…And a Partridge in a Pear Tree

Anyone who knows me is aware that I have a bit of an addiction.  To Christmas.

(Yeah, yeah…I realize that I’m a few weeks late on this post, but cut me a break.  I was busy celebrating!)

It isn’t just about the specific Christian holiday for me – it’s about the season altogether.  I was raised in a Norman-Rockwell postcard-perfect New England town, and my college was much the same.  For me, December has always meant warmth and togetherness and love.  I make potato latkes, homey soups and stews, trade gifts with friends, and avidly decorate my house.  I start planning my Christmas Day meal in October.  I’m just as happy to curl up by the fire on New Year’s Eve as I am to party in downtown Boston (or Austin, depending on the year).

This year, I was happy to make it back to Amherst for the kind of holiday that I remember with my family.  I spent one of my days in New England traveling to Connecticut, where I met some new family members.  The afternoon was filled with festive foods, games, sock puppet construction, mischievous dogs, and carol-singing.  It was my idea of the perfect Christmas party in so many ways.

That crew sang a raucous version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” … which got me thinking about all of the many things that I love about the holidays.  Some of those things are personal and specific to me.  Others are traditions for other families, too.  In honor of that song, here are just twelve of my favorite holiday traditions:

#1:  Working out with my mom

When I come home from Austin, I’m thrown off my fitness routine.  What to do without a gym membership?  My yoga studio?  Texas temperatures?  My boyfriend’s backyard weights?  My ultimate games?  But in truth, I often get a better workout back in Massachusetts, going to my mom’s gym for her intervals and cardio classes.  I always look around at the post-menopausal group and think, with no small amount of hubris, “I got this.”  And without fail, I’m dead wrong.  So wrong that I find myself bent over now and then, hands on my knees, struggling to catch my breath, feeling my groin muscles scream at me during squat after squat.

My mom is a true athlete.  She’s a rock star.  I should know better than to underestimate her fitness – and that of her friends.  But most of all, I love the example that she sets and the togetherness that these workouts provide.  Sure, I still go for runs alone, hit up my old yoga instructor for a class or two, and head to the Amherst College gym with my dad.  But there’s something fun and special about those morning classes with my mom.

#2:  Watching my younger brother open presents

I’ve heard parents say that they get to experience the wonder of Christmas through the eyes of their young children.  My family has much the same experience with my 28-year-old brother, Brendan.

Brendan was born with a rare syndrome that’s made him developmentally disabled.  He’s intelligent and social, humorous and fun, but he still maintains some of the innocence and joy that we usually only see in kids.  Brendan doesn’t care what’s inside the gifts; he just wants the experience of tearing into the paper.  He laughs out loud, signing “more” immediately after he’s finished tossing each box aside.  (This inevitably leads to all of us allowing him to open our remaining presents.)

It was the same deal this year when my parents and I took Brendan to a local park to see a display of model trains, visit Santa and Mrs. Claus, and ride on a real train that drove us through holiday lights set up along the  grounds.  The four of us linked arms against the cold, sang along with the Christmas music playing on the ride, and watched B light up just as much as the displays.

#3:  Yankee Candles

It’s a store where it’s Christmas year-round!  And they have candles with scents like “Cookies for Santa” and “Home for the Holidays” and “Christmas Eve”!

‘Nuff said.

#4 & #5:  Twilight Runs and Twinkly Lights

On Christmas day, I took a light run around my parents’ neighborhood at twilight.  My family was waiting on me to watch a movie, and the darkness was rapidly encroaching on the faux Victorians.  There was no time to spare.

After the presents and breakfast, I’d spent most of the day preparing dinner items, talking to my family, and napping by the fire.  So far, it had been perfect.  And that trend continued as I realized that twilight was actually the perfect time for some private moments of activity.  The lights were coming on in the neighborhood houses, making the snow and ice on the trees sparkle with a pre-sunset glow.  The air was chilly without being freezing.  I passed a few people, but for the most part it was a quiet, peaceful thirty (okay, twenty) minutes of alone time.  Just me, my iPod, and my thoughts.  I felt fast and healthy.  I watched my breath billow out in front of me.  I soaked in the brisk Christmas spirit amidst the growing dusk, the temperature, and the calm.

# 6, #7, and #8:  Sleeping in, Waking up early, and Naps by the Fire

I’m a teacher.  We work long hours for little pay and even less thanks and understanding.  My school begins its day extra-early, so most of us wake before 6:00am and stay up late grading papers.

Despite the difficult hours, I really love my job.  But when it’s winter break, and the hours stretch into days, and I have two weeks to visit my family…I’m even more thankful for what I do.  Because during those days, I can sleep in with my puppy, or lie in bed with my book until noon.  I can wake up early (like I did on Christmas) to make the dough for the dinner rolls.  I can stay up late watching movies or writing blog posts, knowing that there’s always time for an afternoon nap by the fire.

I wouldn’t want to go without a schedule all the time.  But during the days of Christmas break, I relish the lack of structure.

#9:  FOOD

I’m a pretty healthy person.  I try to practice portion control, and I really do love fruits and veggies.  I rarely touch fried food, and although I love cheese I’m attempting to cut back.  I love to cook, but I make an effort to balance my diet with exercise.

So when I do indulge, I go big.

At my house on Christmas, I make the dessert.  This year it was pumpkin pie and chocolate bourbon pecan.

On Christmas morning, my family eats a sausage-egg casserole that my mom prepares the night before.  We usually open our presents while it bakes, sipping coffee and listening to our growling stomachs.

Around ten years ago, we lost a good friend to cancer.  We spent many holidays with her, and she always made the best rolls.  Before she died, I got the recipe.  Ever since, Betsy’s rolls have been an important contribution to my Thanksgiving and Christmas tables.

This year we made turkey, but there’s also been ham and roast beef in the past.  My dad insists on mashed potatoes, and my brother usually eats a plate-load of stuffing.  If we can manage, we take a cold walk post-dinner to try and work off our food baby bellies.

#10:  Crowded Churches

I admit, this one is a little silly.

My family is notoriously late.  To everything.  It’s, like, a thing with us.  And we all know that Christmas Eve mass is popular and generally packed.  Add to that the fact that my brother is in a wheelchair and limited to where he sits, and you have a recipe for family grumpiness, frustration, and (inevitably) standing in the aisle rather than sitting comfortably through the service.  One year my middle brother and I even played hookie and got a drink at the bar down the street to avoid standing for 90 minutes in the choir loft.  (Not my proudest moment, but it was pretty damn fun.)

So as much as the whole will-we-get-a-seat thing can cause stress, it also brings us together in some kind of dysfunctional way.  We squeeze in close to each other; help with everyone’s jackets; whisper a little to loudly; critique the sermon; pick up Chinese food afterward.  It isn’t always pretty, and sometimes one of us gets a little impatient or short-tempered with the rest, but it wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without it.

#11 and #12:  Cookie Parties and Gift Exchanges

Growing up, I watched my mom come home from cookie parties with her friends all through December.  She’d come through the door with a tray covered in treats: chocolate mint squares and molasses chews; pumpkin bars and peanut brittle; jam thumbprints and peanut butter drops.

So what was I to do but start my own tradition when I got to college?

I started hosting my own cookie exchanges with my field hockey teammates around junior year, when we all got apartments and actually had working kitchens.  The gatherings were a hit.  (I still dream about Kelly’s 7-Layer bars and compare my own snowball cookies to Megan’s.)  Now that I’m in Austin, I’ve taken the tradition with me and added a gift exchange to the mix.  This year we had almost thirty people packed into Amanda’s kitchen, and we filled the house with the smell of mulled cider.  For the first time, we had the next generation there when Molly brought her daughter, Adelaide.  The five-year-old squealed (nay, screamed) with delight when she – quite miraculously – selected a gift that included a Dora the Explorer Santa hat.

I occasionally share the spoils with my students, but it isn’t even about the sweets anymore.  Now it’s a tradition that simply rings of friendship and urban family, and helps make Austin feel like home…even if it doesn’t have snow.

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