Christmas, more so than any other holiday, revolves around traditions. At least in my world it does. I do not pretend to include the holidays of other major religions, I’m just talking about the holidays I encounter. There are fun little traditions associated with other holidays like Thanksgiving, Easter, the 4th of July, Groundhog’s Day… but none seem to depend so much, no other holiday is defined so much in terms of its traditions. Christmas is a heavily anticipated holiday, not just for the gifts but for the songs in the stores, the snow on the ground, the special foods, the clay-mation movies, and all of the events each family has accumulated through the years that have come to define the spirit of the season for them, whether it be a special church service or something more secular.
For example, my family has a tree lighting ceremony. Our tree is not officially lit until after this ceremony is complete. We make my brother emcee the production. In revenge, he makes the rest of us participate (the dog does not usually have to do anything, but she does at least get a mention). It’s all great fun.
The tradition I really want to talk about, though, is the Christmas Eve dinner. And I want to talk about it because it occurred to me recently that my parents have a very different concept of this event than my brother and I do. Actually, the concept is not so different, it’s the importance we each assign to various aspects of it that differs.
My family has always gone out for dinner the night before Christmas. When we lived in Massachusetts, that meant Chinese food because The Royal Mandarin was the only restaurant open that night. My earliest memories of Christmas involve candle lit rooms with paper screens, pu pu platters, and tea in little cups (which, I suspect may have contributed more than any pre-Santa jitters to my brother’s and my inability to fall asleep the night before Christmas).
We lived in Massachusetts for ten years before moving to Connecticut. In our new town, however, there were no Chinese restaurants as nice as The Royal Mandarin. There was a take-out place of a questionable nature and a Chinese buffet three towns over, but no true restaurants. So my parents, who conceived of the tradition as “going out to a restaurant” brought us to other places. These were nice places, but they did not serve tea in little cups and as far as my brother and I are concerned, they are temporary replacements for the true tradition, which we conceive of as “eating Chinese food.”
I think, actually, that my mother was getting a bit tired of eating Chinese food for Christmas Eve dinner and considered THAT the temporary deviation while we searched for something more appropriate.
It’s significant that there is such a distinction in what is tradition and what is not WITHIN a family as close as mine. How difficult does it become, then, to bring two entirely different families together? There are so many little factors that people consider THE way to do things. When do you open gifts? Who goes first? Do you take turns or does everyone open at once? What food is appropriate? When do you eat? Which church service do you go to, or do you even go to church? We all have traditions and expectations we’re not aware of until someone else points out that they do it differently.
I attended four different weddings this year. That’s four different couples I know who are experience their first Christmas in marriage. They’ll do well, I know they will, but it will be an adventure. You can figure out all the little things and then get blindsided by something like Chinese food on Christmas Eve. When you can handle something like THAT, you know you've found true love.