In this edition of Town & Country, Katherine (who lives in rural Ontario) and Margaret (who lives in New York City) compare the different ways in which they celebrate the holiday season.
Katherine: The most wonderful time of year
There’s something about Christmas in a cold, snowy place that makes it feel so right. It matches those classic storybook illustrations of a cozy cottage piled high with snow, surrounded by white-frosted trees and colourful lights twinkling through a dark evergreen forest, a touch of wood smoke in the frigid air. It may sound like a dream world, but that’s pretty much how my parents’ house appears at Christmastime, minus a bell-decked sleigh and stomping horse out front.
Inside, all peace and quiet gives way to a state of happy chaos. Children race around. Pots and pans bang in the kitchen. Someone is playing carols on the piano while a few people sing. Others argue loudly, wineglasses in hand. It’s too warm, with the wood-burning cook stove in competition with the fireplace at the other end of the house. But when you go upstairs, where beds are lined up dormitory-style to accommodate all the extended family, the air is cool and refreshing.
A spindly, Charlie Brown-esque tree stands in the living room. We traipsed through the bush several days earlier to select one to cut down. It always looks so much better in the wild than in our living room, where there are suddenly gaping spaces between branches that must be filled with ornaments and lights.
Christmas Eve tradition involves a pilgrimage to the tiny local church, where the usual weekly attendance of 10 people swells to a hundred. We enter in the late afternoon and walk out in darkness, to the magical glow of paper-bag lanterns lining the path and roadway.
At home, the house fills with extra guests as we prepare cheese fondue for dinner. We eat at the long dining table with a view of the fireplace and tree, swapping stories, catching up on the latest news, and trying to keep the kids’ immense joy under control. They race around in slightly demented circles, hardly able to bear the excitement of laying out Santa’s snacks, hanging their stockings, and making it through the long night.
There are a few rules in place for the morning. Nobody can go downstairs until everyone is awake. Only stockings may be opened before breakfast. We take turns opening presents. As torturous as these rules feel, it slows the process, draws out the anticipation, and makes the morning calmer for all.
Later in the day, we always go for a family hike through the forest. If the lake is frozen, we traipse over the ice, perhaps work at clearing a skating rink, or toboggan with the kids down the driveway.
Dinner comes at the end of it all, usually a local free-range turkey or ham that’s been roasting in the oven throughout the afternoon, with the usual contribution of Grandma’s pudding and homemade rolls. There's an odd assortment of family members, friends, and strangers in need of a place to share Christmas dinner. We spend a lazy evening digesting on the sofa, singing carols, playing with new presents, and feeling slightly sad that it will be a full year before this happens again.
Margaret: New and old traditions
The Christmases of my childhood were usually as cold and snowy as the ones Katherine describes, just across the border in Michigan. But now my parents have retired to San Diego, and I live in New York City, and as I’ve grown up our traditions have evolved too.
Since I was a kid, it has been my job to decorate the tree. I love the process of carefully unpacking the ornaments, many of which were made by my mother and grandmother. It’s new for me to decorate a Christmas tree inside while looking at the palm trees outside, but I’m more than looking forward to some sunny days and perfect Southern California weather.
For the past several years, our Christmas has just been the the three of us—so cooking both a big dinner and a big breakfast gets a bit silly. Instead, one of my father’s gifts is to take us all out for a special dinner on Christmas Eve, and last year we ate with a beautiful view of ocean.
On Christmas day, just like in Katherine’s family, no one opens presents until we are all awake and sitting by the tree. Between my time change from East to West coast and my mother’s love of mornings, that usually means waiting for my dad to wake up. My mom and I will make tea and play Christmas carols until he emerges. We all open a few gifts before breakfast. Christmas breakfast is eggs Benedict, a tradition that’s been passed down from my mother’s side of the family. There’s usually pie and other sweets too, and no shortage of eggnog.
Then we finish opening the gifts. In the past several years, our focus has moved away from “stuff” and towards experiences. They prefer to get things like favors, recipes, music and photos. My father usually asks for books, and once one of them is opened we inevitably lose his attention for some portion of the day. But that’s OK, this day is for doing what you please and enjoying the laziness of it.
This year, my mom asked for a compost bin and for help setting it up. Meanwhile, my dad has been telling me about all the cool birds and wildlife he’s seen around the house. It’s no wonder I turned out to be such a nature lover, it comes so much from them.