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.
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.
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.