My mum wasn’t Italian, but the way she cooked, she could have been! After work, she’d pin on her apron and chop and stir, pound and roll, grate and baste, carve and ice — and sing. She always sang as she cooked, which is why I realized early on that cooking was more than a necessity; it was also her passion and it made her spirits soar.
At Christmastime, the kitchen went into overdrive. Mum was on a mission. It was as if she knew that while my brother and I would barely remember many of the silver-papered packages that bulged beneath the branches of our tinsel tree; we would always treasure the memory of her gastronomic gifts.
And so by 7 a.m. on Christmas Eve, mum’s three-day cooking bonanza (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day) slid into fifth gear with a cacophony of running taps, clattering pans, buzzing electric utensils and the tired groan of the oven as mum reopened it again.
That day the kitchen was fragrant with her baking, as soup bubbled, sausage rolls crisped and mince pies were pulled from the oven like a magician materializing a rabbit from his hat.
I’d dine on mince pies several times that Christmas Eve; the light dust of icing sugar over pastry — like frost on rooftops, the dollop of thick cream was our dream of snow. Later, I’d arrive home from mass in the dark, birthing hour of Christmas morning, shivering with cold and excitement, mind bright with the story of Christ’s nativity and heat another; nibbling slowly, savoring its warm, spicy fruit and my thrill for the upcoming day.
With the dawning of Christmas morning, mum achieved military focus — eyes on the egg timer, eyes on the oven timer, eyes on the clock and hands busy as she stormed her kitchen, her apron flying like a pennant above her holiday best.
I’d skip back from Christmas day service — the bells pealing through the still air, the vicar’s holy joy ringing in my ears — to find our dining room table magically transformed. Cluttered ordinariness was replaced by cut glass and shining silverware atop a bright tablecloth; bottles of wine fought for space alongside plates with festive napkins and fruit and nuts.
Eventually, mum would emerge from her steaming grotto to unveil the first course. And as she presented that rich, vegetable soup dotted with snowflakes of cream, my brother and I would explode our Christmas crackers, exclaiming at the sewing kits and nail clippers and cheap plastic games and bright paper crowns they had hidden in their cardboard midst. Dad insisted that we wore those crowns and I’d don mine for him, pink-faced, as it slid over my eyes and clashed with my clothes.
Once the soup was eaten, mum would whip away our empty bowls and replace them with plates brimming with crisped potatoes, golden parsnips, carrots with glaze and sprouts with almonds. And at the center, succulent turkey adorned with stuffing and ornamented with tiny chipolatas. I’d drizzle the sauces (gravy and bread sauce, cranberry and mustard) Pollock-style. And even as I tucked in, tantalizing thoughts of her home-made Christmas pudding, black with fruit and heavy as lead, reminded me to feast slowly and leave room for more.
Then there was silence in the kitchen.
And the dining room hummed with the sounds of our eating and murmurs of contentment as we set aside the year’s differences and difficulties, the highs and the lows, and rediscovered our family unity, which had arrived perfectly wrapped in the sanctity of the season and my mother’s culinary love.
Establish your own traditions
The holidays are a wonderful time for your family to establish your own traditions and rituals that will grow to become time-honored and meaningful for everyone.
What do we mean by traditions or rituals? Megan Cox, author of The Book of New Family Traditions, describes them as “any activity you purposefully repeat together as a family that includes heightened attentiveness and something extra that lifts life above the ordinary ruts.” And whether traditions are built around the trimming of the tree, the lighting of the menorah, the sharing of gifts, religious attendance, or around the meals you enjoy, rituals and traditions serve an important role in bringing the family together and reminding each individual of their love and bond.
Traditions are especially important to our spirited kids’ development, for they support children through the changes of the season and the changes in their lives and provide a buffer of rote and constancy. Traditions also anchor kids into the family by providing them with a sense of their family identity: this is what we do and this is what we value. And rituals and traditions help open up communication channels and build connections between younger and older family members as they enjoy meaningful moments and create happy memories together.
As Barbara H. Fiese, Thomas J. Tomcho, Michael Douglas, Kimberly Josephs, Scott Poltrock and Tim Baker summarize in A Review of 50 Years of Research on Naturally Occurring Family Routines and Rituals, traditions provide kids with the “comfort of commitment, cohesion and continuity.” Little wonder then that, as Dr. Michael Schwarzchild notes, “All human cultures in all times, in all places, have celebrated traditions!” Traditions are simply good for us all!
So, if you are a new family, a newly blended family, or a family that has been heavy on holiday hecticness and light on holiday ritual, make a change this season. Embrace a few, new traditions that will personalize your holidays and enhance your own family brand, so that you and your children will want to practice and appreciate them for years to come.
How do you make new traditions? Think spirit! Activities that raise your spirits, create family oneness and are a blessing for everyone involved also are the activities that you will want to repeat; then they will become as treasured a part of the holidays as caroling and kinaras and latkes and Christmas trees.
So, consider some of these suggestions, and have the brightest, most beautiful holiday season ever:
- Choose a charity to support — Our family kicks off our holiday season by writing Christmas cards to every child at the Tennyson Center (a home for abused and neglected kids in Denver). We sit at the kitchen table through most of November and write the cards together. We think about the kids, share what we’ve written and drawn, and hope that each child will enjoy the gift we post inside. Our tradition — nine-years old this Christmas — unites us as a family, reminds us of our blessings, and teaches us all that no matter who you are, you can make a difference in the life of another. So embrace your own “Holiday Giving Tradition” and inspire your family to team-up and give out and make every December one to remember!
- Kids bake cookies — Kids love to cook. So don’t make those holiday cookies yourself. Call in the kids and have them bake them, bag them and hand them out as gifts to neighbors and friends. Over the years, try new recipes, take photos and enjoy the ritual of a spirited cook!
- Light a candle, say a prayer — Come December, buy a candle for the family to light at dinner time and say a prayer a day for the millions of children around the world who are dealing with hardships, such as hunger and homelessness, war or disease or abuse and neglect. This is an easy holiday ritual to honor, and one filled with love.
- Family photos — Every Christmas Eve our family visits the mall to take Santa holiday photos. We treasure seeing our kids grow from year to year. However, if annual Santa photos are too costly, start your own holiday series at home. Grab the grandparents and your kids and take a picture. Print them out and put them in a little frame for everyone to enjoy. It’s a simple tradition to start and both grandparents and kids will know, heart, mind and soul, how much you care!
- Attend a service anywhere — get into the holiday spirit by attending a religious service. Though my husband was christened in the Church of England and my kids attend Catholic school and I have a more universal approach to religion, we all attend children’s service at a local Lutheran church come Christmas Eve. There we listen to the minister, sing carols, pray and (most importantly) we share in the joy of Christmas with the other members of the congregation. This annual ritual reminds us that, while we may all follow slightly different spiritual paths, they are a part of one magnificent road that unifies us all and leads us upwards, on a journey that is simply divine.
Wishing you all a Happy Holiday!
50-Year Study of Family Ritual
Family Holiday Rituals
Importance of Family Tradition
Parenting Tools and Traditions
Meaningful Traditions for Kids
Creative Holiday Traditions