You may recall the song “Tradition” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” in which Tevye extols the importance of his people’s customs and rituals in dealing with the trials of everyday life. Of course, I’m almost positive Tevye never tried to use vanilla frosting to secure the walls of a giant gingerbread house, which might have made him at least think twice about all that singing.
I base this on my own experience in trying to establish a family holiday tradition, which resulted in a gingerbread “house” that looked like the aftermath of a tornado in the North Pole mobile home park. This didn’t seem to faze my kids at all, who were just as happy to eat the remains of the marshmallow snowmen crushed by the gumdrop chimney, but it reminded me of how traditions can be a tricky business.
Yet when the holidays roll around, we feel the need to establish family customs. This is so that when our children have kids they can continue the practice of constructing gingerbread houses or making popsicle reindeer with googly eyes, and think back on what wonderful, caring, tradition-instilling parents we were, and how they really didn’t appreciate us as much as they should have. (Er, not mine. Other kids.)
For instance, in our house the tradition starts with the holiday card photograph. Some families give in and cart the kids off to a professional photographer who’ll pose them expertly in front of a meticulously rendered fake fireplace. These families are what we in our household like to call, “smart.”
Because for some reason we’ve always chosen the other route, which is to put the kids in red and green sweaters, prop them up in front of something festive (tree, wreath, garage door that’s been plastered with cheap wrapping paper) and shoot away. This is especially tough when they’re babies, because you’ll find that in the time it takes your finger to depress the shutter release, they will have propelled themselves sweater-first into the figgy pudding.
One year we tried to establish the tradition of cutting down our own tree, failing, unfortunately, to take into account my lack of acuity with a saw. My wife and kids had long since retreated back to the car and there I was, still hacking through the trunk like Paul Bunyan’s much smaller, manually challenged cousin, the one they trot out at the end of the day to deliver pancakes to all the real lumberjacks.
As for the extended family, we’ve tried the annual “Yankee Swap,” where you can swipe your present from somebody else. This is great fun, in that it takes the bitter subtext of pretty much all family holiday traditions and puts it right up there on the surface. Let’s face it, there’s nothing quite a satisfying as taking passive-aggressive Uncle Lennie’s envelope full of lottery tickets and leaving him with a plastic nutcracker.
Another holiday tradition in our house is the annual lighting of the menorah, although my wife is afraid of burning candles indoors, meaning we take turns screwing in the little orange light bulbs from right to left. Since I’m half-Jewish I tend to get lost about halfway through the prayer — after “asher kid’shanu” I have to ad-lib. Somewhere, my bubbie is slapping her forehead in a perpetual loop.
So some of these customs have stuck and some of them haven’t, but if there’s anything I think I’ve learned from all these attempts, it’s that you can’t manufacture traditions out of frosting or googly eyes. If you just carve out some special time with family or friends this time of year, the rituals that just happen will probably be the ones that stick — and even if they don’t, it’s fun to enjoy them while they last.
Although I can’t for the life of me figure out what I’m going to do with all these nutcrackers.
This column appeared originally in West of Boston Life magazine and North Shore Sunday. Peter Chianca is a managing editor for Gatehouse Media New England. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/pchianca.