Family & Friends

Fooling Around with Holiday Traditions

My friend Stephanie and I took a little road trip the other day. With an eye on changing up holiday traditions, we decided to replace the usual Black Friday retail workout with a drive to a diary farm near the little town of Glencoe, Minnesota. Not only would we avoid the crush of cars and harried shoppers, we were looking forward to a new version of wintery cheer. According to the Glencoe Chamber of Commerce, we were about to experience a sensational Holiday open house at the farm of rural artist, Bonnie Mohr. So Stephanie and I packed up my Jack Russell terrier and her Tibetan terrier and pointed west to farming country. We led off with a conversation about our families’ holiday traditions, some charming, some debatable.

Case in point: When I got my Thanksgiving dinner food assignment this year, I was surprised that it came with instructions from the hosts. Thankfully I had selected familiar baking recipes, and was on my way to pick up a fifteen- pound smoked ham from Mackenthun’s Meat Market. That, plus a sassy sweet potato casserole covered what would become my politically correct contribution to the meal. That’s when I read the instructions on an accompanying Post- It -Note. The Minnesota nice hostess advised that we had better not tamper with tried and true holiday favorites. In other words, she politely directed me not to show up with anything resembling a pumpkin prune stollen or herbed yams with roasted artichokes. It was clear that we would not be rocking the Thanksgiving menu with any unorthodox flavors or new fangled side dishes.

The Post-it-Note instructions prompted a deja vu moment for me. A few years ago something similar happened when my mother, Irene, suggested that the family celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. In previous years, we opened gifts and enjoyed our traditional meal on Christmas day. The Christmas Eve modification was her first misstep. If I’m not mistaken, Mom also tinkered with the menu that year. She substituted jellied cranberry sauce for the whole berry version—the real thing in everyone else’s estimation. She also served the rogue cranberry sauce in a new glass bowl, rather than the one Grandma Ida Mae had given her years ago. Finally, she might have added nuts to the stuffing and a splash of almond extract to the whipped cream. In addition to these heretical food violations, Mom had the nerve to move the Christmas tree to a different place in the house. Nobody even noticed that the move made it easier, not to mention safer, for her to serve food and for the rest of us to enjoy a fireplace fire. My mother, the queen of hospitality, had recklessly violated traditions by adding new, and probably improved, variations on the theme. Safe to say the entire family flew into a snit.

To say that my mother’s attempt to refresh some tired old recipes and holiday decorations went smoothly would be a stretch. As evidence of her transgression, even her grandchildren continue to retell the exaggerated disaster about the year Grandma ruined Christmas. A generous woman who always prepared a tasty feast dared to fiddle with the familiar. Nobody let her forget it.

This set me to thinking about all kinds of traditions. It seems that change, especially the kind of change that messes with our favorite customs or alters the way we’ve always experienced routines, troubles most of us. Change can be as simple as adjusting our diets to correct an annoying muffin top or as complex as blending tattooed teens and second marriages with reticent relatives. It’s all a matter of perspective. From my perspective, a few new food and fun holiday habits can’t be all bad. In thinking about the role traditions play in our lives we might benefit from asking ourselves have these practices become outdated little annoyances or sources of energy and harmony.

In fact, since receiving that Post-it-Note menu directive, I’ve been ballyhooing about the value of changing things up for this year’s holiday. While I’m running into a little resistance, I figure a tad of deviation won’t destroy the armor that protects everyone’s security. Yes, bringing home a small balsam tree rather than a door busting Fraiser fir might send up red flags. And, suggesting that we exchange names for gift giving will no doubt cause sighs of consternation. I further understand that substituting Aunt Maud’s Regal Chocolate Cake for gluten-free citrus sorbet could leave a couple of guests shaking their heads. I am, after all, a woman who just recently replaced her 1965, Lady Kenmore clothes dryer, so I know a thing or two about adjusting to new and improved.

Truthfully, the passing of birthdays, anniversaries and other holidays can open our eyes to the meaning and measure of our lives. Some might call this nostalgia or the aging process. Others see it as an opportunity to simplify. For me, the experience has been like peeling an onion, removing the protective exterior to reveal the part that sparks a new way of sampling life. Each celebration holds fresh opportunities to say, “Yes” to untested adventures and paths for connecting with one another.

Such was the case when my dear mother really did make a faux pas, another memorable one. It involved her thoughtful planning of my “Fabulous Fifty” birthday party. The guest list included everyone from my third-grade teacher Miss Tillison, to old boyfriends, classmates and a favorite counselor from Camp Manitou. The food was sensational, the music superb. The only mix-up came with my age. I was forty-nine, not fifty. Thus began a new tradition – friends celebrating fiftieth birthdays at age forty-nine. My mother’s hapless mistake set the stage for a grand new way to ease into next years big one.

As a matter of full disclosure, my friend Stephanie and I started this whole conversation when we headed for rural Minnesota. Our plan was to break with Black Friday routine, and launch a new holiday tradition. Instead we slipped up. We arrived on the wrong day and totally missed the open house. However, we did enjoy meeting the Mohr’s lovely herd of Holstein cattle followed by a spirited shopping expedition at Lands End.

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