Illustration: Michael Whitte
Many of my family's traditions are food-related. To be more accurate, they are food. Hanukkah latkes, a recipe from my niece's preschool food festival, served with applesauce, my Gram's recipe. One stuffed Thanksgiving turkey and one salty, crispy deep-fried turkey. (Do we need two? Tradition dictates that you do not ask.) The backup apple pie tucked out of sight, my sister's brilliant innovation, because certain family members get very sad if there is no leftover apple pie for breakfast on post-holiday mornings.
Our newest tradition is an extra-large bowl of kimchi. Last year, I made a batch of David Chang's pungent and spicy homemade cabbage pickle, and the crowd went wild. In our family, that's how a tradition is born.
My mother never made kimchi for Christmas; I'm not certain that she ever tasted it. But it became a tradition, thanks to a ritual she created: making sure that everyone at the table is served the foods they love. Take ambrosia salad. (Please.) My mom was fully aware that this inexplicable concoction of sour cream, marshmallows, and canned fruit didn't deserve to be called "salad." And yet it appeared on our Christmas table every year because my father and brothers would have been crushed by its absence. "That's really what tradition is about, isn't it?" asks food writer and cookbook author Elinor Klivans. "It's making a place in your holiday for what the people you love love."
In Adam Hickman's case, that meant matching pajamas. Adam's wife, Stephanie, and her siblings have worn matching pajamas on Christmas morning since they were small. Adam, a Cooking Light Test Kitchen chef, explains, "The tradition is that they open one gift on Christmas Eve. 'What is this? Oh! Pajamas!' They wear them to sleep, then wake up in the morning and wear them for opening presents and a traditional family picture."
"It's a pretty strict tradition," says Stephanie. "Sometimes the pajamas are cute, but there have definitely been years when it's a 'please hide those pictures' situation." Adam received his first set, three years ago, before he and Stephanie were married. "I'm actually pretty surprised when I think of that," says Stephanie. "You have to be in before you get the pajamas."
Lacy Simons, a writer and bookshop owner in Rockland, Maine, thought her family a fairly tradition-free bunch. But six years ago, at about this time of year, Lacy had just started dating her now husband, Jared Paradee. "He was doing a project for school; he had to make something, then analyze the steps so it could be easily taught. He decided to build a gingerbread house. For weeks our table was covered with gingerbread and possible glues such as Marshmallow Fluff. (Don't try that, by the way.) Finally, he finished this huge edible church. I brought it home, and Jared came to visit the day after Christmas. We were in those post-holiday doldrums when my youngest brother suggested we take the house outside and throw stuff at it. Jared liked that idea; we wanted to get rid of it but didn't want to just throw it in the trash. We threw some rocks, and then someone remembered the BB gun in the basement. We took turns blasting away at the gingerbread. It became the defining memory. And it was clear that my family knew Jared was going to be all right."
I didn't mention the Simons' Christmas fun to Cosima Lux, a Denver, Colorado, nurse midwife, doctoral student, and single mother of three young children, because I was fairly certain she'd feel compelled to go out and get a gun. Tradition is her middle name. "I inherited the tradition of creating new traditions from my parents. They are from Belgium and Germany, and they decided early on not to observe one or the other's tradition, but to make up a whole new way of celebrating holidays." Lux recently relocated from New Mexico to Denver. "I moved too many boxes of books, a few boxes of toys, and one box of cowboy hats. All the rest of the boxes were labeled 'Decorations.'"
Christmas is a favorite holiday, and Lux and her former husband now split the celebration. He has Christmas Day with the kids; she has Christmas Eve. "We made a tradition of going out for the Farolito Walk. This is a Sante Fe Christmas Eve tradition. Farolitos are little luminaries, candles set in sand in paper bags. They line the roads and light up the front of the buildings. The whole town turns out to walk. It's cold and wintry, and we walk and say hello and meet neighbors and friends, and then suddenly, my kids hear a bell jingling—it tells them that Santa's come! We run back home and their presents are all there under the tree. There is a sense of magic in it."
I love this story, and even though I know that the jingle bell is carried in the pocket of a passing friend, and that the presents have been retrieved from their hiding places and arranged by friends, it still sounds like magic to me.
"Magic, spirituality, or whatever one calls it, all of my traditions for the kids are built on that," Lux says. "I believe the traditions and that sense of magic help them—help all of us—cope with change. Our traditions are something that they will always have."
Jennifer Drawbridge is a Maine-based midwife and science writer who still insists that ambrosia salad does not deserve to be classified as food.