Holiday Traditions: Old & New

The Good Life: A Year of Thoughtful Seasons by Sarah Mattison Buhl

Something For Your Pocket

My mother was a Christmas magician. She made every holiday candy and cookie known to humankind. She did not shy away from butter, or a good laugh. She wrapped what seemed like mountains of gifts in sparkling paper, and every package had a bow. Sometimes the bows were made by hand. During my mother’s most seriously invested Christmases, she prayed over a candle-lit Advent wreath. Every year my dad located and cut down the perfect tree for her. This was not an easy task (the perfection nor the cutting), and my father took his appointment seriously. He laid old-fashioned tinsel on the tree, branch by painstaking branch. It was a labor of love. A ball of mistletoe hung over their entry door. They forgot to pack it away one year, and it is still up twenty years later never having moved. Maybe the best tradition is to just leave the mistletoe up? My brother Charlie and I kept advent calendars, left rough-looking cookies for Santa, and even left carrots for his reindeer. We read the beautifully illustrated book “Jolly Old Santa Claus” together every Christmas Eve until we were nearly grown-ups.

There is a sadness that sometimes comes with the holidays. Maybe it is the onset of winter, the end of a difficult year, or an unnamed longing that hangs in the air near the rafters. It seems nocturnal, though there is no scientific evidence. This sadness didn’t make its first visit to me until I was seventeen, when by brother Charlie missed his first Christmas home… He had joined the Navy the previous summer, and was floating somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea without us. My heartsick parents focused on me like a laser beam, and I felt wholly inadequate to fill the space left by Charlie’s absence. I felt their loneliness acutely. I didn’t read our book that year, and I missed him terribly. Even worse, I didn’t know what to do.  That is the problem with tradition. You see, tradition can be a crushing burden, because when you reach a certain age, life happens and people can’t always fulfill their roles in the holiday pageantry. The traditions we “always” follow become a drudge, not because we have too many, rather we don’t have enough from which to choose.

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright said, “[You] can have it all, just not at the same time.” This wisdom should become a sacred mantra to quell all holiday crazy-making. If we had a cache of traditions from which to choose, there would be one to suit every occasion, rather than trying desperately to hold on to one that has missing pieces. Your sister gave birth to her second baby two weeks before the annual gift exchange in Rhode Island? Instead of expressing frustration over her rigid unwillingness to attend, cut her some slack, put on your lipstick (advice from my friend Mary), and pull a different tradition from your back pocket. Maybe you gather a couple of cousins and go to your sister’s place to wrap her presents and fold her laundry. Remember that it is a tradition with missing pieces that is a burden, not the person (at least not always).

My mom got sick in 2008, and got really sick just before Christmas that year. We cut a perfect tree, and brought it to her, but she never saw it decorated. I slept by that tree the week she was dying and imagined her somehow sweeping over it (and me) as her spirit took flight. After that, tradition as I knew it had little appeal. We took my dad to the Florida Keys the next Christmas, and Santa decorated a plastic potted palm with seashells. We walked on the beach. We counted stars. Later we spent a year in Puerto Rico, and had an artificial garage-sale tree. We were serenaded by friends who know the joy of parranda, a Puerto Rican version of Christmas caroling, and we plied them with homemade coquito. We were invited by a dear, unforgettable family to celebrate Nochebuena on Christmas Eve. None of these traditions were mine, but they are now in my back pocket should the need arise. Here is my recipe for coquito. Maybe you will put it in your back pocket. The New Year is coming. All will be well.

  • Print Recipe: Coquito (Puerto Rican Eggnog for Grown-Ups)


Sarah Mattison Buhl

As a mother of three, Sarah appreciates the extraordinary beauty of the ordinary. She makes her home with her family in Northampton, MA.

[Photo credit: The Rican Chef]

2 Comments on “Holiday Traditions: Old & New

  1. Well written. You really had me with you. Thank you.

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