My parents did not believe in getting too excited about Christmas until much closer to the date than most do now. They didn’t do a lot of shopping either, until closer to the time. I have heard some say they have all their presents bought and wrapped before December first! I remember ordering special things from the catalogue that came to the house some time around Thanksgiving, and feeling excited when my simple gifts arrived. As a child I only gave to my parents and later to siblings. Once I got to play Santa too, shopping in the dime store or Grants in Beverly for stocking presents was a great treat.
Despite the fact that these days Christmas catalogues come in the mail long before Thanksgiving, giving gifts is only one of the many rituals and traditions associated with the holidays. We had a few very simple ones, and my parents didn’t make a big deal out of decorating. These days most of us have much to do as the holidays approach. There are the cookies and other special foods to think about. The entertaining of friends and family is another ritual. Many businesses have staff parties and a lot of people entertain in their homes. These gatherings are not confined to the holidays themselves but take place throughout the time from Thanksgiving to the New Year.
The traditions and customs of the holidays have been accumulated over the centuries from a variety of different countries. In America now more than ever we have a melting pot of nations. While many of us grew up with primarily European customs derived from a combination of pagan, Christian, and Hebrew stories, myths and historical remembrances, the addition of African American, Spanish, Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern and related peoples from other parts of the world has enhanced our holiday observations.
Like Christmas tree ornaments taken each year from attic or basement, today’s families pick and choose what to keep, which to use, and what to discard. The little paper cutoouts children made in kindergarten, the funny ornament Aunt Bessie gave us, the fragile glass bird carefully passed down from generation to generation are all part of the decorating rituals. Fashions may change and what looked cute once may look rather dated in the light of a new generation. The same is true of observances and rituals.
Regardless what we choose to do or not to do as the holidays come around, what really matters is the meaning of the act, the memories associated with it, and the good feeling it brings to the heart. For some it’s midnight mass and singing carols that warms and enlivens, for others it’s the Chanukah, or the Yule or Solstice feast that brings gladness and renews the spirit. At the darkest time of the year, as we participate in them, the bright memories that surround our holiday customs bring a sense of light and joy to the heart.