What Makes a Holiday

It doesn’t matter the holiday, our traditions and rituals always seem to be a seriously important part of them.  The day doesn’t seem properly completed without them.  Some are religious, others cultural and many, family-specific.  Repeating the same behaviors year after year gives us that warm, fuzzy feeling and make our lives feel predictable and safe . . . . even though 2020 felt anything but.

Many were willing, this holiday season, to risk everything to have the traditions and thereby the holiday they’ve always known, but most of us found ways to modify or outright change the way we’ve always done things.  And maybe a fresh look can be a good thing.

I watched footage of some Long Island, NY neighborhoods that were able to continue their much loved traditions as they take place outdoors and are naturally socially distanced as families watch from their separate front lawns.  Bagpipers marched down the street of one town playing The Little Drummer Boy and in another, the local volunteer fire department still drove their shiniest fire truck up and down the streets they serve with Santa Claus sitting atop tossing candy canes generously to delighted children.

Some of the customs in other areas did not fare as well.  A friend who owns an obedience school always has her students visit the local nursing home with their dogs.  There’s usually a demonstration of tricks, some caroling, the delivery of cookies, and of course lots of puppy love to go around to all the residents.  The same fate unfortunately befell the picturesque Northern Virginia town of Middleburg where literally thousands gather to line the streets to see the local hunt clubs lead off the Christmas parade on horseback dressed in their finest equestrian attire surrounded by a bountiful brood of hounds.  The barking, shouts of “Merry Christmas” and clip clop of hooves down Main Street are usually the beginning of a day of hot chocolate and shopping for treasures.  Perhaps next year.

The determined and creative types were still able to find joy in the season by modifying the familiar or, in some cases, trying something totally new.  One family I know always celebrates their own family Christmas the week before with a pajama party (leaving the 25th open for each of them to spend with their in-laws).  They adapted this year with a Zoom party that still included the pj’s, singing, laughing and even a cleverly designed scavenger hunt.  Another family booked a small place for just the four of them on Chincoteague Island for a quieter Christmas with wild horses and freshly harvested oysters.  They can still watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the end of the day, and who knows; they may end up deciding they prefer the hush of the beach and decide to make this their new family tradition.

One young woman and her Mom decided to start a new tradition of their own, after seeing how tough this year has been on so many.  They put together bags of goodies, warm socks, protein bars, masks and a few dollars to keep in the car and hand out to the homeless they see in the course of their everyday travels.

I was delighted, this Christmas, when I heard my own daughters telling my son-in-law to be about us not only putting out cookies and milk for Santa but reindeer food for the team that pulls the sleigh – our own mix of carrots and oats mixed with a little glitter (to make it easier for them to see in the moonlight) that we would sprinkle on the snowy ground just outside our back door.  When he said he had never done anything like that they exclaimed, “You mean you didn’t have magical Christmases like we did?!”  My heart soared.

Of course, the foods we make year after year are also an integral part of our cherished memories.  I knew one man who never let Christmas pass without making Buche de Noël and another who made a Kings Cake right after New Years without fail.  For some, Christmas dinner may be “Thanksgiving, the sequel” or, for one family I met here in Texas, it’s a full day of making fresh tamales for the family.

My own shift in location and lifestyle saw modifications to our holiday patterns too.  Instead of me alone in the kitchen for days in advance, cranking out a multi-course feast, we’ve simplified and scaled down.  Rather than our usual Festa dei Sette Pesci (Feast of the Seven Fishes) on the 24th, we had ceviche and homemade lobster ravioli with a butter sage sauce that we all prepared together.

Christmas day started with Sausage Bread (one of my son-in-laws family traditions that we are more than happy to adopt!) then a dinner of Beef Wellington, roasted winter vegetables and herbed Gruyere popovers that we all had a hand in.  For dessert, there was a brand new set of Christmas cookies we’ve never made before:  Dirty Chai Earthquake Cookies, Lemon Rosemary Cookies with Pistachios, Dried Raspberries and Pomegranate Seeds, Pistachio Thumbprint Cookies and some Texas friendly Gingerbread Cookies.

Sometimes we need to be open to these changes because we’ve gotten older and just can’t do it anymore, it’s become to costly or we just don’t want to add to an already stressful life . . . . . or, you know, there’s a worldwide pandemic.

Whatever your holiday changes or adaptations, you just may discover new ways to make your holidays meaningful with slightly altered or totally new foods or activities that bring you joy.  There are so many ways to delight in special days and the ones we love if we are open and flexible.

The recipe to a happy holiday isn’t like a soufflé where each element has to be there in perfect measure – the temperature and the treatment a delicate dance.  If one piece is slightly amiss, the whole thing flops.  In the end, the where and the how don’t matter nearly as much as the WHO.  If you have dear ones you love and who love you back, that’s the entire recipe right there.

We’ve all been through a hell of a year.  Who knows what the new one will bring.  Who knows where you’ll be, on what you’ll be dining and who you’ll be with, but I hope for each one of us, it’s exquisitely joyful.  We deserve it!


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