Untraditional Traditions

  • By Art Taylor
  • December 21, 2015

The unconventional things we eat, do, and read that make the holidays special.

Untraditional Traditions

The Thanksgiving turkey. The Christmas goose or ham. A toast of bubbly on New Year’s Eve, and then black-eyed peas and collards on New Year’s Day.

That last one is a regional tradition, of course, but one that I’ve long followed — and one that my wife, Tara, from Pennsylvania, has adopted for herself (admittedly a little begrudgingly where the collards are concerned).

Various traditions may seem both immemorial and immutable. Just try introducing an original dish into some folks’ Thanksgiving line-up! But the truth is that such customs are made — and adopted and adapted and mutated — and to my mind, it’s the more original, more specific ones that prove the most interesting.

Alongside other dishes at Christmastime (my dad roasts a tasty pork shoulder), my family somehow developed a habit of having a Ro-tel, Velveeta, and sausage dip, as well. Even now, the holidays don’t seem right without it — and I’ve got a chunk of Velveeta waiting in the kitchen right now for the big day.

And as for switching things up, in recent years, my wife and I have twisted a little that Southern need for collards on January 1st, incorporating them into a za'atar-flavored cheesy-greens-and-rice recipe from Joe Yonan’s Eat Your Vegetables.

A few years back, Tara and I began to reflect more actively together on our respective traditions — on choosing which ones to follow, making those our own, and also creating new ones. Part of it was that we come from different regional, cultural, and religious backgrounds, and we wanted to respect and fold those together. Part of it was the birth of our son, Dashiell, and a keener focus on the experiences we were curating for him.

In terms of Christmas, Tara and I selected a few customs to try to cultivate — the most central of which (after Dash was born) was simply being home on Christmas morning itself, and I also like each of us to open a single present on Christmas Eve (a couple of mystery gifts are already earmarked for that).

Several years back, Tara also suggested that we have pierogies each Christmas Eve dinner; two weeks ago, with a little help from Dash and me, she whipped up several dozen of them from scratch so we’d be ready this year. We’d also considered a Christmas Day chili — the idea being to test out a new recipe annually — but already that’s shifted a little; we’re toying with slow-cooker concoctions instead, implementing that potentially new tradition for the first time later this week.

Reading is central to most everything we do, of course, and the holidays are no exception. A couple of Christmas classics — both old and new — must be read aloud at least once each year: Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and William Joyce’s Santa Calls, which may be my favorite children’s book of all time.

We also started up the idea of reading a Christmas-themed short story the night before the big day — though maybe not the most expected ones. James Joyce’s “The Dead” was one year’s selection, and William Maxwell’s “The Lily-White Boys” stands out in memory, detailing the theft from a Park Avenue apartment of a ruby ring, cabochon emeralds, moonstones, a peridot-and-tourmaline pin, and other valuables, and then a chorus of testimony from the “material witnesses” to the crime: the red stair-carpet finding its voice, and the mirror over the lowboy, the table with the cigarette scar, the fire irons, and more — all of whom know the inhabitants of the house perhaps better than they know themselves.

(What’s on tap for this year’s Christmas Eve? Surprises are in store for Ms. Tara, with a bit of a hint in this very column.)

What are other people’s reading, watching, or eating traditions? I’m particularly interested in hearing about any personal or peculiar rituals of the season. Truth is, we may be on the lookout for more to consider ourselves.

Art Taylor is the author of On the Road with Del & Louise: A Novel in Stories. His short fiction has won two Agatha awards, the Anthony Award, the Macavity Award, and three Derringer awards.

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