The Christmas season is full of traditions, and they were particularly strong in my childhood home. Every evening during Advent, we read part of ‘A Christmas Carol’, timing it to finish on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve itself, we ate traditional Finnish food – roast ham, swede, carrot and potato ‘boxes’, and rice pudding. We hung up our treasured Christmas stockings in the evening, leaving out a biscuit and whisky for Father Christmas, a carrot and water for Rudolph. The next morning, we took our now-bulging stockings in to our parents’ room to open, before waiting in a line at the top of the stairs, jittery with anticipation, while my father went to ‘check if Father Christmas had been’. In reality he switched on the tree lights, lit candles and put on Christmas music – always the same record, opening with ‘The Little Drummer Boy’. Trooping downstairs, we put on our elf hats and handed out the presents from under the tree, before opening them one at a time, in strict age order (youngest first, lucky me!). These traditions were all so natural, so obvious, that I never thought twice about them, and they were an essential part of that cosy Christmas feeling.
Now, living abroad, those iron traditions are showing serious signs of corrosion. To start with, I’ve discovered how much the surroundings have to do with reinforcing Christmas. Here in the Netherlands, St. Nicholas is the big event, and Christmas traditions are largely unknown and often poorly imitated (they actually sell crackers here without jokes in them! Scandalous!). To give my daughters the same level of awareness of Christmas as I had, I would have to turn into a one-woman brainwashing machine, reading ‘The Night before Christmas’ to them non-stop in a grotto filled with reindeer and elves, while multiple TV screens show ‘The Snowman’ and ‘The Muppets Christmas Carol’ on a continuous loop. Quite aside of the Orwellian undertones such a scene invokes, I quite simply don’t have the time.
It’s not just about the Christmas ‘general knowledge’, though. Specific traditions have also fallen by the wayside. My daughters categorically refuse to let Daddy go downstairs first – ‘It’s not fair if he goes first! We all have to go down at the same time!’. They will hand out the presents from under the tree, but there’s no way they’re wearing the elf hats, no matter how often I try to persuade them. The Finnish food has fallen foul of my reluctance to spend hours in the kitchen grating vegetables and pre-boiling the ham. And that traditional music? Sadly, it’s on an LP, unplayable by our modern audio system.
This lack of traditions made me feel quite sad. They had played such a strong role in my own happy Christmases, that our Christmases now seemed quite empty and meaningless by comparison. Then, recently, I started to find out how new many ‘traditions’ actually are. Christmas cards have yet to see 200 years of existence, Christmas trees were only popularized in the UK by Queen Victoria, the current incarnation of Father Christmas is very 20th century, and the staunchly defended habit of setting off fireworks in the Netherlands for New Year only actually became widespread in the 1960’s and 70’s.
This got me thinking about my own family traditions. Those cherished stockings were made from fabric purchased in the U.S. while my parents were living there, as were many of our favourite decorations. The Christmas music LP was likewise bought while we were small. The Finnish dinner was modified to cope with the lack of key ingredients in the UK. In fact, both of my parents had had to let go of some of their traditions entirely. My mother couldn’t enjoy seeing our excitement at Father Christmas giving us our presents in person as, unlike in Finland, he didn’t come around the houses on Christmas Eve. Coming from ‘up North’, my dad was used to first-footers arriving at New Year with small gifts to bring good luck – a custom totally unknown in Cardiff. After a few years of determinedly playing the role of first-footer himself, he gave up.
Slowly, our own traditions are starting to take shape. Some, such as putting out biscuits for Father Christmas and a carrot for Rudolph, are the same. Others have taken on a Dutch colour, such as our girls singing a song for Father Christmas when they hang up their stockings, just as they do when they put out their shoes for St. Nicholas. We are also inventing our own traditions. Every year, we open our presents with ‘Carols from Kings’ on in the background. On New Year’s Day, after going for a bike ride and tutting over signs of firework damage, we settle down to watch the New Year’s concert from Vienna. Whatever works well is something we will repeat, and will, in time, become the tradition for our children. They probably won’t even remember us ever doing differently. These Christmas traditions will seem as immutable and comforting for them as those I grew up with.
Oh, and, just for the record – I actually never ate the rice pudding. I always swapped it for ice cream. A life-long invented tradition of my very own.