Fashion & Beauty

The Holiday That Still Delights

wvfc christmas photo Christmas-Eve-exchanging-giftsStill fun for the kids: Emily Kelting’s daughter, Lily; son, Ted; and Ted’s girlfriend, Hannah, gather at Kelting’s home on Christmas Eves to exchange presents and play Clue.

Do you still savor the ceremonies that made celebrating the Christmas holiday so much fun when you were young? We asked some of our writers whether they still find joy—after more than 40 Christmases—in the traditions they used to welcome. Here are some of the family customs that they still relish:

Dressing up to honor the occasion

I wear a Christmas plaid silk taffeta floor length skirt for every Christmas Eve dinner, and have done so for 30 years. I once appeared in a dark green velvet dress for this dinner, and there was uproar: ‘Where is the Christmas skirt?’ I had to change! Hope this skirt lasts as long as I do.” Patricia Yarberry Allen

Keeping the bayberry candle aflame

“The best of our family traditions when I was young was the bayberry candle, a pillar. Letting it burn to the end gave you a year of good luck; the reverse happened if you blew it out. (Years later, I learned that it was blown out behind my back, and that the rest of the family was in on that.) To this day I still do not let my bayberry go out, putting it in the bathtub for Christmas Eve. I heard that this was unwise, so now I buy votive size.” Toni Myers

Love and the lobster tree


Susan Lapinski and the Lobster Tree.

“From the time I was old enough to eat blueberry pie, I traveled north from Maryland with my family to spend every summer vacation in Maine. The lake we swam in was crystalline and encircled by the most magical necklace of boulders and evergreens. It was glorious! Yet it wasn’t until I had a family of my own, and shared it with my husband and children, that it dawned on me what a hold that lake in Maine had on my affections.

“My bond with Maine became even more apparent when my husband died much too soon, and the only place I wanted to be that summer was on our lake. So, the Christmas after Michael died, I ordered my tree from a balsam company based in Down East Maine, near the family cabin. I also ordered two strings of lobster lights with tails that winked and blinked like fireflies. Since then, you might say I have become the community tree lady among my inner circle. For seven years now I have gathered my daughters, their husbands, my darling granddaughter, and bunches of friends around my winking, blinking, lobster-lit tree. The holidays continue to be hard for me without Michael. What my Christmas tree does is stand in and stand tall for a precious part of my past. It also reminds me in a particularly merry way that despite all facts to the contrary, life does go on.” Susan Lapinski

Taking joy in a new tradition

“Several years ago, my husband and I started a new tradition. We celebrate Danish Christmas with our adult children and my husband’s family on December 24 in Denmark and then jump on a plane to New York on December 25. We don’t celebrate again, but we have a week in New York, where we are together. We spend the time going to museums and plays, seeing friends, and eating good food. Having this annual trip together makes Christmastime much more enjoyable for me. It feels like a well-earned reward and helps me to cope more gracefully with all the Christmastime obligations that I have in Denmark. This is how I cope with Christmas with adult children missing, weird Danish relatives, and joyless Danish Christmas songs that insist that Christmas is long, and expensive.” —Suzanne Russell

Still going overboard

“I grew up in a non-observant Jewish home, where we owned a menorah, but more often than not my parents forgot to light the candles. When I became a Christian 21 years ago (at age 40), I went a little overboard decorating the house and the Christmas tree. Early on, I started collecting characters from my children’s favorite books—the Mad Hatter, Captain Hook, Benjamin Bunny, Peter Rabbit, etc. Historical figures like George Washington, King Tut, and William Shakespeare grace the tree, as well as souvenirs from the many lands we have traveled. I’m still happily decorating—Christmas cards dangling from ribbons on the front door; the tree, of course (I usually wait until at least one of the children is home to decorate it). Then there are other traditions, like playing Clue and chess and cribbage . . . and charades . . . with my children and their friends over the holidays.

“Another favorite ritual is singing Handel’s glorious Messiah with my church choir (where I’m known as “Belting Kelting”). Observers have noted that I almost levitate when singing this celestial music. Singing at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve (my son’s birthday) with my family sitting in the pews and the church lit by candlelight, is right up there in the “magic” meter. Emily Kelting

The pull of the Christmas breakfast

“Though we are Christians (maybe little “c”), my family has never been big on Christmas. We celebrate it, but it’s not a big deal. So we don’t have traditions, except to make sure we all get together. My sister and I went to Paris last year for Christmas, just to do something different. I was surprised that I actually missed Christmas breakfast at my brother’s house . . . something I usually groan about (because I have to get up earlier than I want to, and there are often people there I don’t want to be bothered with).” Eleanore Wells

The yearly present—to oneself

“Of all the Christmas gifts I received when I was 6 years old, one thrilled and excited me the most—a small book with a red faux-leather cover inscribed with gold letters proclaiming ‘My Diary.’ Its pages were gold-edged, with a matching golden pencil nestled in a tiny elastic sleeve. Best of all, it had a lock and key to keep my three brothers at bay. On New Year’s Day I wrote my first entry in that diary, a habit I have maintained for over 60 years. I continue the tradition begun that long-ago Christmas by gifting myself with a new journal of my own choosing. It must have a real leather cover, college ruling, and a year’s worth of gilt-edged pages on which to indulge my emotions, tell untruths if I wish to, and pay attention only to my own thoughts.” Susan B. Johnson

The “Secret Santa” lunch

“My 17-year-old daughter and I don’t see eye to eye on much these days. But we have one holiday tradition we both cherish. Each year we go out together for a Christmas Eve lunch. She was just 4 years old the first time, so we went to a chic and charming little bistro called . . . Friendly’s.

“That particular day, Friendly’s was understaffed. But there was one waiter who was pulling most of the weight. He was amiable and efficient, and even though the kitchen mixed up our sandwiches (how do you mix up grilled cheese?), he kept his sense of humor and made everything right. We felt bad that he was working—and working so hard!—on Christmas Eve. So we decided to leave him a special present. I paid at the register while my daughter wrote “MERRY CHRISTMAS” (phonetically) in crayon on her folded placemat. We slipped an over-the-top-generous gratuity inside and raced out, giggling wildly. From then on, we have made a date each year for our ‘Secret Santa Lunch.’

“Recently, we found ourselves in a coffee shop in neighboring Salem. Our waitress asked if we were still shopping and said that she herself was almost finished. She was a single mom, she explained, and just needed two more presents, ‘the big ones,’ for her teen son and daughter. When she got off at 5 p.m., she was going to rush over to the mall to get them each an iPod. It occurred to me that she’d probably waited until the last minute because she didn’t have the cash sooner. My daughter and I were excited—it felt as if we had hit Secret Santa pay dirt! We did what we could to contribute to the iPods, and our giddy dash out of the restaurant was even more exhilarating than usual.

“I enjoy most (all right, many, or at least some) meals with my daughter. But I treasure the time we spend together at lunch every Christmas Eve. Joining forces to help someone is powerful stuff. We don’t have the resources of Oprah or Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, but we can make a difference in our way.” Alexandra MacAaron

The magic of the Christmas Eve service

“I’ve always loved the late–Christmas Eve service. Leaving a warm and festive house on a cold December night is a challenge. But once there, I feel a deep relief, releasing the tensions that have built up through all the holiday preparations. For psychotherapists, the holidays are a time when we work to help those who are living through significant losses and challenges find ways to understand and tolerate their sense of separation. Sitting in the church, quietly absorbing the magic of the soft lighting, beautiful music, and familiar readings, I am reminded that the opposite of despair is not joy, but love. On this night, love is found in a community coming together to celebrate the Light that illuminates darkness and the singing of ‘Silent Night,’ a candle in each of our hands. Jane Moffett













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  • Susanna Gaertner December 29, 2014 at 4:01 pm

    All of these traditions are worthy of comment but Susan’s lobster tree and Toni’s candle brought back memories of my earliest Christmases, buried in the back of the brain until these posts reminded me of my family’s Prussian perfection concerning the tree: tinsel to be hung strand by strand and re-hung if Mama deemed the distance between them not accurate enough. Silver balls were the only acceptable ornament, no colors and certainly no home-made anything.
    The candle trope reminded me of the ban on doing laundry between Christmas and New Year’s as this would result in a family member’s death. I never did get to the bottom of this…someone(s) must have succumbed during that period, though neither of my parents perished during that time frame.

  • Diane Dettmann December 25, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing all these wonderful Christmas traditions. My traditions have changed over the years as my life has changed. I can relate to Susan Lapinski’s loss of her husband and finding comfort in her Maine tradition. After my husband died in 2000, I tried to maintain some of our traditions, but it was a challenge. My Christmas varies from year to year depending on what’s happening in my life. As an author, I love Susan B. Johnson’s journal tradition. I think I’ll start that one in 2015! Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays to everyone and have a great New Year!