Once a holiday tradition is established, it has a way of becoming law—firmly mired in a mass of expectations as dense and sticky as last year’s fruitcake.
Maybe it’s making paper pilgrims with your aunt for Thanksgiving. Perhaps your cousin always organizes the egg hunt at Easter.
For me, the rule was Christmas Day dinner at Grannie’s. It was the same every year. Turkey, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, giblet gravy. And green stuff.
Nobody knew exactly what was in the vivid gelatin, but it never felt like Christmas until Dad had spooned a heap and said, “Green stuff!” with gusto. (Not that I sat near him—I was banished to the kids’ table until I was 35.)
A few years ago, as Grannie was approaching her 90s, she decided Christmas dinner was too much work. I had a new house, and, despite my less-than-stellar culinary reputation, I jumped on the chance to host.
Alas, even though relatives supplied most of the food, I was fired from the job after only one Christmas.
The closest thing we had to a confrontation was when Grannie caught my husband as he was preparing his signature, fresh, al dente green beans. She stared him down and said, “You’re not going to serve those raw, are you?”
“No, ma’am,” he said obediently, adding salt and bacon and boiling the formerly crisp beans into an acceptable mushy state. He is wise, my man.
True, I could have timed the presents-lunch-desserts thing better, but I did okay. Honestly, I blame inertia for dragging Christmas back to Sugar Land. It always had been there, and so it returned.
Lesley Robbins, on the other hand, hosts every Thanksgiving, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah at her house.
“One year, I gave Thanksgiving to my aunt because my daughter was being bat mitzvahed. And she tried to keep it! I said, ‘No! That’s my holiday. You just borrowed it.’ ”
Lesley bakes holiday gifts for teachers, orthodontists, the mail carrier, and more. “I started something that I feel I have to continue,” she says. “Same thing with holiday cards. Once you start something, people do expect it.”
Betty Hrncir’s family celebration has evolved into a grown-up Christmas Eve dinner that includes her adult children and another family, the Englishes. She creates personalized limericks that each guest has to decipher before knowing which festive hat Betty has selected for them to wear to dinner. Betty even hires a Lebanese chef for the night and takes pains to pair the right wines with dishes in what is becoming a new family tradition.
“They love wine,” Betty says of her grown children, “especially fine wine that they don’t pay for.”
Holiday expectations often are internal—in other words, your own fault. Cathy Foreman chooses to hand-make 150 extravagant Christmas cards.
“I’m not sure why I feel so compelled. I set myself up every year spending every free moment … working on making the cards,” she says. “Honestly, I love giving a little of ‘me’ to friends and relatives.”
Another local woman, who prefers to keep her name private, is also compelled to host Thanksgiving celebrations with even more intensity than her mother, who was known for going to bed, exhausted, for days after Thanksgiving.
“I now send out printed invitations each October. My family begins inquiring about the invitations in July. I am in Thanksgiving hell. What was 10 to 12 people is now 22 to 28. Each year we up the ante a bit. I generally redo something major in the house, and we always ensure the food and drink is not only in colossal proportions but fine quality.”
“It is much like the old shampoo commercial where I told one friend, and they told one friend, and so on. Our guest list now spreads to whoever someone is dating, whoever’s niece or nephew might want to come, my grandmother’s old pastor. . . .”
Another woman, also talking anonymously, puts on lavish, from-scratch dinners, and sometimes even hires a decorator to set the table. “If you want to be close to your children, you need to be close to your whole family,” she says earnestly.
Besides, she adds in a chirpy voice, “I want to get holiday china. Do you think people are still doing that?”
On the other hand, at least one senior woman in town felt perfectly comfortable skipping the family gathering this year in favor of a Hawaiian cruise.
“I have done Thanksgiving dinner for 50 years, and I think I’m entitled.”