christmas with others ended up being what mattered. To help me feel close to home, under the tree was my one gift, wrapped in shiny green paper.
12 Days of Christmas
It’s true that Christmas comes but once a year, but there’s no reason it can’t last a week. After months of planning, we spend 24 hours gorging on treats, tearing into mounds of presents and singing songs at the world’s most elaborate birthday party; then we abruptly revert to normal. The change from festivities to the everyday is jarring, but it can be avoided. Luckily, Three Wise Men arrived late to the party.
My family eases through Christmas withdrawal by celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas. In a tradition begun by my mother the year I was born, 12 presents are reserved from everyone’s stash. Instead of turtledoves, leaping lords and a partridge in a pear tree which I imagine are quite hard to wrap packages of iPod accessories, paperback mysteries and knickknacks gleam under the tree. As a general rule, the presents don’t exceed $20; they are just a little surprise that brightens the end of an ordinary day.
Last year, I suggested that we celebrate the 365 days of Christmas. Who knows how long it actually took the Wise Men to arrive at the manger?
Seek And Ye Shall Find
Growing up with a twin brother in a home where money was in short supply, the rule was learn to share or do without.
Consider this: one bicycle, one BB gun, one basketball and so on. Frustration went with the territory, but at the end of the day, it always worked out. The unwritten rule between us twins was you had to beat the other one to the punch.
In this regard, Christmas meant presents, and when our mother was finished with her shopping, we knew they were somewhere to be found. Impatience always got the best of us, so the race and the challenge was on. We would search high and low, as quickly and quietly as mice until we found her secret hiding place. It changed from year to year, but her favorite was on a shelf way in the back of her bedroom closet. Once we’d found them, we could tear the slightest corner of wrapping paper and identify what was going to be under the tree Christmas morning.
We always hoped for two of the same present, but it rarely happened until we were about 12. There were few surprises under the tree which was fine, because the challenge and competition of the hunt had been met. And we always managed to put on a good show for Mother.
I wonder if she knew.
Christmas Brings out the Child in All of Us
Since there was only Mom, Dad and myself in our family, we didn’t have any Christmas traditions other than my father turning red and hurling incendiary adjectives toward our tree when it wouldn’t stand straight.
Now that I am married to a wonderful woman who has two children, I have joined their family tradition of carefully choosing a fresh tree.
I’ve bought cars in less time.
During the three years we’ve been married, the routine has never varied. Whatever tree my stepdaughter likes, her brother dislikes: It’s ugly, or too short, or too something.
“You’re ugly!” she retorts. Frustrated, she picks up a cutting and swats him in the back of his head.
In retaliation, he beans her with a pinecone, and the battle begins. Just before they come to blows, my wife gets them corralled, makes them choose a tree and we head home for more quality time.
Between them, decorating the tree could lead to a fatality. Did I mention that her kids are in their 20s?
Ah, Christmas, it brings out the child in all of us.
In Mexico, Christmas begins nine days before Christmas Eve which for Mexicans is the big celebration day because Mexicans like to party longer. On December 15, people start getting together every night to have little Christmas parties called posadas. A posada is the journey of Jose and Maria to find a place to spend the night when Jesus was born. During a posada, people act out this journey. The hosts stay inside to welcome the pilgrims with food and hot ponch, while the guests outside sing and hold candles before they come in. In many provincial towns posadas are street festivals.
In, Veracruz, the state where I was born (as was Salma Hayeck), kids get together to go trick or treating from December 16 to 23. They find a small tree branch, fill it with ornaments and go out on the streets asking for candy while singing a song called La Rama (The Branch), accompanied by a tambourine, rattles made from bottle caps on a wire, the ubiquitous glass soda bottle as a maraca and perhaps a guitar all in hopes of receiving an aquinaldo (bonus) of money, mandarin oranges, apples, sugar cane toys or candy. La Rama is sung with as many rhymed quatrains as a singer can make up, each beginning and ending with the same chorus. At the end of the song, they get the candy and go to the next door.
On Christmas Eve, Mexican families and friends go to traditional mass at 11pm, then get together for a traditional dinner: turkey mole, tamales and bunuelos, my favorites, which are like funnel cakes. We also celebrate with ponche; tequila and toritos (mescal, condensed milk and ground peanuts). Everybody gets to help break piñatas.
Every Mexican house has the traditional nacimiento (crèche) under the tree. After dinner, the youngest of the house has the honor of placing baby Jesus in it. Then comes Santa Claus. Christmas morning, children wake up very early and open their presents.
Clara Gonzalez de Hall
Uniting an Ever-Expanding Family
I am part of a large, lively family, with at least 50 relatives in the area. On Christmas Eve, we all gather to eat, laugh and enjoy each others’ company. Someone always plays Santa.
With a family this large, we traditionally practice what we call a Chinese Christmas. Everyone purchases a gift of $25 or less. The gift can be silly, serious or even hand made. Each person is given a ticket with a number on it. When Santa calls out your number, you get to pick a gift and open it. Once you touch a package you must take it; no shaking allowed. After the first gift is unwrapped, everyone to follow can either steal a gift that someone else has already opened or choose a new one from the pile. If you steal a gift from someone, that person gets to choose another.
This goes on for hours, and we always seem to be laughing.
Our other tradition is for our ever-expanding immediate family, plus single friends and friends of our children. On Christmas Day night, we have always had a late evening dinner of lobster, steak and clams, plus a small stocking from Santa for our guests.
Gifts from the Tree
My family has always loved Christmas trees. Perhaps it’s the Druidic background of my Celtic mother who hails from Gourock, Scotland. We have always sought the perfect Christmas tree, the one that speaks to us, and our Christmas trees have always given us gifts. I mean that last statement quite literally.
For as long as I can remember, after the appetizer of the stocking gifts and the main course of the gifts under the tree, there has always been a little last sweet something, a gift from the tree. I now suspect that many Christmases ago, my mother must have overbought and ended up with too many gifts to cram into the stockings. Her solution? She wrapped the little gifts and hid them amongst the tree branches and made them the last, final surprise of the gift-giving day, the gift that came from the tree.
Several decades later, that last little gift is often a gag gift, a trinket, sometimes a special, new tree ornament. For me it is the most memorable of all the gifts. That is because it comes after the hectic emotion-laden part of the holiday and is a simple, gracious last little morsel of a gift, the gift received from our tree.
Davina Grace Hill
Making and Breaking Gingerbread Homes
Every Thanksgiving, our family gathers to mix, cut and bake gingerbread sides, roofs, chimneys, dormer windows, trees and animals, creating houses to give as early Christmas gifts. While the first batch of royal icing cooks, the candy is arrayed on rimmed pans. Sugary fruit-slice candies are a must, coveted for their versatility in decorating and their desirability for eating. Knives and cutting boards are set out and planning begins.
Tiny nonpareils and M&Ms trace geometric patterns on frosted roofs; black-and-white All-Sorts become licorice penguin feathers, raccoon tails and skunk stripes. Storybook characters appear: the three little pigs, Hansel and Gretel, the princess and the pea even Jan Brett’s mitten. Baby Jesus nestles with attendant animals; the nutcracker dances with the Sugar Plum Fairy. Saint Nicolas, resplendent in well-tailored ruby fruit slice, wanders among the trees.
The houses are glued together with ropes of egg white and confectioner’s sugar, then distributed to family and friends. Each family decides when to eat their house, but our tradition has remained sacrosanct.
The house, trees and wildlife reside in our kitchen throughout the holidays, sugar snow dusting the scene. On the 12th day of Christmas, neighbors arrive with hammers. After the requisite photo, the house is smashed into rubble. Eager hands snatch desired pieces and a hush falls as mouths fill. The long wait is finally over.
Dotty Holcomb Doherty
Music for a Holy Night
My Christmas’ most magical moments come at the 11pm Christmas Eve service. I hustle into church, out of the cold, leaving all thoughts of shopping, gifts, wrapping, baking, lines, traveling and traffic outside to freeze. Inside, the warmth of the sanctuary envelops us in a different way at night than on our normal Sunday mornings. The cavernous, reverent space glows with cozy candlelight, familiar faces, rich Advent purple, white Christmas lights, Nativity and evergreen. I settle into calm carols, familiar scriptures, but it’s the soloist singing O Holy Night each year that runs delightful chills down my spine. The song is Christmas in its purest form: love, mystery and peace. Those musical moments brim with the powerful, melancholy, hopeful lyrics and beautifully haunting melody. It’s an old song, but it centers us to the real cause for our celebration: the night our ever-faithful Lord brought His son to us, when divine became human.
I think about the stars that must have filled the sky on that Bethlehem night many of which still shine on our modern-day Christmas Eves then glimmering high above the stable and manger. I think about how this two-millennia-old celebration still makes a difference in our lives today, and I am filled with joy and gratitude. When service wraps up at midnight, it’s Christmas Day, usually very cold and clear. Growing up, that was the time of my least favorite Christmas tradition: My parents would stay to close down the church and clean up until we were the last family to go home, usually around sleepy 1am.
The Twelve Fruitcakes of Christmas
Wherever the Air Force sent us France, Turkey, Japan, Hawaii the fruitcakes followed. My English mother in-law started the fruitcake marathon after she went back to England to visit her relatives. Her native soil must have sparked something in her soul.
Not one for small gestures, she sent us 12 fruitcakes. Her love shone through those cakes. She was not much of a cook otherwise there was not a vegetable she could not beat into submission by boiling it to mush in the English manner. But her fruitcakes were incomparable.
She worked full-time, but come December, the postman delivered a package redolent of ginger, allspice, nutmeg and cloves with a touch of Bourbon for she embraced her new country 12 shining loaves.
Rich and dark, they tasted nothing like the ones you find in the supermarket. They were heavy on currants, which gave them a distinctive tang on the tongue. She ground the fruits and peels, as there were no jewel-like large pieces. As for the nuts, the aromatic black walnuts, finely chopped, were unmistakable. Her secret ingredient? Beef suet, of course.
We loved them. After sharing a few cakes at our annual Christmas party, we still had eight or nine left for the rest of the year. We enjoyed them with tea or as dessert with a little hard sauce. They were as scrumptious in July as in February.
My mother in-law has been gone for 20 years. I’ve tried to replicate her fruitcakes, but something is missing. It must be her special love for all of us.
My Mother’s St. Nicholas Day Doll
So great was my mother’s vitality that inanimate objects took life in her hands. Her gift was most marked with dolls, or so it seemed to me, her only child. Elsa Olivetti Martin worked hard in our family restaurant, or scrubbing behind the fridge with a toothbrush, or cutting the grass, or cooking our enormous Sunday breakfasts and she played hard, so that time with her was precious.
I could sometimes prevail upon her to draw me a paper doll. She was no artist, but her glamour girls, drawings that looked just like her and her friends, beat out the professionally drawn dolls I cut from books and magazines. Energy flowed through them into my solitary games of make-believe.
Occasionally, she’d also make lingerie for my real dolls, led by Tina, who looked like the model for today’s American Girls. Panties and robes would be cut from Mother’s own outmoded silk slips, then finished in lace. Mother was no seamstress, either, but she could do anything, and do it well, I thought. I knew all about how before she left home at 14 to go to work and help support her family her even harder working immigrant mother hadn’t made time to crochet her a sweater for a rare dance. Mother taught herself by picking apart an old sweater and reworking the yarn into the one she imagined.
As Mother sewed, she told me how she’d also cut up her old lingerie to make the nice baby clothes she couldn’t afford for me or buy if she could have afforded them, under war-time rationing. Dressed in her silks, my dolls became real teenage girls like the ones I saw in the movies.
But this is a Christmas story, and the best doll of all in my huge doll family came at Christmas.
Every Christmas or so it seemed; perhaps it was only once or twice my mother would make me a yarn doll. She was simple: a skein of yarn tied twice for waist and head, then cut open at the bottom so the yarn made her skirt. A braid of yarn passed through the open sides of her torso gave her arms. Smaller braids were sewn on for hair, and her face stitched with embroidery floss. She was the only kind of doll my mother had in her own impoverished childhood.
On St. Nicholas Day, December 6, mother would tell me to leave out my shoes for the saint’s visit. In the morning, I’d wake to the doll in my shoe. For months thereafter, until she unraveled, she and I would create our conspiratorial sisterhood.
Sandra Olivetti Martin
In my youth in West Virginia, it was traditional to decorate the graves of family members and to bring cookies to elderly people and shut-ins.
A day or two before Christmas, sometimes on Christmas Eve, my mother would take me along on these errands. As a boy of 10, 11 or 12, I’m sure there were other things I would rather have been doing. Yet it is these visits I remember.
In my mind I see the sky dark at the cemetery, but the graves bright with the green wreaths and the red ribbons leaning against the stones.
After the cemetery, we called on some elderly aunts and my mother’s friend, Jean, who was paralyzed by polio. Jean was always glad to see us. Her room was set up like a hospital room where she breathed with an iron lung. Jean had two children, a boy and a girl near my age. As a child, I wondered what it would be like to have a mother who could only lie in that metal tube attended by a nurse.
Later, when I had my driver’s license, I delivered the wreaths and cookies alone.
Now, years later, many of the Christmas trees, Christmas presents and Christmas dinners have merged in my mind, but one memory stands out. That memory is walking into Jean’s room, seeing her smile and hearing her cheery “Merry Christmas!”
Waiting on the Stairs
Every Christmas morning, my sisters, my brother and I gathered on the steps leading downstairs. A wall blocked our view of the living room, and my mother stood guard at the bottom landing. We could hear my father bustling about the living room next to the Christmas tree we had decorated the day before. We knew that he was tending to last-minute details: setting out, perhaps, that long-awaited new bike or other surprise gifts that had miraculously escaped our pre-Christmas snooping. As we waited for the go-ahead, there was much good-natured joking about coal in stockings and not so many gifts this year.
Born at four-year intervals, we kids represented each stage of youth from toddler to teenager. Thus there were often wiggly little ones to be held in check and drowsy teens to be rousted out of bed to take their places on the steps.
Finally, when all had been arranged below, there was the picture-taking, a complicated affair involving a Polaroid camera and more waiting on the stairs as excitement reached a feverish pitch. Then, it was my mom giving the okay and the mad dash down the stairs. The scene greeting us as we burst into the living room has taken on a magical glow in my memory. The tree, the presents, the smiles on my parents’ faces, the laughter: All of it is wonderful to recall. But the waiting together on the steps that happy anticipation we shared that’s the Christmas tradition I most treasure.
Cathy Conway Miller
The New York Holiday Heartbeat
My favorite holiday tradition is my annual December bus trip to New York City with my Mom. The worst part is getting up at 5am to catch a bus; the best part is bonding time with mom. We talk for hours on the way to the big city.
New York has an energy and excitement that surges through your veins the moment you step onto the busy city streets. There is something spectacular to see everywhere you turn: buildings wrapped up as Christmas packages and 30-foot toy soldiers. It’s hard to know where to begin.
A must-see are the famous windows along Fifth Avenue, where retailers like Lord and Taylor, Saks and Bergdorf Goodman compete for the most animated and creative scenes that tell the tales of the season. The lines are long, but it’s well worth the wait.
Our shopping trip would not be complete without a stop at Macy’s and FAO Schwarz, where vendors demonstrate the hottest new toys of the season. And since I can’t resist a bargain, I also visit the street vendors along the way.
If there’s time, Mom and I go to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. In the past there has been a live nativity scene, complete with camels. And the Rockettes really do kick that high!
Another of our hot spots is Times Squares with its buzzing and flashing lights. I imagine the crowd that will consume the streets after Christmas to celebrate a shining new year.
We bump along in the crowd to Rockefeller Center for the perfect end to the day. Every year the Norway Spruce upwards of 65 feet tall is more magnificent. D.C. may be the nation’s capital, but New York City is its heartbeat. See you next year, New York.
Childhood Christmas mornings began at 5:30am: three sisters scuffing in Santa slippers downstairs, blinded by the bulb atop dad’s eight millimeter. Bacon and scrapple sizzled on the stove, and Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” crackled from the eight-track. “You can’t open presents until after breakfast,” Dad insisted.
He also insisted on buying a long-needle white pine three weeks before Christmas. By Christmas day, the tree’s trimmings sagged below the lowest branches, making it impossible to crawl under and water the dying plant.
“I’ll be sucking up needles with the vacuum until Easter,” my mother protested. “Can’t we buy an artificial tree this year?”
We’d all whine “But the smell of fresh pine …” Dad and his girls always won the tree battle.
Before the present-opening madness, my favorite part of Christmas was digging deep down into the plush, red-velvet stocking with my name scribbled in black marker across a bordered fluff of white cotton. Wishes were granted with Fanny May marshmallow Santas, Lifesaver books and striped ribbon candy. And my favorite: a naval orange for good-luck.
I’ve kept the orange tradition alive with my boys. Last year, my oldest son Richard, my dad’s namesake, pulled an orange from his stocking that revealed a scratchy letter R on the peel. Was it a sign of approval that I’m carrying out my family tradition? The orange is still in my freezer. Merry Christmas!
Holiday Solo Sing-Along
As far back as my fading memory recalls, the holidays began with the first Christmas carol of the season and I sang along with great gusto, at the top of my lungs. I still do. To the dismay of everyone within ear shot.
The holidays traditionally began the day my parents finally let me play Christmas carols. With glee I slid open the top of our hi-fi. The centerpiece of our living room, the maple cabinet housed the turntable on one side and stacks of records on the other. The Christmas albums were always at the back of the stack. I know because I stashed them there the year before. I pulled out each worn record with reverence: The Ray Conniff Singers, Dean Martin’s Christmas Album, and, the best for last, Mitch Miller and the Gang’s Christmas Sing-along. I knew every word and sang along. Over and over again. Until someone in my family finally had enough and lifted the needle off the vinyl.
But the music didn’t stop. I had a backup to the stereophonic carols: A dancing Santa atop a music box. I’d take the pirouetting St. Nick and lay under the Christmas tree where I would quietly sing while Santa twirled:
Dashing through the snow, In a one horse open sleigh, O’er the fields we go, Laughing all the way, Bells on bobtails ring, Making spirits bright, What fun it is to laugh and sing, A sleighing song tonight …
I didn’t have a clue about ringing bells on bobtails and had never dashed through snow, being raised in Southern California. It didn’t matter. The music transported me to a winter wonderland where people skated across frozen ponds and roasted chestnuts on an open fire.
Many years later, after my father’s death, I searched the boxes in his garage for the dancing Santa, hoping it was buried somewhere under a lifetime of accumulated objects. A family member gently reminded me that, a few years before my mother’s death, my parents donated most of their Christmas decorations to charity.
Today as I sing along with Dean Martin, thinking Baby it is cold outside, I hope somewhere a child is lying under a Christmas tree with a twirling little Santa, singing along to Jingle Bells while dreaming of a White Christmas.