Christmas is most of all about tradition. The most common American tradition holds that each home has a Christmas tree and colored lights and a wreath on the front door. Stockings are hung by the chimney or the faux mantel or the bookshelf or whatever stands in as a chimney.
There might be any number of candles, white or red and green, scented or unscented. One Christmas Eve we had the “night of a hundred lights.” We actually lit 100 candles, including those little tea lights that burned out before we even got to 100. Santa dolls or figurines or sock puppets are almost required; a creche, (aka) a manger scene, and Nutcrackers in old-time uniforms are part of the scene. Some people pull out the electric train from a half-century ago — a Lionel, of course — set it up with all its accoutrements to roll around under the tree.
Some people attach a long piece of thread to a needle and string popcorn interspersed with dried cranberries, or not, and use it like tinsel, draping it all over the tree. Some don’t. Been there, done that. It worked as a fun tradition for a while, and it might even come back one day.
Being a blended family, we invented lots of traditions that have stuck over the past almost 35 years. Christmas Eve became our time with the boys. Christmas Day, after a big breakfast (Hangtown Fry for a few years) and the presents that were reserved from the night before were opened, they went with the other parents for their other traditions. We tried every manner of fancy dinners and breakfasts to help make the season bright and create special mini-traditions.
For a few years, we kept trying to make a Beef Wellington that would knock your socks off for Christmas Eve. It was always OK, but never quite what we thought it ought to be. We tried roasting a goose one time. I take it back, we tried barbecuing a goose one time. It was indescribably dry, yet greasy and not very tasty. We had a pork Crown Roast a time or two. It was good. For a number of years I’d hash up a couple pounds of mussels according to my secret recipe, which the boys loved, me too, and that would be followed by individual roasted Cornish game hens and wild rice, which no one but me seemed to be very fond of.
There came a time when one or the other or all of them couldn’t be here for Christmas Eve. One was at Oxford one year and New Zealand another year. One was in Germany at Christmas one year and the other was in England, so we started compromising. We invented Sausage and Beer Fest a couple of days before Christmas or even earlier a time or two. That wasn’t just our little family event. Anyone and everyone was invited. That has lasted for most of two decades. But it’s changed over time for a variety of reasons. It has morphed into and out of different iterations to meet the circumstances. Baking Christmas cookies in the afternoon was big when our nephew was small, followed by Sausage and Beer Fest for whoever else is around at the time. But it’s all good.
This year we’re going to do “banya cauda” prior to Christmas Eve dinner, or maybe instead of Christmas Eve dinner. If you don’t know what that is, it’s spelled 19 different ways, but it’s traditional Italian for “hot pot” or “hot bath.” Cook up garlic, butter and olive oil. Add a dozen or so cans of anchovies and mash them all up into a thick soupy substance. Dip fresh vegetables and french bread into the mix and you’ve got yourself some good eatin’. You can also throw in a can or two of sardines if you like. In my in-laws’ family, banya cauda, or bunya calda, was traditionally made a little after New Year’s but we’ve re-engineered it to fit our own schedule. The night before Super Bowl is OK, as is Christmas Eve.
We’ve cut down on the presents under the tree quite a bit over the years. Nine out of 10 of us are all grown up and then some. We don’t really need anything or want much. We probably won’t watch the old 1930s “Christmas Carol” movie this year, something that wouldn’t have been missed a few years ago. We can all still quote 90 percent of the dialogue, a wink and the goofy chuckle that Scrooge gives toward the end of the film can produce a good laugh even now, but it isn’t really a necessary part of Christmas anymore. In its place we’re creating something else. I’m not exactly sure what that is or will be, but it will be good and it will be fun and it will be Christmas.
Merry Christmas everyone!
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.