My gems this month reflect the memories and lessons from my family’s December Traditions.
December has always been very special to me. The long darkness of winter gives way, if only temporarily, to the magical lights of Christmas. They illuminate the path back to the warm nostalgia of my childhood Christmases.
Christmas music was rarely heard before the end of November and so was much anticipated. From the serenity of “O Holy Night” to the swinging arrangements of Ella’s “Rudolf…” and “Frosty…”, the music gave us the soundtrack to the season. The blended scents of evergreen boughs and gingerbread cookies were our “Eau de Noel” perfume. Roast turkey, tortières, raisin pies and fruitcakes made our taste buds dance. Silver and gold coloured ornaments made even the humblest Christmas Tree a luxurious work of art.
Christmas is for children – whatever their age.
My grandmothers were of English and French descent so it wasn’t surprising that our traditions were heavily influenced by both cultures.
When we were very young, our parents would drop us off at my French-Canadian grandmother, Florence’s home a few days before Christmas. Unburdening their offspring just before Christmas allowed them to hit the stores then return to do some warp-speed gift wrapping They could have saved themselves time and money if only they had known that by the time Christmas Eve rolled around, Grandmother had already ensured we were spoiled rotten.
Christmas eve was when the real partying began. In French-Canadian culture, Christmas celebrations revolve around Réveillon. The name derives from the word réveil meaning ‘waking’ and was used by the French as a name for the night-long party dinners held by the nobility. It involves staying awake until midnight and sometimes way beyond! For a kid, that was yet another reason to love Christmas.
Our Christmas Eve Réveillon included a trek to church for midnight mass then back home at around 1:00 AM for the exchange and unwrapping of our gifts. As soon as the last ribbon hit the floor, we sprinted to the buffet table that was bending from the weight of all the food on it. Last, but certainly not least, was the singing of Happy Birthday to my dad, who shared his birthday with the wee babe in the manger. That pretty well was the only thing they had in common.
In the days of yore,’ staying up until past midnight was extremely late for a farming family as the daily milking of the cows began at 5:00 am sharp. Cows don’t do Christmas.
From clockwise: My Mom, Audrey being a tree model. My brother, Steve pointing his toy machine gun at my uncle – that should have been a clue. ;-). My father upstaging Christmas with his own birthday and the Réveillon dash to the food table.
Sharing the spirit – and hospitality of Christmas.
There was one special tradition that was very specific to my Grandmother Florence. It began when she was still a young girl growing up in a small Québec village.
There were many casual farm labourers who worked in the surrounding farmlands. Most of them were far away from their own families during the holidays. I remember Grandmother Florence telling me that in those days, and in those communities, no one would be left to spend Christmas alone – including the hired help.
Years went by and eventually, our family moved away from the farm. In spite of moving to the big city, our rural traditions continued.
A centrepiece of those traditions was to reach out to those who didn’t have a home to return to for the holidays. Invitations were enthusiastically offered and just as enthusiastically received. They began at a time when families didn’t lock their doors, when you didn’t have to call ahead to drop by a friend’s home and when there was always a seat at the table and food to spare.
A very British tradition.
My maternal grandmother, Edith was of English descent. She was a phenomenal baker whose cherry pound cakes, butter tarts and raisin tarts would have easily won first, second and third place in the Great Canadian bake-off. She had a much more reserved style. Rather than compete with my other grandmother’s traditional Quebec Ragoût de pattes and other French Canadian dishes, she spoiled us with her very Old English “Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding”. No one has since come close to grandmother’s Yorkshire pudding.
It’s said that Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.”
That hasn’t been my experience. There are things that remain constant. Yes, most things in life change and morph. We are born, we die and at every stage in between there is a constant flow of changing players, jobs, homes and sometimes whole cities and countries.
One thing that doesn’t change though is the immense fulfilment we get from the deep, loving bonds we make with our close friends and families. Each year when I write my Christmas Cards – yes, I still send them – I am reminded of all the people I have been blessed to know. I reminisce about the those I’ve come to know and the family and friends who are a constant in my life, as well as those, like both my grandmothers and parents, who are no longer physically with me.
Christmas traditions vary from family to family, country to country, culture to culture, but whatever the tradition, the childhood versions of ourselves strive to keep them alive so to relive the past rituals, music, scents and sights. And those Christmas lights. They seemed to break through the black ceiling of a December night sending a cascade of tiny stars into our homes and hearts.
Years of repeating the traditions and years of sharing them with loved ones have forged bonds and memories with people who remain a constant in my life – unchanging, non fading.
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This year, we have a new munchkin in the family. I became a great uncle on October 14th to a healthy, happy baby boy, Gabriel. (Yes, appropriate name, don’t you think?) He’s the first baby in the next generation of the family so the upcoming Christmases will allow us, old-timers, to relive our Christmases Past through the eyes of a child!
The tradition continues.
As we move forward to the holidays, I leave you with this quote,
“Christmas magic is silent. You don’t hear it. You feel it. You know it. You believe it.” – Kevin Alan Milne
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In case you missed last month’s Gems, you can check it out here: Gary’s November Quote Gems – War and Remembrance Day Issue