Holiday Traditions by Judy Karge

At this time of year when we are all considering our multitude of blessings, I’m honored to have Judy Karge, author of A Light in the Dark: Reflections on Proverbs, as my guest. Judy has written a delightful and innovative piece on the subject of holiday traditions.

Read and enjoy!



It’s November: time for those wonderful lifelong family traditions…or not.

I know that holidays often revolve around religious traditions too, but this is a brief look at how my family adapted to a restructuring of our holiday celebrations.

I always marveled and envied the generational groups that attended the church we chose after our marriage and relocation away from where we grew up. These families filled entire sections of pews on holidays, and continued afterwards in celebrating traditions that had stood firm for years.

This was not unfamiliar to me. I grew up in Northern Wisconsin where the third week of November brought hunting season and the beginning of “the holidays.” Electric ranges ran non-stop for at least two days as the women in my mother’s family created a feast for one of the season’s major events: Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year. These ladies were exceptional…and competitive cooks.

My stand-out memory of the meals we hosted is piles of wet, white, embroidered flour-sack towels accumulating during the unending rounds of dish washing needed to get everyone fed.  That was merely the end. Preparations started a month earlier as we made cookies, fruitcakes, and sweet-breads. Nothing was store-bought except the fancy paper napkins. The house was cleaned, the silver-plated silverware polished, and we prewashed the rose-patterned china Mom had purchased one plate-at-a time from the Kresge Five and Dime.

I never imagined these traditions changing. But shortly after our wedding, my parents moved to a different city for a job opportunity, my husband’s parents moved to Florida, and my husband and I as well as our siblings moved far-afield as well. There were no “over the river and through the woods” trips to grandma’s house on the holidays as I had known. And even when we could manage to get together, we stayed at houses and in cities that were foreign to us. Our kids never got to sleep in our old bedrooms or experience what had been our childhood traditions.

We eventually settled into doing Thanks-Christmas across the state at my folks’; doing church and Sunday School Christmas activities and a pre-Christmas celebration at home, followed by driving south for a third Christmas in Florida. One year I brooded while decorating the house, telling my husband I was disheartened that with the rushing around and triple celebrations in different places, our children would have no real traditions to remember. His reply…maybe this was our tradition and we needed to embrace it.

From then on we looked for opportunities to make holidays memorable. Some years we got together with friends who also lacked nearby family. There was the Trinidadian Thanksgiving with exchange students our friends’ daughters brought along home from college. There was jerk turkey and a regular bird that year…and a sprained arm as I recall. We ditched the turkey another time in favor of Dutch chili. It was named thus because the woman who made it was Dutch. Her kids were such picky eaters that she made a basic chili and provided a buffet of fixings with kidney beans, onions, macaroni, cheese, sour cream…and hot sauce. This tradition continues anytime we make chili, to remember a friend who is no longer with us.

There were more traditional meals during years I received holiday turkeys from work. But at a summer get-together after the boys were married and grandchildren started coming, we spoke honestly. We all admitted to liking turkey leftovers, but not the whole bird. There was the further admission that we all loved getting together, but no one loved of the formality of traditional dinners—or the work involved. With our newfound honesty, we started having fun.

Our first venture away from a Norman Rockwell dinner scene was our “All Pie” Thanksgiving. Pie is the part of the meal we enjoy but never have room for. So we started with pie! The turkey pot pie and a canned-fried-onion crust beneath a green bean casserole were the most traditional. The spaghetti pie, shepherd’s pie, and some entries merely served in pie plates were fun and tasty. It was amazing!

A newer tradition that my husband and I initiated is to celebrate “near” the holiday. This has eased the stress on our sons’ families, allowing them to decide what they want to do. Sometimes they’ll go to their in-laws, and sometimes they celebrate quietly, creating their own traditions.  We may still do a traditional dinner when we gather, but it usually has a twist. Last year our 16-year-old grandson cooked a turkey dinner as a scout project. That was awesome. And since one of our family additions is of Cuban heritage, we’ve had a Cuban traditional meal with plantains, black beans, yucca and pork. Also amazing.

This year we’re doing an All Costco Thanksgiving with ready-to-go items from that superstore. I’m looking forward to it because it means shopping with my daughters-in-law. While enjoying that meal, we’ll come up with the Christmas menu. We’ve had a soup sampling; a sandwich sampling; a cheese board extravaganza, and even one very fancy meal where one daughter-in-law practiced recipes for an event she was hosting.  We love to eat, but we’ve simplified the process so our brief time together isn’t spent cooking and doing dishes, and no one is burdened with lengthy preparations. I always make one new thing when I host. There have been hits…and misses.  Last Christmas we honored our ethnicity, calling it “The Cubans and Reubens Christmas.” We had croquetas and Cuban sandwiches, and a corned beef and sauerkraut dip with rye bread. Since our granddaughter is Chinese, we added eggrolls and dumplings, along with mojitos and German beer.

Traditions can involve customs you can’t imagine not doing. But traditions may also evolve from the loss of what had always been done, or be revitalized when discussed honestly. Whether it’s a turkey, tofurkey, eggrolls, croquetas, all pies or Dutch chili on the table, the most important part is cherishing the time together.

One comment

  • I love the way you’ve incorporated the international elements from your very diverse family. You really put a lot of thought, time, and effort into the decorations and meals.

    We don’t have anything this grand. But when the kids were young, we used to bake a “Birthday Cake for Jesus” every year on Christmas day. It was our attempt to get them to see that the real purpose of the holiday was to celebrate God’s gift to us, not to focus on how much loot we were getting.

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