Christmas Traditions

The new “city visit” tradition with sister & kids & friends

I’m a Christmas baby. The other day, I had a conversation with my older sister Amy, who was 5 when I was born, about my mom having me. She already had 4 kids, Christmas was 4 days away. She was sick with the flu. Doesn’t that just completely suck? “She was probably in the zone. It was normal for her.” My sister said. I can’t really imagine it. My mom also does Christmas kind of over the top- lots of traditions, secrecy, myth, storytelling, magic, and … my sister again: “I also think she also made all of our gifts by hand.” I was joking with a friend last night that our Swedish Christmas traditions, while honestly sentimental by both of my parents (Swedish-American immigrants’ kids) are largely from Sunset magazine from the 60s. “My mom would have known about Swedish cooking from her Dad, and men don’t pass down those important recipes.” My friend Jeff was pissed off- “That is so sexist!” I asked him, “OK, tell me one recipe your Dad has taught you.” Jeff was quiet for a while, then, “Sloppy joes.” Not bad, but still.

My siblings while I’m being born at the hospital

For Christmas, we do the following traditions: after Thanksgiving, go chop down a tree, and gather lots of boughs. Do this on a weekend road trip to Gilroy or some small town near Santa Cruz, so Dad can continue his “backroads of America” research (another post). Find the boxes of decorations in the garage, and unwrap each one, put them around the house. The Santa mug, the nativity scene (some figurines lost- hide Jesus behind the cows), the bells, the weird one that plays the jangly out of tune carole. In California, these snowy scenes seemed at odds with our gray, relatively dry winter. Get out the Christmas piano music. Play the Christmas records.

Weave the boughs in and out of the bannisters of the stairway, on the door, everywhere. Pine needles galore. Everyone takes responsibility for their own gifts- and we give to *everyone.* There’s no limit on price. We make this french candy called “bon-bons”- buttery sugar, walnut, coconut frozen dough dipped in dark chocolate. It’s a day-long activity, and dipping each one, placing on wax paper, freezing, etc. is best with friends or more sisters. Bon-bons are usually given out to friends and family in little tins. My oldest sister Sally started this tradition: making Bûche de Noël, a French dish that’s a rolled spongecake with chocolate filling and meringue mushrooms.

Get a 100-item family Christmas list from a favorite uncle, buy a few boxes at Safeway of Christmas Cards, and start on that long process of writing little notes to everyone you’ve ever met (it seemed to me, as a kid). My parents would write long handwritten letters- my Dad was the prince of this- to his sisters, friends, and old neighbors back in the Midwest, or East Coast. The upside of all that work is receiving long letters almost every day sometimes even with pictures, of everyone and how they’re doing, reminding us of who each cousin is, who married who, who died, and pinning the card to long ribbons on the wall.

The afternoon of Christmas Eve: make Santa Lucia buns dough. This is a saffron sugary bun, that requires two different rises. Prepare dough and set to rise for an hour.

Late evening of Christmas Eve: roll out Santa Lucia buns on the big kitchen table. These are greasy orange-hued long ribbons that we roll into “s” shapes, pile on cookie sheets, put raisins in the center, let rise for another hour, then bake. After they’re done, we go to midnight mass, unless we’re running late and do these afterwards. When we get back, put out cookies and milk (though my Mom, non-dairy, likes to push that Santa is too, and he likes Scotch, water, or Diet Pepsi). Everyone goes to bed. Santa magically fills huge yard-long stockings full of toys, food, socks, soap, etc. Santa eats the food, too. Santa also piles toys for each kid (there are 5) around the living room. At this point, the quilt under the tree is bursting with wrapped presents, too.

Morning: nobody is allowed downstairs. The youngest girl, me, may go down with a small scouting team, because usually I was too young to start the oven and/or make coffee. This is a hybrid Americanization of the Santa Lucia Day- a Swedish holiday- where the youngest wears a crown of ivy with candles, and carries rolls up to her parents. INstead, we do it on Christmas morning, without the crown. So usually the most excited kid (my sister Amy) and I would go downstairs, creeping, stealing glimpses of the piles of toys, and make coffee and heat the oven, put in the rolls. We create a big tray of rolls and coffee, and carry it upstairs, usually singing our favorite carol. We all converge in Mom and Dad’s room, waiting anxiously until we get the word that we can run downstairs to open gifts.

Then, there’s about 10 hours of gift-opening. Which we do in an excruciatingly fair, turn-based method. At this point we’re also just eating Santa Lucia buns like they’re going out of style. Everyone’s un-showered, in jammies. If anyone checks the nativity scene, Jesus is magically in the barn, not hidden anymore.

It’s not over! Just when you’re stuffed with heavy saffron yeast buns, we start to cook, for reals. Big roast beef, Yorkshire pudding. My mom’s mom was British and while she couldn’t really cook, this tradition is awesome. Our Christmas dinner may have been the traditional ham for a while, but it’s shifted to a lovely huge roast beef. That’s early-ish, around 3pm, and we would invite our family friends the Richmans usually, or maybe a neighbor or two. Us kids would have to grudgingly put away our toys, or at least into neat piles, or in a big box with our name on it. A board game would start, or someone would curl up with a new book.

I, of course, had no idea other family’s didn’t do this. When brother-in-laws entered the picture, suddenly our situation looked so long and drawn out. The common melée method of random present opening still makes me kind of anxious. I want to see every gift! Revel in every opening! But I agree that the sheer amount of presents we had was mind-boggling!

Luckily we’ve adjusted to grown-up Christmasses: first was the introduction of Christmas Eve, or Christmas Day movie, by my brother, the oldest. I’m sure he was the first to return home and see the drawn out business and want some intervention. We started the Christmas Day walk- a few miles, across the street to the meadows and train tracks, the open space perserve at San Antonio park. That devolved into wandering around the unavoidable nearby cemetery, which made us depressed. In-laws made a more mixed Christmas, with additions of in-law parents, and then the alternating absence of whole sister-family. Less rigid traditions, and fine-tuning what we really liked. The addition of kids made us talk about “stockings” less, though as adults those are still very popular. We’ve added the “city visit”- a few days before Christmas, a parent & kids, maybe a grandmother, marches into the city, to see the decorations, the Macy’s, Tiffany’s windows, and the Westin’s big gingerbread castle. A late lunch, some lackadaisical shopping, and then BART home.

One year I had my parents up to my small apartment in the City, and invited them to a series of debauchery: fancy long dinner downtown, karaoke (to kill the time before midnight), then Midnight Mass. Morning with gifts, of course, and grown-up stockings: magazines, chocolate, tea, and tins of fancy herring or other exotic food from Cost Plus. Visit the sisters to get the Santa Lucia buns and examine each child’s present in the usual excruciating detail.