We’re still celebrating the launch of Ellen’s third novel, A Cajun Christmas Killing! Since the book revolves around the Cajun tradition of bonfires on the levee, we’ve decided to share our own favorite holiday traditions.
I have several favorite Christmas traditions. In addition to making a new ornament every year, I also take my daughter’s school pictures, put them in photo ornament frames, and hang them all on the tree. It’s so cool to see her grow up through the years. I also watch A Christmas Carol—the Alistair Sim—version, usually by myself since my family doesn’t really care about it. But it’s something I’ve done with my mother in the past, so it’s special to me.
One thing my husband does for me is outdoor decorations. In sunny SoCal, we create a winter scene of mechanical deer and a tree in the background, all in white lights. By now the deer are falling apart, and we were both ready to give up the tradition. But our neighbors asked when we were putting up the scene and were so disappointed when we said we might skip it that it’s back on the agenda.
As one might imagine, we were always up at the crack of dawn on Christmas when we were kids. We had an open foyer so we could totally see into the living room where the presents were from the second floor. My parents took care of that little problem by hanging a random bedsheet up over the door way. But since they knew, it would deter us from trying to peek, they’d also put one small present in our stocking that we could open as soon as we got up. Our stocking stuffers weren’t anything big—it did have to fit in a stocking, after all—but it did the trick. Of course, once the bedsheet came down, it was usually abandoned for the bigger and better presents that “Santa” left. What can I say? We were kids.
One of my favorite holiday traditions is putting clues on gifts, something my Mom started when we were growing up. The goal is to write a clue that is difficult to figure out but legitimately connected to the item. Of course we want to throw the gift recipient off track—obvious clues ruin the whole delicate and joyful balance. It adds a whole new layer to the wrapping process, as the gift giver can’t just slap a tag on something but must take the time to compose a tantalizingly mysterious clue, and to the unwrapping process, as the opener has to ponder what the clue might mean and make a guess. Hilarity often ensues…
I’ve been going to my aunt and uncle’s beautiful New Hampshire home for Thanksgiving since, well, forever. It is a classic, Norman Rockwell (well, maybe more Martha Stewart-meets-Currier-and-Ives) family-friends-and-neighbors gathering in every way. My aunt, who is considerably older now (though you’d never guess it) has the menu and table settings down to a science. Everyone always brings the same side dishes because they’ve been bringing them for years and if you try something new everyone anxiously asks WHERE your usual carrot casserole or orange rolls or cranberry-avocado dip or creamed onions are. The wood stove is cranking, the football game is on, the dress code is LL Bean (red-and-black check lumberjack shirts preferred for gentlemen, turtlenecks and plaid skirts for ladies, early Christmas attire for babies through teens). One year my cousins told my aunt they were hosting a small gathering in VT so she could “retire” from Thanksgiving. To the joy of all, she was back in operation at the big colonial home on Putney Hill Rd. twelve months later. (Oh, and if you’re wondering, I always bring the cranberries. Thanks for the foolproof recipe, Martha S.—our little secret!)
I actually enjoyed the tradition of drawing names. When I was growing up, around November my mom and aunt would put all the kids’ names in one hat and the adults in another and draw names for everyone expected to show up for the annual extended family gathering on Christmas Day. There was a modest price limit set for the gifts. The kids were all different ages, and I saw many of my cousins only once or twice a year. We didn’t have Amazon wish lists back then, and we couldn’t simply ask the recipient or their mom what they would like because that would “spoil the surprise.” All the gifts I received from Santa and my parents was stuff I had asked for or blatantly hinted about. But the name-drawn gifts were always a surprise, often random, and sometimes puzzling. I silently prayed I wouldn’t rip open a package to find socks—but smiled and said “thank you,” regardless. One banner year I received a paint-by-numbers drawing. It was too advanced for my age and the finished painting looked nothing like the cover picture. But I absolutely LOVED it anyway.
About ten years ago, when I was living in San Francisco, we’d planned on having a few friends over for Thanksgiving. While we were bustling around the kitchen preparing turkey and dressing and sides out the wazoo, a couple of friends who were in town from Brooklyn called us up out of the blue. Them: “Whatcha doing?” Me: “Cooking… what are you doing?” Them: “We’re in the Mission. We were thinking about getting burritos.” So we pulled another table in from our office, threw a tablecloth over it, and found a couple extra chairs. I’m not sure how it came up, but we ended up watching all twelve “chapters” of R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet, plus an episode of South Park parodying Trapped in the Closet. So our Thanksgiving tradition is now to gather anyone who doesn’t have anywhere to be, make tons of food so there’s plenty of leftovers, and screen our favorite random videos and/or a horrible holiday movie. Yep, we’re traditionalists! It’s not as memorable as a bonfire on the bayou, but it’s something I look forward to every year.
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