For many people Christmas has always felt timeless. We participate in many of the same traditions as our grandparents and we often assume their grandparents before them. Though I’m a Pagan I still enjoy Christmas. In my house Christmas was always more of a secular holiday than a religious one, and in our household “the Holiday Season” is a many weeks long affair stretching from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Eve.
Like many families, mine has a whole host of traditions I still celebrate. Some of them date back before my birth while others are of a more recent vintage, and some are included in memoriam. (I still think about them even if I don’t actively engage in them these days.) What they all share in common is that they connect me to the season and the ghosts of Christmases past.
We have steak for dinner on Christmas, grilled outside. Just before sitting down to write this article I braved the hordes of last minute shoppers in a search for charcoal briquets. You don’t grill steak outside in December? This is a tradition that started years ago in my family after it was decided we were all sick of turkey and/or ham for Christmas. A good steak dinner satisfied that desire for something “special” on the holiday, and it also means no leftovers. And don’t think for a second that I only grill steak outside because I now live in California, I spent a -10 degree evening doing the same thing in Michigan once.
Along with our steak we usually have twice-baked potatoes, a side-dish so labor intensive I only make them once a year. Along with that are lima beans, because I like them, and it’s what my Grandma always made for special occasions. I don’t think there’s another family eating what we do on December 25, but few are eating better.
Christmas Eve Church Services. I started going to Christmas Eve services back in high school when I was actively involved in the Methodist Church. I liked singing the carols and found the beauty of a candle-lit sanctuary mesmerizing. I also liked that it connected me to something bigger than just “presents” at Christmas. I fell out of love with Christianity, but that didn’t mean I had to start hating the songs and the celebration of light.
These days my wife and I skip the Christian services and instead opt for a local Unitarian Universalist Church. Much of what I liked as a young person remains-the melodies (though usually not the words I’m used to), the candles, the beauty of the sanctuary, and the warm glow of various and diverse people gathering together to celebrate the season.
Christmas Tree Walks. When my wife and I lived in Michigan we lived near our state capitol, a spot that hosted the state’s Holiday Tree. Every Christmas Eve we’d pick up a hot chocolate at the local coffee shop I then managed and then go stroll up to the tree in the quiet and dark December night. Sometimes this happened after a Christmas Eve church service, sometimes not. Most of our Christmas Eve walks to the tree were cold (20 degrees or so), but some of them were so cold that we actually drove to the tree, hopped out of the car, ran around the tree and back into the car.
Our new home in California does not offer easy access to a four story fir tree, but our downtown does have a small ten foot tree on what amounts to our “Main Street.” It’s kind of pathetic, and often half of its lights are burnt out, but it’s a destination. When we discovered it after our first year in California we were overjoyed to renew an Ari and Jason holiday tradition.
Magazines in our stockings. I grew up in a household as the eldest of four boys. To say that we were often loud on Christmas morning is an understatement. With the hope that it might lead to a few extra hours of quiet my parents always put a magazine in our Christmas stockings. (Mine were almost always heavy metal magazines, what can I say? My Dad was, and still is, pretty cool.)
Some of my favorite Christmas moments used to occur about 3:00 AM when I’d get up and go by our family Christmas Tree reading one of those silly magazines. That was the only night of the year my parents kept the holiday lights on all night and I liked to take advantage of it. It was always a magical moment.
When my brother lived with me later on in life we tried to continue the magazine tradition with mixed results. My wife doesn’t read magazines ever, so it’s a now fallen into the realm of “things we used to do,” but I remember those late night/early morning reading sessions fondly.
Our Holiday Stuff is its own tradition. Ari and I have been together for 18 years and the things we’ve assembled to decorate our house (and tree) every December tell the story of our life together. There are things we’ve bought together (a plush Bumble!), things one of us had made (Ari made our Yule Log), and there are all sorts of ornaments that have been given to us from friends and family. Some of those date back before we were married, others come from mutual friends. It’s impossible to relive the past, but when we dig out the ornament box each year we at least feel close to it again.
And I guess that’s why traditions matter so much to many of us, they provide connections to things larger than ourselves. Maybe that’s why I still love Christmas in spite of my Witchy-self. I like getting back in touch with who I was thirty-five years ago, and even who I was just ten. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.