Holiday traditions, silly and sweet
- Published: December 28, 2017
Each year at this time the News assembles a story based on readers’ submissions on a holiday theme. This year we asked readers to share stories of holiday traditions that are meaningful to them and their family.
One tradition that we have enjoyed is sharing the annual Holiday Poem that Harold writes each year. He has written a special holiday poem for at least 30 years. We share it with family and friends in the Christmas, holiday and New Year’s cards that we send. At first it was always via U.S. mail. Now we also send his poem attached to electronic holiday messages. Here is our 2017 poem.
It had been snowing
it had been snowing
when we started packing bags,
with our warmer clothes,
soon we would fly to Japan
for Shinto rituals
in an autumn Tokyo
where we then polished verses
to soft sounds of Silent Night
and bilingual talks
about the emperor’s concerns,
written in his poems,
while praying that waves of war
in angry oceans
must settle into quiet seas
and bathe our world in peace.
—Harold and Jonatha Wright
A wreath for spring
Having been raised to begin a liturgical year with the first Sunday of Christian Advent, a four-week vigil for Christmas, I usually try to shape some part of my winter around a traditional Advent Wreath.
By the end of November, most of the beech leaves and the Osage leaves have come down, and only a few Bradford pears hold color. The crows are the only birds to call before sunrise, and the local geese have taken up their solemn afternoon processions from field to water. I could settle into winter, but I prefer to look to spring.
Twelve weeks from now, Late Winter cedes to Early Spring throughout the East and Lower Midwest. Pussy willows catkins are cracking by then, and white tips of snowdrops have emerged from the mulch and skunk cabbage has opened. Purple cress has budded along the river. Cardinals sing before sunrise. Sandhill cranes fly north. Flocks of robins arrive to begin their mating chorus.
And if I place a cluster of 12 candles (instead of four) on the dining room table, lighting one each week from the end of November forward, I keep a semblance of my childhood ritual while creating another procession toward the end of the cold. By the time the last candle is burning, the sky is no longer dark when I have supper at six o’clock.
Bedding plant seeding starts a few days before the new moon and I often add to the candle ritual by starting a few seeds then. My sprouting place is near the furnace in the attic. I set up two grow lights and hang them low, leaving space for flats above them maybe three or four inches. I am partial to geraniums and banana seeds this early in the season. Outriders of aconites and crocus, the new sprouts pace the lengthening day, replacing candles in February, opening the door to March and April.
A past Christmas tradition that our family enjoyed (until the children moved away and started their own families) was taking turns being Santa. Whoever was Santa could expect the rest of us to dress in outfits that fitted that Santa’s experience or personality. When a son who worked in film was Santa, we dressed as characters from an Ingmar Bergman film. In 1988 my mother was Santa and we each wore a piece of her clothing. We took a photo of her with our son Matthew in her outfit, complete with pearls.
The green book
For the last 30 years, on New Year’s Eve, and sipping Prosecco, we have thought back and reflected on the events of the past year. Each time we record in our “green book,” individually and together, five events that we feel had or will have a lasting impression on the present and future. We record five goals that we have for ourselves; review whether we accomplished last year’s goals; and add five new goals for the coming year.
Then, we select five organizations and causes that we want to support, that will make a difference in the future year. We put away the “green book,” to be opened 12 months hence. Same time next year.
—Pam and Malte Von Matthiessen
My favorite things about the holidays in Yellow Springs are:
The red poinsettias and garland on the hotel;
The lighted tree across the street,
Horse and carriage rides downtown;
Winter Solstice poetry reading;
Snow in the Glen;
Tecumseh’s holiday open house;
A bow on the horse in front of 1234 Livermore St.;
Holiday parties offered by generous hosts;
Wrapping presents to put under the giving tree at the library, church or favorite charity;
Spending time with family.
Experiencing hope and joy from those bringing light into the dark places of the world.
Rebirth of the sun
As a neopagan, Barbara Krabec celebrates Yule, which aligns with the Winter Solstice. She gathers with other practitioners on or near the Solstice to mark the “rebirth of the sun.”
“One of my big things is to burn a big yule log,” she said. “We like to sing the carol Deck the Halls, because it speaks of the yule log.
“We also put up a tree, which is also a pagan tradition.”
Household decorations include a five-pointed star in the front window and an all-natural wreath hung out front.
“I also buy a yule log cake from Current Cuisine.”
My wife and I first started celebrating Kwanzaa in the late 1990s. We thought it would be hard for our children at first. Instead of setting up a Christmas tree, we decorated our home with African-centered artwork, photos of black history and fruit baskets. We did tons of arts and crafts together, and even went to our first celebration held at Wilberforce.
Our children really liked the exchange of gifts for the seven days of Kwanzaa instead of just Christmas morning. We also had every movie that had black stories and cartoons from each generation loaded in the DVD player to play for the whole week. We discussed black history and our family tree every night at dinner and called our relatives across the country. Our family loved it, and we have enjoyed the holiday ever since.
Kwanzaa is often mistaken for an African “Christmas.” But it’s not actually celebrated or observed in any of the 55 African countries. Kwanzaa is an African-American celebration of life from December 26 to January 1. Dr. Maulana Karenga introduced the festival in 1966 to the United States as a ritual to welcome the first harvests to the home. He created this festival for Blacks as a response to the commercialism of Christmas.
The seven principles (nguzo saba) of Kwanzaa utilize Swahili words: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba) and faith (imani). Each of the seven candles signify the principles. As in Hanukkah, candles are used to represent concepts of the holiday.
As a family, we’ve traveled throughout Ohio to do Kwanzaa in Akron, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati. We love the diversity of seeing all nationalities, races and lifestyles and faiths together for one purpose: to celebrate life and community. But our favorite was always the program done right here with Yellow Springs’ longtime activist Faith Patterson.
Faith had retired from organizing the Yellow Springs Kwanzaa in 2010, and in 2014, we asked her permission as a respected village elder to continue the event. That first year we awarded her the “Nguzu Saba” award for lifelong service to the African-American community. We have since given the award to Dr. Yvonne Seon and Jonas Bender. This year we have a special surprise regarding who the elder will be, but our committee is sure the honoree is well deserving.
We are asking our village families to bring a covered dish to share and wear ethnic clothing (not required) and be prepared to enjoy a wonderful evening at this year’s YS Kwanzaa, held Thursday, Dec. 28, 6–9 p.m. at the Bryan Center.
Kwanzaa is a true community event where we shower love, respect and support for those who live and work among us.
Stockings for everyone
Our children have all grown and have their own homes and families, but our Christmas celebration has not changed from year to year.
My husband and I go to church on Christmas Eve, where we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. On Christmas Day our family, which once numbered eight and now numbers 25, all gather here in Yellow Springs for our celebration — gift exchange, wonderful food and more important family time, laughing and treasuring our time together. Many spend the night and do not mind sleeping on the floor! The most traditional thing we do is hang stockings for everyone, all 25, adults and children. Some years there are just silly things in the socks and sometimes good things. I just cannot give up my Christmas stockings.
The family always comes home for Christmas.
Both darkness and light
Recently, I heard a song for all the girls with broken hearts, reminding them there are many and they are not alone.
In the same spirit, I choose to write this piece about not having family Christmas traditions. In part my first memory of Christmas explains why. I recall my mother holding down my father under the Christmas tree as she yelled to my older sister to go hide the car keys so that my drunken father could not drive away. My brother and I watched in fear from the stairway.
In all honesty, I have had some sweet Christmases since my first memory but that first one of my childhood continues to remind me that some yet have a dark and painful holiday. My father’s alcohol addiction eventually drove him to Philadelphia where he learned of AA and came back to Indiana to start a group in the back of a bar. And I grew up with the positive family influences of AA.
In my mind’s eye, in that first Christmas memory, the lights on the tree shone down on my parents’ struggle. And life has taught me that the Light is greater than the darkness.
But I know that every Christmas, there are yet many caught in the dark. My heart remembers and holds them too in the Light.
A surprise visit
When I was a kid growing up on Livermore Street, across the street from the Antioch Gym, in what was then Antioch faculty housing, but later became Antioch’s Photography House, we would spend Christmas Eve either at our house with Rae and George Dewey’s family, whose four kids matched in age (within a year) my parents’ four kids, or at the Dewey’s house, which was right around the corner on Marshall Street. Always there was mulled cider and Christmas cookies. Always my father read aloud Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” or Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” Always Mother Dewey (George Dewey’s mother), who was as old as Methuselah and always dressed in long black dresses that buttoned up to the neck, read the birth of Jesus story from the Bible. And always we would sing carols at one house then the next, up and down Marshall Street.
One particularly memorable Christmas Eve spent at the Dewey’s (we would alternate houses: one year at our house, the next year at the Dewey’s), Nicky Dewey and I (we must have been 6 and 7 or 7 and 8) were sent by our mothers to pick up Christmas cookies that my mother had forgotten to bring to the Deweys. We were told the cookies were on the counter in the kitchen. So Nicky and I took off down the alley, across our back yard and through the back door into the kitchen. We were not there long when we heard the sound of someone moving about upstairs and then a clumping of footsteps on the stairs. We hid behind the door between the hallway and the kitchen, peering through the open narrow slat between the door’s hinges, and watched Santa Claus cross the hallway, from the stairs into the living room. We didn’t hang around. We hightailed out the back door and ran as fast as we could back to the Dewey’s, leaving the Christmas cookies on the kitchen counter.
My family’s Christmas cookie is one of the oldest things we possess, and we make it new every year. “It’s no fun to do alone,” my mother said, but the fact was, neither of us could make Lebkuchen alone. Mother’s brain had lost some connections. I simply hadn’t learned enough. My sister Barb had taken over the dough recipe. She’d also slipped on the ice, injured her wrist, and wasn’t going anywhere. Mother and I had only each other to rely on.
You learn Lebkuchen backwards: first you eat the cookies (fragrant rather than spicy, warm on the tongue, rather than sweet). Then you help decorate. My favorite version is cut in a circle, baked, slathered in chocolate, and sprinkled with nonpareils.
I stood waist high to my mother the year she got the recipe from her mother and read: “Do not open the oven door until the cookies are done!”
“How am I supposed to know without opening the door?” she demanded. No one could answer. So she experimented.
“High time you learned to do this,” my sister said to me. Last year, at Christmas Eve, our mother had a stroke while coming down the stairs for dinner.
“The word ‘Lebkuchen’ means “life cake,” I told my sister.
“I always thought it meant ‘love cake,’” she said. Our mother called it “Honey Cake.” My daughter, who’s taken on the recipe since her grandmother’s death, calls it “Lebenkuchen”— Living Cake.
“I’ll grate the lemon,” my mother said. I got out the eggs and milk, and then I saw she was stalled, with no idea what to do with the lemon. She fretted while I assembled jars of honey and the long line of spices, and then she insisted on using her old brass kettle to cook in, and after we’d mixed in all the spices, it was time to knead.
Mother turned the dough around in her hands. “This is so warm,” she said.
“It’s had exercise,” I said. She ignored me. But when I asked about the origin of our Lebkuchen, she told me about the family in the Austrian Alps, for whom my grandmother worked as a governess during the first World War. Somewhere we have photographs of tan, blond children with their donkey. As far as we know, our recipe started with theirs. Or something like theirs.
“Your grandmother experimented and experimented and experimented with this stuff,” my mother said.
I thought of all the choices we have made so far today. No wonder each batch of Lebkuchen, each person’s particular version across the century, tastes slightly different from the rest.
The Horse Dance
A tradition that my sister Pegeen and I started, probably when we were teenagers, and have continued to this day, is something the rest of the family dubbed “The Horse Dance.” It was one of the first activities we engaged in on Christmas mornings, and entailed prancing around the dining room table, in our pajamas, to the song “Sleigh Ride” (Boston Pops version, complete with whinny and whip crack!). Some of our siblings would roll their eyes with pity, others would egg us on, but in the years we weren’t all together in one place, someone — even Mom or Dad — would beg over the group Skype, “C’mon, girls, do the horse dance!”
Now we’re both in our 60s — not that expectations of “mature” behavior ever stopped us! — and two more people will be missing from the family circle, one of whom had sometimes joined us in the goofy frolic. It doesn’t seem like our kids are at all anxious to carry on the tradition, so maybe this year it’s time for the horses to stay in the proverbial barn. The kids will probably be relieved!