Christmas Traditions


We had numerous traditions in our house growing up, many of them centering around Christmas. First on the list was the rule, er, tradition that you didn’t even think about Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving. Each season and holiday should be allowed to stand on its own, right? Right?? No intermingling. So when I see Christmas decorations going up before Thanksgiving, I want to run up and tear them down. This is unfortunately now the standard, even before Halloween! I’ve seen Christmas trees going up in September! With Christmas Music playing!

So, so wrong.

But the Friday after Thanksgiving?


Our house exploded in Christmas. Christmas fanatics all, there was little space in our house on Platt Avenue not encroached upon by the season. First and foremost was the tree. If that tree wasn’t up and finished by sunset of the day after Thanksgiving, there was hell to pay. Of course, there was often hell to pay as the tree went up. My father was very particular about the lights on the Christmas tree, for instance. Because our tree of choice was a big full douglas fir, we used what many people consider to be ‘outside lights’ on our tree. The lights had to be buried in the greenery just so. And there could be no cord visible. None. At. All. My brother and I were invited (forced) to ‘help’ Dad with the lights. You know, quality father/son time. But if we weren’t doing it exactly right…well…let’s just say that Darren McGavin‘s cursing in A Christmas Story was, I am sure, based upon my own father.

All the decorations, everywhere, had to be up before sunset that Friday. So that Friday was usually a long, hard day. Ultimately it was all worth it, because from that point on it was Christmas 24/7. I remember the first time I found out there were people who actually waited until Christmas Eve to put up their tree. What?? It sounded insane to me. What a waste of all that time when you could be enjoying Christmas!

I won’t bore you to death with all of our myriad Christmas traditions but, if I may, let me relate a couple more. Christmas Morning was done a very particular way. We lived in a two story house and my brother and I were not allowed downstairs until my parents woke up, made coffee and Mom had taken a picture of the two of us sitting at the top of the stairs. Given we both just rolled out of bed, the photos are pretty amusing. We thus have 18 years of photos with the two of us grumpy at the top of the stairs. It’s a rather unique sort of timeline.

Then the presents! When we came downstairs, there were unwrapped presents on either end of the couch, the end by the fireplace for my brother, the opposite end for me. These unwrapped presents were from Santa Claus, who was too busy to wrap presents. This made perfect sense to me so I also never understood why kids in other houses received presents from Santa that were wrapped. Weird. Presents from mom and dad? Those came wrapped and were under the tree. This was all to maintain a very real sense of Santa Claus, which was wonderful as a child. Until my dad died when I was 24, presents were always done this way and Mom never admitted, ever, there was no Santa Claus. Fine by me, it was fun. Santa also filled your stocking. Stocking gifts were always my favorite.

Another tradition in our house, one I now find odd, was that the day after Christmas it all came down. It was as if a giant hoover vacuum came through on the 26th and whoosh, everything vanished. No mention was then made of Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving the following year. It was a little unnerving. Always bummed by this, I’d complain: “But the Brickmans down the street still have their tree up!”

Sorry, no go. It was over for the year.

This hoovering of Christmas on the 26th was part of the reason I could not understand why people would wait until Christmas Eve to put up a tree. I was well out of college when a good friend of mine, Lou, explained that the 12 Days Of Christmas actually started on Christmas Day and went for the next 12 days. That made more sense. People may seem to start late but they had a nice celebration, all the way to January 6th. I could see the romance in putting up your tree Christmas Eve, then finding presents under it the next morning. But it still seemed a waste of a month of Christmas anticipation. Then a light went off in my head:

Why not explode the house with Christmas on the Friday after Thanksgiving, then keep everything up until the end of the 12 days of Christmas? No, Lou explained, if you do the 12 days correctly, you have to start at the right time, Christmas Eve.

Screw that. So now, in my own house, the tradition starts with the same explosion Friday after Thanksgiving, but I get a lot more Christmas because it stays up much longer. At least until after New Years. New Years Eve is so much better with the tree still up! It’s been fun in my own house keeping the traditions I like, jettisoning the ones I don’t, while starting a few new ones of my own.

Food, of course, plays a big role at Christmas. This is something else I’ve tweaked. Growing up, we had the exact same meal on Christmas as we had on Thanksgiving. Is this true for anyone else? It was a terrific meal, but exactly the same. We kids talked about it amongst ourselves until once my cousin Brad broached this topic out loud, during Christmas dinner. “Isn’t the food wonderful?” someone was saying and Brad blurted out, “But it’s the exact same thing we ate a few weeks ago! Can’t we try something different?” You’d have thought he’d slapped my grandmother out of her chair, based on the reaction from the adults. Agreeing with Brad, I now do a completely different kind of dinner on Christmas than Thanksgiving.

Growing up Cajun, one thing we always had at Christmas, along with the usual “Thanksgiving on Christmas” trimmings, was Gumbo. I love Gumbo, of any kind. We usually had Shrimp and Crabmeat Gumbo, special for Christmas. But we also ate a lot of Chicken and Sausage Gumbo during the year and, get ready, my paternal Grandfather made a killer squirrel gumbo. A little gamey, sure, and be mindful of the BB gun pellets in the meat, but it was quite tasty.

My paternal grandmother made the best gumbo I’ve ever tasted. The only gumbo I’ve had that came close was at Commader’s Palace. Maw-Maw (not the right spelling but that’s kind of how it sounded) stirred her roux for hours, until it was almost pitch black. When I’m served gumbo that is tan, I just shake my head in shame for the chef. Wow, her gumbo was good. Making a good roux is a pain in the ass but well worth the effort. It isn’t complicated, it just takes time, patience and a good bicep to stir and stir and stir. When I was in high school, a company on the gulf coast started making roux in a jar, which was shockingly good, at least for roux in a jar. Maw-Maw confessed to my mom that after she turned 60, she occasionally broke down and started with the roux in a jar, so she didn’t have to stand at the stove so long.

However you do it, Gumbo is a wonderful tradition. Click here for a tribute to Maw Maw, along with her gumbo recipe.

Maw Maw1

My grandmother, Billie Provost

A new tradition for me is the breakfast strata below. I love stratas on holiday mornings. You can prep them the night before and in the morning, when you have so many other things to do, just move it from the fridge to the oven for a great breakfast. For years we did breakfast stratas with bread, which are wonderful. But recently I’ve had some gluten-free people in the house on Christmas morning. I wanted to find a way to do a great strata but still have a way they could eat it. Thinking about it, I figured there must be a good one made with corn tortillas. Nothing better than a touch of mexican in the morning, right? Searching around, I discovered this recipe from Emeril which I daresay will be my Christmas morning meal until the day I die. It is that good. Note: while huge, this strata saves for days, and gets better tasting each day, so make the full recipe and enjoy. It halves easily if need be, though.

Breakfast strata

Emeril’s Mexican Breakfast Strata

Check out the gumbo recipe (and tribute to my grandmother), join the our facebook page, where I will be posting Christmas dinner recipes the next couple of weeks, and return back here for a year end post on New Years Eve.

Most importantly, I would love to hear about your Holiday Traditions, whatever the holiday! Have a blessed Christmas, everyone.

30 thoughts on “Christmas Traditions

  1. I learned a lot of curse words from my dad when he was putting together the tree stand every year. We always read The Grinch out loud on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Eve was for opening presents with my Granddaddy who was in charge of buying the “big present” for my brother and me (just like my parents are now with my son). Christmas Eve was also for going to church and then driving around looking at lights and drinking hot chocolate. We always had a ham on Christmas, and the morning after Christmas we always had green eggs and ham with the Christmas ham. When I was an teenager and then an adult, before I had a kid, we always went to the movies after lunch on Christmas. And we’ve gotten out of it as he’s gotten older, but for a while my son insisted on leaving the tree up and changing the decorations for Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day and Easter, after which it would finally go away until Christmas. I love your mom’s tradition of taking pics at the top of the stairs!

  2. Good Morning, Tom.

    Great post. Sounds like you had lots of cousins and a great Maw Maw for inspiration. Yummy make ahead recipes! I love the grumpy boy pictures at the top of the stairs. Was at Jan and Lee’s for Premise last week and they do have yearly pics of the kids in Christmas frames scattered everywhere.

    I don’t remember much about Christmas as a kid. We did have one of those Silver trees with a color wheel that slowly circled. I was both mesmerized and hated it. I think our first “real tree” was with my step mom. When I was married, our house in Wheaton, IL was on a corner and we had two real trees (often Douglas, the Douglas Fir is my College Symbol :). One on the 3 Season porch with Swarovski and Lenox Ornaments and white lights and the other in the family room with Ren’s homemade and colorful ornaments with lights. That was my favorite house.

    My most memorable year of childhood, I think I was a senior in high school, when my family gave our Christmas to a family in need. My older brother and I lived with my dad and step mom at that point. We shopped for clothes and toys for the whole family and delivered it with bags of food. Mike and I still each got one really cool gift. He got ski’s and I think I got a record player. I was invited to ski that holiday and my parents made my brother loan me his ski’s before he got to use them. Unfortunately, I had never ski’d and nicked up the tips really bad. He was furious. I felt bad. :/

    My mom has a tradition she started over 20 years ago. She hosts a 12th NIGHT party on the Saturday after Christmas. At 82, she’s cutting back and only inviting 20 this year.

    I did reply to your email last week and said I’d be happy to read the script you are looking at any time.

    Wishing you so much Joy this Christmas Season! Tish

    1. hey! This is terrific, thank you, so cool to hear. What a wonderful story about donating your Christmas, that is such a lovely idea. And yes, I am remiss on email, will be sending it to you this weekend. Thanks so much for this!

  3. Tom, you are such a talented writer, your Christmas, family and traditions really come alive.
    One thing I have started doing is making four quiches in early November. I freeze them and we reheat two on Thanksgiving morning and two on Christmas morning.

    Your tree is beautifully decorated! Merry Christmas

  4. Thank you for sharing your Christmas memories and your grandma’s gumbo recipe, as well as Emeril’s gluten-free indulgence. What a wonderful post!

  5. Ah, your Christmas sounds soooo good. Mine will be War. In all senses of the word. Until my visit to Kentucky I hated turkey, then I found out that deep-fried turkey is one of the yummiest food-stuffs on the planet. So, at some point I have to find a joint (roast) that we will both like, but still do all the turkey trimmings. I have lined up all my Christmas entertainment too. Restarting the level on Assassin’s Creed, because Desmond is still swimming around in the basement. Full box set of Lost, all of Justified to re-watch and catch up on The Walking Dead too. Which should just about hold me until January. But it will be cold and wet and horrible.

      1. Well I am almost as in love with Justified as I am with Person of Interest. I missed so much of Lost when it was screened that I got lost… so the box set seemed like a really good idea.

  6. Finding the perfect Christmas tree & decorating it has always been a bit of the best and worst part of Christmas at the Federico household. My mother ALWAYS wanted the PERFECT tree. So we would drive from lot to lot searching in vain for perfection. When I was about 18, my parents got into such a row that we dropped mom off at home and continued our search without her. When we walked on the cut-down-your-own Christmas tree lot, I pointed to the first tree I saw and said, “That one!” I didn’t care what it looked like at that point. When we got it home, it turned out to be the most perfect tree we have ever had! After that, mom always stayed home and dad and I would pick out the tree.

    As is tradition, my dad’s work is done once the tree is up and standing. He occasionally comes in to check on our progress or to give us advice. But he has an important job, he makes the Mexican hot chocolate for us to sip as we decorate. I pull out my favorite Christmas CDs (although now it’s a 504 song playlist) and crank up the music. Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald are our favorites.

    Decorating the tree is always fun. Our tree is Christmas Chaos. We turn everything into an ornament: wedding favors, nicknacks from trips, art projects from the neighborhood kids, etc. Nothing matches. And we have LOTS. The tree isn’t finished until every ornament is hanging on the tree. The fun part is the stories we tell as we put them up. “Oh look Mom, here’s the nut-cracker I picked up in London.” “Gram, here’s your Lucas (her pet dachsund).” “Do you remember the time Lindsay and I made all these dough ornaments? I can’t believe they still are in one piece.” Finally, we step back and look at that year’s masterpiece.

    For me, Christmas doesn’t start until we decorate the tree as a family.

    1. LOL – that was my family exactly. I am glad we were not the only ones. There were a couple of years here and there where we did not speak to one another the weekend after that Friday after Thanksgiving it was so intense 🙂

      I love Ella’s Swinging Christmas CD, one of the best.

      How about the mexican hot chocolate recipe??

  7. Tom my mom and I have a tradition of arguing ever Dec 26th that Christmas (tree included) shouldn’t be taken down until New Years Day, most of the time I lost this argument and Christmas would be taken down on the 26th. I even started to tell her that it was bad luck for the New Year if the tree was taken down before the 1st. I love Christmas everything about it even hearing my dad curse at the Christmas tree lights. My favorite Christmas tradition by far is that we would go to my grandparents house (now my parents house) and have one of the best southern meals ever shrimp pearlo yum yum yummy. We were allowed to open one gift on Christmas eve you probably guessed it yep a pair of Christmas PJ’s. Stockings are my favorite thing on Christmas morning I still keep the tradition alive and fill my parents stockings now. I love the stocking thing so much that my childhood dog would become just as excited about Santa and his stocking. Santa always filled his stocking too with lots of treats and new toys. We always had to give him his stocking first or we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our own Christmas stockings. The Christmas story I love to tell the most is the year my Dad put up the tree with all the lights on it plugged it in and none of the lights worked. Yes my Dad knew to test them before putting them on the tree and always did. He fussed and cursed with those light every single day with no luck we went the whole Christmas season without lights on our tree and lots of curse words on Christmas day my grandparents came over and my grandfather (my dad’s dad) looks at the tree and says hey the lights aren’t working touches one of them and the whole tree lite up well like a light bulb. 😉 I believe I was the only one who could hear because I was sitting right next to my dad but lots and lots of curse words were utttered under his breath. That tree came down on Dec 26th and I think my father especially enjoyed taking it out of the house.

  8. Tom, how wonderful to see that beautiful picture of Mo Mo Provost! I can now see how your dad resembled her, and I think your brother David also. Billie was a sweet and loving person who luvvved her grand kids – I still tell the story about the turtle pancakes 🙂 And the gumbo! Of course most of us from Cajun territory think our mom or our dad, etc, had the best gumbo, but Billie’s was among the best, for sure. Somehow I think I missed out on Paw Paw’s squirrel gumbo, but I do remember his super souped up Eggnog. Love your posts. Merry Christmas!

  9. I do love you, TP. By the way, “Does this car have hub caps?” “Yes.” “Not any more!!!!!!”

  10. Growing up the Higgs’ kids’ Santa presents have always arrived unwrapped, something Mark & I have continued for our kids. And yes, even though they are almost 20 and almost 17, they still get Santa. If you don’t believe, you don’t receive. We do, however, take our tree down by New Year’s Day. Max’s birthday is Jan 2nd and I have always wanted him to feel like he had his own day. Our food traditions depend on where we are celebrating. Higgs family – ALWAYS tamales on Christmas Eve, and whatever we feel like Christmas Day. If it’s just the 4 of us OR we’re hosting, then tamales Christmas Eve and fajitas Christmas Day. Mark’s family always does the same food Thanksgiving & Christmas, so Mark started making duck gumbo and chicken & sausage gumbo about 5 years ago. We have that on Christmas Eve at the Myers, along with Portugese Soupas (basically a cabbage stew). Which I have never figured out because they are not Portugese.
    Merry Christmas to you!

    1. I love tamales on Christmas Eve! Have you ever had an El Salvadorean tamale? Very different, it has an entire chicken leg in it, olives as well, and is wrapped in a banana tree leaf. Fajitas sound great on Christmas, I am going to have to give that a try. Merry Christmas, Milli! I’ve loved seeing all your NYC pics, looked like a wonderful time.

  11. Tom,

    Love reading your Christmas memories. I agree with Phyllis: you are a compelling writer. You brought the Provost home of yore to life. I also loved reading everyone’s comments regarding their own traditions and misadventures. I confess I have been a giant stressball all season so far: Hurry…get the tree & decorations up! Hurry…get this online order in before it’s too late. Hurry…we’ve got to get to the Christmas program. Quick…order those Christmas cards. Gotta bake cookies for the cookie exchange! Got the presents for the teachers? Gotta make this, do that, be here, go there…and get ALL THAT SHOPPING done. And mailed. In time. Cards sent. Etc. I have been so busy DOING and not enjoying the season.

    My memories of Christmas are much like yours…joy and fun and anticipation and family. I needed to be reminded. Thanks.

    Love ya!

  12. I was missing Dad so much today……and reading your blog, I happened upon this Christmas post….not sure how I missed this one last month…but it came along at just the right moment. It reminded me of times in PA and of our own family traditions, which are so very much like yours were. It was just nice going back in time to remember those days!

    Love you my friend! Praying the best for you in 2013!

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