Holiday Traditions

by Alafair Burke

As we approach Christmas, I’ve been thinking about holiday traditions.  Holidays are probably most exciting for children.  At least for children who celebrate Chirstmas, what could possibly be better than Santa Claus, a reindeer-powered sleigh, surprise toys, and pretty, shiny decorations everywhere? 

But maybe children love Christmas more than adults because they don’t have any responsibility for it.  As a child, Christmas just… happens.  Kids don’t have to schedule vacation.  School just stops.  They don’t have to buy the tree and haul the decorations out from storage.  They don’t have to mail Christmas cards or plan the holiday menu.  Stuff just magically appears.  Like Santa.

But for grown ups, Christmas could simply be a date on a calendar.  Particular for the self-employed, like writers, it could even be just another day at work. 

My husband and I don’t have children.  We both work.  We have our routines.  And it would be so easy — tempting even — to just skip Christmas.

But I refuse.  Maybe it’s the memories of Christmas as a child, but I still need my holiday.  I wish little elves (or maybe some less creepy type of minions) would show up magically under cover of night and make Christmas happen, but it takes effort — and not only from me, but the people around me.  And so many of the efforts we make during the holiday season come from tradition.  Sure, some of these traditions are collective — decorated trees, stockings, and egg nog.  But many are created by families over generations or develop instantaneously because of some memorable moment that we want to continue to recreate.

Here are some of my holiday traditions.

Tree Night

I know.  Most of us who celebrate Christmas have the usual tree.  But my husband and I skipped the tree business for a couple of years because floor space in Manhattan is precious, and setting up a tree is a pain in the ass.  But a few years ago, we had dinner at one of our favorite neighborhood joints, Knickerbocker Bar & Grill, and something about the season hit us.  The restaurant was decorated with traditional white lights and garland.  Diners carried shopping bags filled with wrapped presents.  There was talk of an early snow.  We passed a row of Christmas trees outside the Asian deli next door, and I knew I needed to have a tree at home again.  We paid our cash, each grabbed one end of the tree, and dragged that bad boy up University Drive to our apartment.  Each year since, we always go to the same restaurant and deli for tree night.


Christmas Tree 2010

It’s not the best looking tree, but it contains memories.  I bought those red velvet bows at a drug store in Portland when I was too poor in college to buy ornaments but desperately wanted a tree.  That angel came from a landscaping store in Buffalo and was too tacky to ignore.  That sad-looking plastic shrub on the cabinet served as our tree for those two years we skipped the real thing, so still gets a place in the apartment next to its larger, more authentic sister.

Turkey Frying

Before I met my husband, I prided myself on my turkey-roasting abilities.  I stuffed the bird.  I basted every 15 minutes.  I monitored the temperature like a worried mother.  But then I met a boy who was fascinated by turkey friers.  I discovered an electric version that could be used indoors or out.  I bought said boy a turkey frier, a turkey, and 13 Manhattan-grocery-store sized jars of peanut oil for Christmas.  Our apartment smelled like french fries for three days (not that that’s a bad thing).

That boy’s now my husband, and we now have fried turkey at Christmas. 

The Music

I have bad taste in music. Well, I don’t think it’s bad, but I’ve been told by enough people that it’s bad that I’ve come to accept that description.  My bad taste in music is also reflected in my choice of Christmas tunes.  I don’t listen to the classics.  They’re classics to me, mind you, but apparently not to others.  I love Christmas songs by pop stars.  The PretendersU2Mariah CareyMadonna. The Waitresses (even though I spent years thinking this song was by Bananarama.)  Elton JohnWhamHarry Connick, Jr.  John Cougar.  Mellencamp.  Whatever.  Bing Crosby & David Bowie (though I dare anyone to say this isn’t classic, enough so to be spoofed in this version). 

And every Christmas season, I listen to the Band Aid effort, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” until my husband’s ears bleed.

The Movies

Sure, I’m a sucker for TV’s the Grinch and Charlie Brown’s Christmas, but when it comes to movies, here again, I eschew the classics for more recent and less overtly Christmas-y fare. 

Home Alone. 

The Ref. 


I watch these movies every single year at least once.

And every year, I have to watch at least this scene from “Scrooge.”  Thank you very much, Albert Finney.

Texas Grapefruit

My paternal grandmother sent us all the same gift every year: a box of Texas grapefruit and chunk of Havarti cheese.  She passed away at the age of 101 two autumns ago, but to my surprise, that familiar yellow Pittman & Davis box arrived in the mail the following December and showed up again last week.  My parents have been placing the orders, and my hope is that decades from now my nieces and nephews will be exchanging Texas grapefruits and Havarti for reasons they aren’t even sure of.

Christmas Eve

We spend Christmas Eve with my sister-in-law’s family so we can wake up at the crack of dawn to the sound of our eager nieces running down the stairs to discover that Santa did, in fact, arrive.  We open presents in our jammies, and our dog, the Duffer, gets his own stocking.

Speaking of Duffer, he has also become a part of our Christmas card tradition.  We love those photo cards people send out of their children so decided to replicate the effort with our dog, the Duffer.   The pictures were originally intended to be ironic, but I confess to finding intense joy in them now.  This year, his photo is with PetCo Santa Claus.  Neither of them looks very happy to be there.

So what are your holiday traditions?

29 thoughts on “Holiday Traditions

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Alafair

    I agree that neither the Duffer nor Pet Santa look particularly happy to be there, but it's been my experience that dogs on your lap are not too careful about where they put their feet, and maybe the Duffer's heard rumours about the predilections of some Bad Santas. Just asking …

    We don't really have many Christmas traditions, except December is the time we tend to have a long-running game of oversize Scrabble on the go, and we tend to get through an inordinate number of mince pies. Last year, we decided to have Christmas dinner (in the evening, rather than lunchtime) and preferred it, so we're doing that again this year, and maybe that has now become a tradition. It certainly leaves the day free and stops Christmas afternoon disappearing into the nap of the over-indulged ;-]

    Happy Holidays!

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    My husband and I don't have kids either but both sets of our parents live in the same town with us so Christmas has been split between them. In my family, the tradition was to open presents on Christmas Eve (Santa brought a little something something the next morning) so we spend Eve with them and Day with his parents if they're in town (they have grandkids now in other states so sometimes not here).
    Also in my family, my dad's Norwegian heritage had precedence. We would make/eat krumkaka (a vanilla cookie shaped like a tube), yulekaka (a Christmas bread), and lefse. Mom would also make peanutbutter cookies with chocolate stars pressed into them (not my favorite, I don't like peanutbutter cookies).
    Christmas memories: my favorite gift ever was a drum kit — than my cousin put a hole in on Christmas Day. One Christmas I got some walkie talkies and while using them with my sister a man's voice came on and "This is Santa; I'm going home now." It wasn't my dad. And I remember every Christmas Eve going to church and then dad driving us home the long way to look at lights while we're agonizing in the back seat to go home and open presents.
    Christmas jobs: Ever managed a kids' photography studio at Christmas where there's three hour waits and not happy parents/screaming kids? Yup. Been there. The best Christmas job is at a jewelry store – guys are desperate to buy ANYTHING.
    Now, I'll be having Christmas Eve off (yay State job!) and we'll spend a mostly relaxing weekend with some family but not everyone. I hope everyone who is traveling for the week stay safe.

  3. J.D. Rhoades

    Our traditions: the ride out to look at the lights and displays, usually culminating at Bobs Pizza out in Skyline, which has a display you can probably see from space.

    Our traditional Christmas Eve meal is my wife's amazing lasagna. We usually have my parents over for that, and then go see Lynn's folks the day after Christmas, because I'm pretty insistent on spending Christmas Day at our house (otherwise, how will Santa find us?)

  4. Karen in Ohio

    It's been so many years since I've had havarti; I used to see it at the grocery store, but have not noticed it in a long time. Will have to look for it and take it for Christmas this year.

    What is a tradition, anyway? The only traditional thing about the holidays I've had is that they change all the time, and what one family member thinks is "traditional" is what another family member firmly believes was a one-off event. I can't say that we do any one thing every single year, except that my husband hardly stirs to lift a finger or buy a gift, if you want to call that a tradition. 🙂

    I have two families, thanks to being single for eight years in between marriages, and the things we did for the holidays the second time changed dramatically from what we did the first time, and also from during the time I was single. Now my second family has grown and left home for their own places, and they are making their own traditions, usually elsewhere. They all come here for Thanksgiving, but unless we travel to them we don't see the kids on Christmas. I'm a little sad about that, and this year have done so little to decorate because there won't be anyone here to see it but us. However, my grandson is in kindergarten, and my oldest daughter and son-in-law are working towards giving him memories to hold onto every year, and we're doing our best to help with them.

    The person who is most upset with this change in events is my mother, who loves Christmas so much you would think she still believes in Santa Claus.

  5. PK the Bookeemonster

    Movies: Other than the usual suspects (Rudolph, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Charlie Brown Christmas, Grinch), there used to be a movie every year that I somehow watched every time it was on tv. It was called The Gathering and starred Edward Asner and Maureen Stapleton. "When Adam Thornton learns that he only has a little time left, he decides that he wants to make peace with his family. Only problem is that most of his family are not exactly fond of him because he walked out on his wife and of his stubborn nature. But Adam goes to his wife to help have a last Christmas." Cheesy, for sure, but it marked Christmas for me.

  6. Sylvia

    You are correct in that kids have it easy for Christmas 🙂 I have three ages 10 and under and let me tell you, they are magically pleased at "how easy" Christmas is. I love your tree but where is the Nutella ornament?

    Here are some traditions and modifications…

    Tree night(s) – I hated doing the Christmas tree because it was a mess and push of one night. I now spread it over three nights. Night one is picking out the tree and bringing it home to setup. Night two is lights. Night three is ornaments.

    I do fuss with the ornaments letting the kids put them where they want and then moving them when they go back to the box for more. Last year I cried when we put the ornament up for my dog Lucy was was 13 1/2 and we knew wouldn't last another year. This year when we pulled out Lucy's ornament, the entire family cried. All three nights must have my cheesy Christmas music.

    Christmas music: I've had more CD's over the years from "A Swoony, Croony Christmas" to whatever the last Pottery Barn Christmas CD was. I really need to burn the CD's so all of this is on my iPod.

    Stockings: We all have stockings although mine never has received so much as a discarded pine needle. Even the dog has a stocking. Stockings are Christmas Eve and must have new pajamas in them + cheesy items from the $1 bins at Target, Cost Plus and anyplace else I can find.

    Visiting Santa: Waiting in line, with the list(s). The kids have decided this year that they want one gift each (it was coordinated, they all want Wii games) until the 5 year-old broke ranks and made her own list … but the other two kids can't know. It's a secret and "I'm 5 so the elves really love me"

    Food: I wish I could say we have a traditional Christmas dinner but after Thanksgiving the house crowd is tired of turkey. This year I'm trying "Asada Negro" a Venezuelan roast that has a thick, sugary crust on it. We'll see. And for the record, I do get Texas Grapefruit cast-offs from a friend that I promptly use to make chocolate-covered grapefruit skins. Sounds odd but quite tasty.

    Swimming: Yes, I said it. Swimming. There is a Santa's Ho-Ho-Ho Alcatraz swim on Christmas Day that I've always wanted to go on but my husband has this strange thought that the kids would know if I wasn't around Christmas morning. Really? I'll settle for swimming Christmas Eve.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year?

  7. Becky LeJeune

    Yes! We get Texas grapefruit and pecans every Christmas from my grandmother as well. And are never able to eat through all of them!

    We've yet to start our own traditions. We've been together for six years and are now married, but each year it's up in the air until the last minute as to whether we'll be in Colorado or Louisiana. LA traditions include Christmas Eve at his folks house for pizza and one gift at my house that afternoon. Christmas day in pjs hanging with my sisters.

    If we're in CO, we invite all of our friends who are in town and cook Christmas dinner.

  8. MJ

    AWESOME! The Duffer's argyle sweater is so debonaire! And, yeah, Santa looks like he's planning to knock over a liquor store later but so what….

  9. Lorena

    I think I have good taste in music, but that Christmas song from the Waitresses is one of my favorites–have you ever noticed how depressing so much Christmas music is? I mean, really. That one is nicely upbeat and I love the element of fate in it. Other favorites for Christmas include the Nutcracker and The Brian Setzer Orchestra's "Dig that Crazy Christmas." The rest of the year I'm completely normal, I swear. This year, with car repairs and the move looming, I've also had "Santa Baby" on my mind 🙂

    I'm single, and this year and last I was in the middle of moves, so decorating has been last minute (last year) or not at all (this year–I move on January 8, and it just doesn't look the same to decorate while there are piles of cartons everywhere. Although I suppose I could wrap the moving boxes in Christmas wrap….). For the same reason, I didn't bake cookies this year either. Most years, though, I bake the same cookies we baked when I was a kid from (mostly) my (German heritage) grandmother's recipes, with one from my parents' Swedish landlady when they were first married. Dozens of Springerle, Lebkuchen, Pepparkaker, and Kris Kringle, along with gingerbread men and sometimes real gingerbread (made with Guinness!) which then get mostly packed up and sent off to family members. We completely ignore the English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh elements of the family for this one.

    Movies: I will watch Christmas Carol with George C Scott every time it's on. Every year at work one of my coworkers brings in a Jim Henson movie called "Emmett Otter's Jug Band Christmas," and that's become a tradition in our department, along with a couple of the old claymation movies–we take a long lunch and watch kids movies 🙂

  10. Debbie

    Alafair, that is my all time favourite Christmas carol. Thanks for posting it )Crosby and Bowie).

    When I had a family of my own, I wanted traditions that focused on my faith and family. I think my mother-in-law has the same romantic notions, but to be honest, the whole family thing just stresses my husband and I beyond endurance as we anticipate someone losing it, or pushing anothers buttons until it all becomes uncomfortable. We do a family charity where my in-laws all donate one hundred per family, pool the money and one of us chooses the charity, explains our choice (and gets the tax write off).

    y mother-in-law wants to begin a new tradition this year and I'm romantically excited…in other words, I expect that my expectations will leave me feeling let down. We don't attend our own church for Christmas Eve, rather, we visit ones where my children attended summer camps, a friend from school invited them…. So the new tradition? My in-laws are going to attend the church of our choice (this year will be theres). I'm baking with the kids this week, will play carols, and hope to read Luke 2 as a family. Then my daughter will play piano and we'll sing a few carols together. I might let the kids sleep under the tree because for us Christmas is for giving to those in need, and I'm sorry, but as tight as finances are, we're not truely in need. I have bought only two gifts this year, one for a dying friend, and another as a surprise that will arrive in the mail, probably shortly after the holiday, with the hope of cheering low spirits.

    Alafair, thanks for sharing your traditions. I'm enjoying the celebrations in everybody's comments and will check back throughout the day. 🙂

  11. Alafair Burke

    I was just a-blather to my husband about all the stuff we have to do before this weekend. He was like "Why are you suddenly obsessed with Christmas?" It's all y'all's fault! These comments are putting me into the holiday spirit. And making me hungry.

    PK, I can't believe anyone gave a child a drum set. My guess is your parents were happy your cousin punched a hole in it.

    Zoe and MJ, Love your interpretations of those facial expressions from Duffer and Santa. Maybe I should have a caption contest for that photograph.

  12. Rae

    My traditions have changed and morphed over the years – people's kids growing up and moving on, new friends coming into my life, etc etc. The one thing I'm adamant about is no stress. I refuse to participate in any part of Christmas that causes me a moment of heartburn. So, my traditions are pretty simple: something fun on Christmas Eve, with a couple of friends. And I get to do whatever I want on Christmas Day: lay around and watch sports, clean the house, visit people – whatever I'm in the mood for.

    Movies/videos I always watch during the season: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, White Christmas, Home Alone, Charlie Brown Christmas, The Thin Man.

    Music I always listen to: Nat King Cole; A Very Special Christmas; Ella Fitzgerald; Perry Como; some fab jazz Christmas records.

    (…and love the Albert Finney 😉

  13. Torrent Download

    It was called The Gathering and starred Edward Asner and Maureen Stapleton. "When Adam Thornton learns that he only has a little time left, he decides that he wants to make peace with his family. Only problem is that most of his family are not exactly fond of him because he walked out on his wife and of his stubborn nature. But Adam goes to his wife to help have a last Christmas." Cheesy, for sure, but it marked Christmas for me.

  14. JT Ellison

    We don't have kids either, and for the past two years, I haven't done a tree, mostly because the cat gets into it, eats it, then gets sick all over the house, leaving little green presents behind. Not worth it. But I also noticed that I got really, really down the past two years. Granted, there was a lot of personal stuff going on, but I think not havig a tree definitely affected me. So this year, in the middle of deadline, I got a wild hair and made Randy bring in the tree. He put lights up outside, I put it together and decorated (yes, it's fake, Jade would go insane with a fresh tree.) I hung the stockings. Put out my Nutcracker collection. We had a fire. And my mood has been pretty damn good for the whole month. So there's something to this, I'm convinced. And it snowed, which really, really helped.

    On Christmas Eve, we always burn bayberry candles in remembrance of those who can't be with us anymore. And go to mass. I like to watch IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, that just makes it all complete. I have Rudolph and Charlie Brown on the DVR for Chrstimas Eve eve. We're splitting things up between the families, but Chritsmas day with my folks, we'll have a glorious turkey dinner. I can't wait!

    Highly recommend Grog Nog too – Jerry Sailor spiced rum in low-fat eggnog, topped with a dash of cinammon. Lethally yummy.

    Merry Christmas to you and the Duffer!

  15. Kim C

    Love Christmas Wrapping by the Waitresses! Though I usually gravitate towards the version by Save Ferris. More of a Chanukah song, but so very LA.

    Growing up we celebrated with my mother's relatives on Christmas Eve, rotating homes each year. Not sure when it became a tradition, probably when I was an infant, but it has carried on over the years, even as cousins moved away and my Grandparents passed away. This year we're breaking with tradition and my parents and sister are visiting my brother and I in LA. Not sure what we're going to do in place of our usual Christmas Eve tradition. Christmas Day has always been reserved for the immediate family so I can only assume we'll be spending that as we usually do, watching television and eating lots of junk food.

  16. lil Gluckstern

    I love Duffer's sweater; Santa looks like he wants to be anywhere else. I really like your pictures. Your big tree looks pretty big for an apartment, and is lovely. I live in a studio now so I decorate the doors, and take out all my Xmas thingies and put them out like your little tree. I'm experimenting this year-BBC America has a Doctor Who Christmas Carol on. Should be interesting. I play carols a lot because I love the music. I grew up in New York City, and it is magic at this time of year. Enjoy.

  17. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    My kids have definitely got me more into the holiday traditions. Every night of Hannukah is now celebrated with lighting the candles, singing, dancing around the apartment with our dog. And watching the movie "Elf," which is a big…uh…Hannukah treat.

  18. Ginni

    Love your Christmas memories, Alafair!

    My family's best Christmas tradition was when my father (a union electrician) would take an afternoon off from work about 2 weeks before Christmas and my sisters and I would be taken out of school for the rest of the day and we'd go into Boston to the Enchanted Village, which was set up on one whole floor of the Jordan Marsh department store. The song I associate with the Enchanted Village is "Sleigh Ride" by the Boston Pops (at that time, directed by the great Arthur Fiedler). We would go through the Enchanted Village, visit Santa Claus, wander through the toy department and look at the Christmas displays in the store windows in down town Boston. If the weather was not too cold, we'd walk through the Boston Common and the Public Gardens to see the lights, and sometimes we'd get all the way to the Prudential Center to see the Christmas tree. The best part was going to Bailey's for ice cream, and sometimes, to the North End for pizza and Italian food at the end of the day.

    Sadly, Bailey's and Jordan Marsh are now gone, and while there is a re-creation of the Enchanted Village at Jordan's Furniture, it's just not quite the same. And my dad is gone now, too – the saddest part of all. But – lot's of fun memories

  19. Alafair Burke

    Kim, I don't think I even realized those were two different versions, but, like I said, I also thought I'd been listening to Bananarama all these years. Now I'm in the know.

    Pari, I like the Pogues and hadn't heard that before. Thanks.

    And thanks, everyone, for sharing all the Christmas memories. I also love Elf (and have already watched it this year). We are staying in tonight, so it might be time for Home Alone!

  20. Dru

    Thanks for sharing your Christmas traditions with us.

    I don't have one and I normally don't decorate since no one is going to see it but me. But this year I found a cute little tinsel tree and I smile when I see it sitting on my bookshelf.

    One of the first music I like to listen to is the Jackson 5 Christmas album, Mariah Carey's and now Glee's Christmas album.

    Merry Christmas!

  21. Alafair Burke

    Glee has a Christmas album? Wow, they have no concerns about being over exposed, do they?

    So we did stay in for movie night but I couldn't find my DVD of Home Alone! We are tivo'ing it tonight to watch later this week, but we did watch The Ref. I've seen it at least 12 times, and I really don't care. I still love it. We were finished early so wound up watching the next movie in our Netflix queue, "Tony Manero." An indictment of Chile in the Pinochet years, it was definitely not the light Christmas fare I was craving.

  22. Laura

    Oh I love Christmas… the decorating, the gift giving, the movies, the carols!!! The one thing I don't like about Christmas is the fact I work in retail… a nightmare! (But a fantastic season to hand sell books! Particularly when customers are in a rush and will take whatever you put in front of them…)
    So Christmas is stressful! My sister just moved out so that will change Christmas – and I'm single for the first time in years… though I did get my Christmas present early – my parents bought me a kitten! Which I have named Dinah. What I'm looking forward to this year (apart from rewatching Tim Allen in The Santa Clause) is watching Dinah go nuts with Christmas paper. 🙂
    I also love carols done by the Beach Boys and the old TV movie of Rudolph.
    Merry Christmas!


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