Sunday, December 16, 2007

Holiday Traditions

Our children are growing up in a complex pond where the waters are stirred by religion, government, society and tradition, each being a lever for beneficence or trouble and we as parents trying to steer them as best we can. The holidays bring two of these currents, religion and tradition, together and often it is hard to tell quite where the one begins and the other leaves off.

You only have to look at what would nominally seem very similar pairings of countries such as Britain and the Netherlands to see how big a role tradition can have distinct from culture, religion, etc.. Both countries have somewhat comparable governmental systems, both are Protestant countries with long histories of sea-faring and mercantilism, and there has been much sharing of peoples, culture and even royalty between them over the centuries. Yet, as close as these countries would seem to one another, their Christmas traditions are unmistakably different.

The British traditions are reasonably well known (Santa Claus, stockings by the fireplace, Christmas trees, etc.). Fifty short miles away in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas arrives, not from the North Pole, but from Spain. He arrives not with elves but with Zwarte Pieten (black Peter), and not in a sleigh but in a steamboat. And he arrives not on December 25th but on December 5th.

When I lived in England in the mid to late sixties, it never struck me as particularly odd that England had a national tradition in which the country effectively shut down between Christmas and New Year's. I don't mean slowed down. I mean shut down. Train and bus services were cut dramatically, most stores were not open at all, and those that were had restricted hours. You had better have what you needed for the next couple of weeks because you were unlikely to be able to get anything in the meantime. It was only some years later when I was in the US (where everything is back in full swing again the morning after Christmas) that I realized how distinctive the English shut down was. Four decades on there has been some convergence. In England there is no longer a complete shut-down, but there is certainly still a recognizable lull.

Traditions of the holidays are shaped at a national, local and family level, each subject to surprisingly quick change. Old traditions fade away and new ones arise. Sometimes they fade away only to gain a new lease on life.

When we married, I discovered that Sally's family had a tradition with which I was unfamiliar. On Christmas morning, the objective for each family member was to be the first to cry "Christmas Gift!" to each of the other family members. I happily joined in. Some years later, my mother shared with me an eighty page memoir that my great-grandmother had written in the 1930's, late in her long life. She was a young girl in the 1850's growing up on the banks of the Pearl River in Mississippi. In this memoir she relates her memories of Christmas in those far off years and in describing them she mentions the excitement of trying to creep up on other family members first thing Christmas morning to be the first to shout "Christmas Gift!" So oddly enough, our respective families had once had the same tradition. It had died out in my family but it had stayed alive in hers, and now the rivers of tradition have rejoined.

Each family crafts its own traditions, passing down those most meaningful to them, developing new ones as they go along. One of the beauties of traditions is that they do not necessarily have any grounding in logic. Why do we in our family still put tangerines and walnuts in the kids' stockings? Certainly not because anyone is clamoring for tangerines and walnuts. We do so because we always have. The tangerines always get eaten but not everyone is particularly keen on them. As for the walnuts, those that don't get recycled year to year, end up in the back of some drawer in the kids' rooms or elsewhere. We probably should have marked the hard shell nuts with the original dates of purchase to see just how many Christmases some of them might last.

Each family usually has their particular Christmas cooking traditions, singing traditions, traditions related to when and how gifts are given out, what music is listened to, etc. Cooking in particular marks the season, not only because it is a communal activity where everyone has their role to play in a cooperative effort but because the smells of cooking infuse the house so that the event lingers for days. This is especially the case for the young whose senses are so much more attuned to their environment than ours are.

And in reading families there are the traditional books. We have four boxes of them that live in the attic most of the year and that are brought down in early December (except for those years when the packing away never gets gotten to). It is like a reunion with old friends as the books are removed from their boxes and set upon the shelves cleared for them. Each book has a special resonance to it, calling back the memories and emotions of particular Christmases when they first joined the family.

There are often particular titles that get reread either by individuals or collectively. As our children get bigger and bigger and they do most if not all their reading to themselves, it is the one time in the year we can, as parents. count on pulling their ever larger selves up close to us to read a book where they once sat on our lap.

In our family some of the titles that are each year refreshed with reading and sharing include The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, The Christmas Candle, The Cajun Night Before Christmas, The Nutcracker illustrated by Maurice Sendak, etc. I have a copy of a book from the Metropolitan Museum of Art from some years ago. It is selected passages from the King James Bible telling the Christmas story matched to medieval and renaissance paintings of the same. I love this book. Each year I try to dragoon one or more kids into sitting and listening to these beautiful passages and feasting their eyes upon such impassioned paintings. Each year I can hold the little barbarians close only for a passage or two before they are off, rolling their eyes. This, too, has become a tradition.

Following are books that are especially evocative of the Christmas season. We think they are especially touching or helpful in communicating and explaining the holiday traditions.

Picture Books

The Jolly Chistmas Postman by Allan and Janet Ahlberg Suggested

Madeline's Christmas by Ludwig Bemelmans Recommended

Christmas Trolls by Jan Brett Suggested

The Twelves Days of Christmas by Jan Brett Suggested

A Small Miracle by Peter Collington Highly Recommended

Carl's Christmas by Alexandra Day Recommended

The Christmas Candle by Richard Paul Evans and illustrated by Jacob Collins Highly Recommended

The Light of Christmas by Richard Paul Evans and illustrated by Daniel Craig Recommended

Cat in the Manger by Michael Foreman Recommended

Wombat Divine by Mem Fox and illustrated by Kerry Argent Recommended

The Elves and the Shoemaker by Paul Galdone Recommended

The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffman and illustrated by Maurice Sendak Recommended

Great Wolf and the Good Woodsman by Helen Hoover and illustrated by Betsy Bowen Recommended

Santa Calls by William Joyce Recommended

I Spy Christmas by Jean Marzollo and illustrated by Walter Wick Suggested

Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian-Carlo Menotti and illustrated by Michele Lemieux Suggested

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore and illustrated by James Rice Suggested

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore and illustrated by Christian Birmingham Recommended

The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore and illustrated by Tasha Tudor Recommended

Rocking Horse Christmas by Mary Pope Osborne and illustrated by Ned Bittinger Recommended

The Cajun Night Before Christmas by James Rice Highly Recommended

Silver Packages by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet Highly Recommended

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss Highly Recommended

Santa's Snow Cat by Sue Stainton and illustrated by Anne Mortimer Suggested

Look-Alikes Christmas by Joan Steiner and illustrated by Ogden Gigli Suggested

Corgiville Christmas by Tasha Tudor Recommended

The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski and illustrated by P. J. Lynch Highly Recommended

Who Is Coming to Our House? by Joseph Slate and illustrated by Ashley Wolff Recommended

Independent Readers

Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies Suggested

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson Recommended

Why Christmas Trees Aren't Perfect by Richard H. Schneider and illustrated by Elizabeth J. Miles Recommended

A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas and illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg Recommended

On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder and illustrated by Garth Williams Recommended

Young Adults

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and illustrated by Arthur Rackham Highly Recommended

The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams Bianco & Magery Williams and illustrated by William Nicholson Highly Recommended

Silent Night by Stanley Weintraub Suggested

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