by Jim Mulligan
As a child, I didn’t realize that our family Christmas traditions were not everyone’s Christmas traditions. I thought everyone went to mass on Christmas Eve, then gathered at their grandparents’ house, ate hotdogs and potato salad, and opened gifts (insert the screeching sound of a car coming to a halt here). This was the ritual that happened annually and that my siblings and I longed for each year. Hotdogs and potato salad!? I know, until now it never really occurred to me that hot dogs and potato salad were not the regular Christmas Eve fair, but why did we eat it, other than tradition? Very blessed I am to be able to go to the primary source for this one: my 95-year-old grandmother, Norma.
Author: Grandma, when and why did you start fixing hot dogs and potato salad for our Christmas Eve gathering?
Norma: Oh, I don’t think I could tell you that. A long time ago.
Author: Agreed. That is the only thing I remember eating. But why did you start making it?
Norma: You know, Grandpa really liked hot dogs. I did it because he liked it. I always thought it was a strange thing to have at Christmas, but he liked it.
Author: Then it didn’t really have any great significance.
Norma: No, you know he liked hotdogs, and it just became a tradition. And it was easy.”
So why did we eat hot dogs and potato salad spanning three generations of Christmas Eve gatherings? A request became tradition. No grand plan. No great revelation. Just because Grandpa liked it and Grandma made it each year. For my family, for no other reason than tradition, hot dogs and potato salad became indelibly connected to Christmas. And we loved it, particularly the potato salad; I guarantee you’ve never had a potato salad like Norma’s, unless you know Norma.
In addition to the multitude of quirky, family-specific Christmas traditions, like potato salad and hot dogs, that likely occur in uncountable numbers across our nation, many Americans enjoy some indisputably classic holiday customs. Do you know how these traditions began?
Trees in the home? The Christmas tree may be the quintessential decoration for the holiday season; and since as many as 30 million real trees are sold each year, it’s safe to say many American households continue the tradition. The use of a Christmas tree as yuletide adornment can arguably be traced back thousands of years. The ancient Romans and Egyptians used evergreens to symbolize life and the coming of spring during the winter months. Long before Christianity even, some people believed that greenery in the home warded off evil spirits. In more modern times, Germans of the sixteenth century are credited with bringing decorated evergreen trees into the home. It was likely German immigrant settlers to Pennsylvania that brought the tradition to America in the early 1800s. Yet, even as late as the mid-1800s, most Americans regarded it as pagan symbolism. It may be Queen Victoria and her family who were sketched standing around a Christmas tree that finally spurred the tradition we now thoroughly embrace in the U.S.
What about spiked milk punch? One of this author’s favorite holiday traditions happens to be one that can be a bit controversial. If the subject of eggnog ever arises, one usually has an immediate facial reaction that indicates delight or disgust for the thick, sometimes intoxicating elixir; there are very few people who are on the fence about this distinctly medieval concoction. Historians debate the exact origins, but it is likely a variant on a warm, milky ale enjoyed by inhabitants of the British Isles as early as 500 AD. By the 1300s, monks in Britain were partaking in a similar brew with the addition of eggs and figs. It came to the Americas with British colonists and, with the abundance of milk and eggs in young, rural America, and the availability of rum, eggnog as we know it today came into existence. If you’ve never had a fresh, homemade batch of real eggnog, then you really can’t make an educated decision about the beverage. The homogenized and pasteurized, corn syrup-laden commercial version sold in abundance beginning in late November is an easy, yet meager substitute for the real thing. Whip up a scant recipe and give it a try this Christmas Eve. Just see if you don’t fall in love with it.
Sometimes a tradition can begin for no other reason than good old-fashioned fun. A fine example of just such a tradition is the Reedley Electrical Farm Equipment Parade. It is one of those community traditions that started for no other reason than to gather as a community to celebrate. While many small towns have light parades in December, Reedley definitely adds a nice twist for emphasis and added interest. For nearly twenty years the parade has helped our small town ring in the Christmas season while celebrating the deep agricultural roots of the local economy. As the name indicates, each entry is supposed to be a lighted instrument of agricultural use: tractors, trucks, farming implements of any kind.The Thonesens, Neil, Charity and their young family including Grace, Rebecca and Isaiah, never miss the parade. Not only do they usually find a spot along “G” Street among hundreds of other Reedley residents braving the cold to cheer on the arrival of Santa, they also love to see their Uncle Charlie with his annual entry, a tractor all dolled up with twinkling lights for the event. This year, they not only set out to brave the cold, but also the possibility of rain. In contrast to their expectations, they and everyone else in attendance was met this year with just about the most pleasant weather one might expect for a Christmas parade.
Whatever traditions you and your family favor during the Christmas season, may this year’s celebration be the best yet. Merry Christmas!