during the holidays, my family, like so many others around the world, honors a handful of traditions. in no particular order, here are a few:
1.) mom always makes three kinds of dessert: gingerbread, peanut butter cookies, and fudge (yes, please).
2.) my uncle’s family always comes to our house for christmas eve. we overindulge like every good american with home made christmas tree shaped pizza and some sort of bird or pig cooked in the oven.
3.) after dinner we practice the old polish custom of Oplatek*. with a thin piece of oh-so-holy christmas wafer, the eldest in the family moves around the table giving everyone else three wishes for the year. “i wish you good health, love, and laughter” or “i wish you good luck in your schooling, respect for your parents, and kindness towards your sisters” or “i wish you luck with that receding hairline, a winning lottery ticket, and the biggest piece of pumpkin pie.” with each wish, you break off a piece of the wafer and eat it (if you’ve never had a catholic wafer, imagine eating card stock with a nativity scene imprinted on it. that’s what it tastes like. but despite the papery texture, it still sort of melts in your mouth, not in your hand. aka the original m&m.) the wish giver then moves from oldest to youngest then second oldest to youngest then third oldest to youngest all the way down to little old me (growing up sometimes my cousin would come after me when we’d actually remember who was born in what year. for the record, i’m still at least 3? years older than her. yes, she’s still taller). as a kid, it was just boring. picture this: hot, overcrowded christmas mass then an even more overcrowded kitchen for dinner prep then eating so much we’d need a nap. after about a fifteen minute intermission, we’d pass around the dessert plate, twice, aaaaand cue sugar high. of course all of this was happening while i was expected to wear tights AND sit still. finally the inevitable sugar crash always coincided with Oplatek- 1 person giving 11 other people 3 wishes 12 times over all while trying not to eyeball the freshly wrapped, glittering, gleaming presents under the tree that could not be opened until the last wafer was swallowed. it. was. torture. but now, grown up (ew. who said that? me?), wiser, less greedy, and still the second youngest (and first shortest) i think it’s a nice sentiment to wish good upon your loved ones. i’ve also since stopped caring about presents, rarely wear tights (or pants for that matter) and learned how to manage my sugar intake (it’s called building a tolerance and i’ve been training all my life). *i had to goggle the official name for Oplatek. we usually just call it the boring bread wishing thing.
4.) christmas day we watch how the grinch stole christmas and go down to evergreen lake to ice skate or just go for a walk (and now visit dad’s favorite fishing spot). for dinner we always have fondu (the meat-n-oil kind, none of that cheese or chocolate bologna. or as my sister once put it to my brother’s then very vegan girlfriend “the good stuff.”)
5.) we always cut our own christmas tree. i used to go with my dad. we’d wake up before the sun and get on the road early (you know, to beat the traffic and get the best tree. it’s like black friday for lumberjacks). we’d stop and get coffee for dad and donuts for daughter on the way. sometimes it was just me and dad. sometimes it was me and dad and brother. sometimes it was the whole six person gang or five of us or four of us or three and a half of us if we borrowed someone’s dog. we would drive up through the mountains and tiny towns listening to elvis presley or the beatles or this weird old tv commercial tape my dad loved (he actually probably hated it, but loved it because we loved it and we loved it because he loved it. to me, that exchange is actually what love is). we’d sing along to snap-crackle-and-pop or old coca-cola jingles or ads for mr. clean. we’d go passed the check point (rangers standing by cones checking to make sure you had a permit), pick our favorite outlet (otherwise used for shooting clay pigeons and drinking natty ice the rest of the year), park the car, and traipse into the woods. one year my dad forgot his snow boots and had to post-hole in 1-3ft of snow wearing old, extra water-absorbent sneakers while two children waddled behind him (again, defining love). after we found the perfect griswold tree (ours always looked more like a charlie brown), we’d take turns cutting with a saw, and all carry it back to the car (meaning my dad would carry the tree and the saw and the rope and 1-3 children over his shoulder, at least when we were younger). one year i had a broken leg & crutches. i still went with him. i sat in the car while he found a tree as fast as he could because he didn’t want me to get cold (seriously, are you getting why this is my favorite?) after the tree was securely tied to the top of his old subaru, with the windows left open to accommodate the rope, we’d go get our picture with smokey bear and then off to the old firehouse where they served chili and chocolate cake and coffee and soda and pastries and hot dogs and everything any kid could want at 9 o’clock in the morning. as disgusting as it sounds, we’d actually order and eat that chili and chocolate cake at 9 o’clock in the morning. then we’d be on our way home feeling like victors after a war. we’d take the scenic route back and stare down at the beautifully frozen winding river. sometimes i would nap. no matter if anyone else came, i always thought of it as a me-and-dad thing (a rare feeling in a family of six).
last year was the first time we ever went without my dad. i remember riding in the car quietly crying in the back seat. i remember it being tough, but we did it because we love him and we wanted to honor the tradition he passed down to us. last weekend we went again. my mom, brother and i got up early (not as early as dad would have liked; he would have been calling us “a bunch of maroons”) and stopped for coffee and donuts. despite accidentally wandering into what i’m pretty sure was a mountain lion’s feeding ground (two and a half carcasses and fresh dirt to prove it) we found a great tree, tied it up, took our picture with smokey bear and even ate chili and cake afterward (i may or may not have gotten food poisoning this year). we made all the same motions we used to make with our dad. we even made sure to drive the scenic way home.
i’m thankful for every tradition we carry on. though sometimes it seems mundane or boring or predictable or silly to be so particular with our actions, it creates a system for remembrance, special memories of father and daughter, and a spiritual connection that to me, feels like it’s breaking the barrier between the living and dead. my dad knows that i went to get that tree because he was with me. whether you believe spirits or angels or absolute nothingness after death, when you have a strong tradition, a person’s presence will follow you into the woods and point you to that perfect tree.
this weekend my mom and i are going to make gingerbread, peanut butter cookies, and fudge (yes, please). my uncle’s family is planning on coming up christmas eve and i’m hoping the lake freezes over so we can go ice skating. though it will still be tough and not how i wish, through tradition, my dad will be with me all along the way.
for this coming year, i wish you all an abundance of love, new found adventure, and luck with that receding hairline.