As Christmas draws near, I have been reflecting on how I celebrate Christmas, the traditions I attach particularly to the occasion, and how I understand Christmas and its significance in my life. This rather deep reflection was prompted by the thought of the actual traditions I grew up with, and want to recreate this year, as I prepare for a holiday actually spent in my home, with family. Where do my Christmas traditions come from? Are they a combination of my parents’ childhood traditions, do they come from our religious life, are they influenced by the commercial and public celebrations of the holiday?
And this is where things get tricky. It is hard to separate where bits and pieces of what make the Christmas holiday is for me, emotionally and culturally, and historically. [I am a historian of celebrations and identity – so yeah, this kind of obsesses me in general.]
So I have asked myself a number of questions about what makes Christmas – Christmas, what elements are important, and how they have been integrated into my understanding and celebration of the holidays. On this process of reflection, I have come to the realisation that I really didn’t ask my parents enough about their childhoods. I would say that my Father was especially reticent about his past, and rarely talked about his family, particularly his parents, so I have little to go on. But also I don’t think I heard much about how my Mom celebrated holidays as a child. It could be that it was hard for her to talk about her childhood during the Second World War, particularly as she had been evacuated for a time, so might have missed some of the family celebrations. Regardless, I only have hints and snippets to go by. However the ‘traditions’ of Christmas came about in our household, they were treated as ‘traditions’, things which were essential to the season.
I will first broach the tender topic of religion. Christmas is after all a religious celebration – the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, an important and pivotal event in the cycle of Christian life. Religion is an interesting thing for my family. My father was raised a Roman Catholic, and from what I can gather from things Dad said, and also comments made by other relatives, both his grandmothers were women of devout faith. His mother was also described to be strongly religious. My father, on the other hand, was what is often referred to as a “Lapsed Catholic.” He called himself an agnostic. He was not a very religious man, but one has to acknowledge that he was raised in a relatively religious household, and this would have influenced him, and this should be evident in his celebration of holy days such as Christmas and Easter. My mother, was raised in the Church of England, and during my childhood attended church semi-regularly. She stopped attending Church when the Matins service was dropped. It is evident that for both of them, Christmas was at its core a religious celebration when they were growing up. When my brother and I came along, we were both baptised as Anglicans, and were encouraged to attend Sunday school. My mother however also thought that faith was a personal thing, and did not force us to believe one thing or another, rather she wanted us to explore different faiths, read the Bible, ask questions, and see what worked for us. I am not attached to a specific church now, as I find organised religion a bit uncomfortable, but I am mostly a believer in the larger sense of there being a God.
So is Christmas religious for me? I guess it was more so when I was living with my parents. I remember making a crèche with my Barbie and Ken doll. My brother and I both participated in the Church Christmas pageant. I think though for me, the faith element is best reflected in the way that Church music entered the picture. My mother was deeply fond of Christmas carols and church music in general. Every Sunday we would watch Sir Harry Secombe on his various hymn programs. I think for her faith was intrinsically connected to music. So the music of Christmas was, and is probably the most connected with faith – my Mother’s faith specifically. The sounds of Christmas are those carols she enjoyed such as the Holly and the Ivy, the Boar’s Head Carol, I saw Three Ships, and Silent Night – All songs which were religious in both origin and flavour. Hearing them now I am brought back to Christmases with her, and the joy she took in the music.
With the great deal of discussion about how early Christmas seems to appear in the stores, it is clear that decoration is a sensitive subject. I have to say that I absolutely love decorating the house for Christmas, and it is a great temptation to get into the spirit early. I will confess one year I actually put up my tree in the first weekend of November. My excuse was that I had purchased a new artificial tree and I wanted to make sure it was all working. [That is my story and I am sticking to it!] But normally I control myself until the first week of December and put the tree up. It will stay up until Epiphany which is January 6th or Orthodox Christmas on Jan 7th. By then I am really ready to have some room again in the house.
Growing up we tended to put the tree up later, in the middle of December. Dad would go out and buy a real tree, and we would decorate it with these lovely glass ornaments that Mom had collected.
There were also this cute trio of elves and these flocked teddy bears which were essential to the tree’s look. Dad always fussed about the tree lights – and made sure they were working, and colourful. He also installed some on the front window. The tree tended to stay up until Epiphany. By then the tree was starting to look a bit sad, and dropping its needles. One year though, the tree lasted so well Mom kept it up to Easter, although she had taken the ornaments down. I don’t know if trees were really a tradition Mom had in England, though it seems that it was likely. The collection of ornaments she had came from after she and Dad had married. Dad never talked about Christmas with his family, so I don’t know how the Leitches did it before he was married. He certainly did not keep any decorations his parents might have had.
In the battle between real and fake trees, I am firmly on the real tree side. When we moved to Edmonton in the 80s Dad bought this rather nasty fake tree which shed more than the real ones. Never happy with it, I manoeuvred it out of the house one year and started to make the effort to go buy a real one myself. Dad, being a rather careful Scot, never complained. As long as he didn’t have to bother, he was pleased. I really started to invest my efforts in decorating and Christmas in my teenage years, a habit my Mother indulged. Every year she would buy me a dated ornament. They now hang proudly on my own tree. Because I have spent most Christmases as an adult away, visiting family, I have not been able to have a real tree, so I have had to settle for artificial.
I think that part of Christmas I like the best is the thought of reunion. Christmas is a time when we get together and spend time as a family. It all starts with Christmas cards – our means of communicating joy and friendship to those we are unlikely to see at the holidays – near and far. I am a scary Christmas card person – I have a reputation among friends and family of being one of, if not the first card they receive in the mail for the season. I get this from my Mother, she was the same; she had a massive card list. When she married Dad, he handed her his list, and she added it to her own. Most family members from both sides got their news from Mom and her Christmas card and letter every year. I inherited her list when she passed away. I mail out a lot of cards, and while I don’t always get the same number back, it doesn’t matter, I love sending happy wishes in the mail.
Christmas days started of course the night before when my brother and I would leave stuff out for Santa, and hang our stockings on the mantelpiece downstairs before we went to bed. Santa, according to our father preferred beer. So we left out beer and cookies for Santa. In the morning we would rush downstairs to see the empty beer mug and full stockings. The stockings were full of candy and of course a mandarin orange. After breakfast of pork pies (bought at Marks and Spencers when they were still in Canada), or when I was older my morning tea, we would be allowed to open the presents. Dad would like the fire, and we would rip into the piles of presents under the tree. After some of the paper was cleared we would play with our loot.
Mom would phone her sister parents in England in the late morning, and we would all get a chance to talk to them and thank them for their presents. In this day and age when calls overseas aren’t all that expensive it is hard to understand the special-ness we associated with these calls to our only living grandparents. We did not talk often as calls were expensive, and had to be planned so that the parties were all at home to make sure we talked to everyone.
After the call Mom would retire to the kitchen and start cooking the meal. We normally ate the Christmas meal around 2-3 pm. Dinner was served on the lace tablecloth, using our best china, and silverware. It was special. There were candles on the table, and everyone had a Christmas cracker to open. Once opened, we would sport our festive paper crowns.
The food was delicious, sumptuous, and traditional – to us. The meal consisted of a turkey, stuffing, crispy bacon cooked on the turkey, cranberry sauce, corn with butter, roasted potatoes, sometimes yams, and gravy. For dessert we would have an English trifle – sponge, raspberries, sherry, custard and whipped cream. After such a delicious meal, we would sit down and watch television, which included the Queen’s message. We always watched the Queen’s message.
If there was room hours later, for dinner we would have hot turkey sandwiches. Then there were always the sausage rolls, Cornish pasties, and mince tarts. Christmas was ultimately about the food.
I remember Mom once saying that her family never did turkey for Christmas – more often than not they ate goose, so this is clearly a Canadian adaptation to her normal Christmas menu. The other foods were rather English, so this must have come from her childhood. I am assuming that Dad, the Canadian in the marriage, had turkey growing up. He never said. The crackers were definitely something Mom insisted on. I still buy crackers for Christmas, and bring them with me when I go away for the holidays.
Of course in describing these traditions, I am drawn into the wonderful world of good memories, and see a lot of it tinged in nostalgia. I am a bit disappointed in myself that I never asked more about how my parents celebrated the holidays when they were children, because looking back now I question, just how ‘traditional’ our Christmases were. Both my parents are gone now, so these are Christmases past, and the mantle of continuing the traditions now falls to myself and my brother. Each of us have different takes on what is important for the holiday celebration. I am more inclined to stick to the menu from the old days, while he is more likely to mix it up a bit, particularly with the protein. Trifle seems to be important to both of us. It would seem that we both did as our parents did when they were married, choose the traditions that we want to continue, and blend in new things which suit how we live, and who we live with.
I think that what I see in Christmas is continuity. Even though I don’t always celebrate it quite like I did when I was a child, I celebrate it. I try, as best I can, to incorporate many of the traditions from that time. I connect the celebration with my family. Christmas may be a religious festival, but at its heart, for me, it is a celebration of family and friends. It is a means to connect meaningfully to those who mean the most to me, in a ‘traditional’ way.