Traditions are generally handed down through families, from one generation to the next. Keeping these traditions feels sacred somehow--especially holiday traditions. Placing the same decorations in the same places year after year, serving the same meals on holidays that your mother served, going to the same places, singing the same songs...
But like language, traditions evolve over time. Young families blend disparate traditions and create their own combined set to pass on to their children. Families new to the U.S. bring traditions with them and pick and choose from among those they discover here to pass on to their children. Each generation ends up speaking a slightly different dialect of Holiday.
I've done this in reverse.
I brought home from Germany a whole host of traditions to add to those I grew up with. I discovered advent calendars while living in Jülich and we started opening one of the 24 windows each December morning until Christmas Eve. I still send my grown children one every November. We started celebrating St. Nicholas Day while in Germany, putting out a boot to be filled with small presents on December 6th. I wonder if my children will continue this when they have little ones?
We also brought home from Germany a beautiful handmade wooden carrousel, but started lighting the tiny candles to make it spin for a few delightful minutes every evening on December 7th, el Día de las Velitas (the Day of the little Candles) a lovely celebration that I discovered in Colombia. Which one of them will claim this new family heirloom, I wonder, and will their children ever trace back the December 7th candle-lighting start date to my stint in South America back in the 1970s? There is usually a seed of logic in even the most incomprehensible tradition.
I also imported buñuelos from Colombia. These fried dough delicacies are an intrinsic part of Christmas, served with natillas. Yum! And I generally cook up a big pot of Ajiaco, a delicious stew with chicken, yuca and capers that is ubiquitous in chilly Bogotá, particularly on Christmas Eve.
But I have just discovered a lovely tradition that I plan to adopt this year from a country I have never lived in or even visited.
In Iceland, literary and holiday pleasures are melded into a single remarkable event, the Jólabókaflóð (pronounced yo-la-bok-a-flot), or Yule Book Flood. On December 24th, families and friends gather to give each other a book, and then spend the rest of the night curled up reading, often with some hot chocolate or jólabland (fizzy orange drink mixed with brown ale).
Does that not sound like the ultimate in hygge, to invoke that uber Danish concept that roughly translates to a rich combination of utter coziness, low-key celebration and keen self-care?
I am starting the Yule Book Flood tradition this week. I have chosen a special book for each of my family members and friends and I plan to give them on Christmas Eve, just like in Iceland. By next year perhaps I can turn this into the exchange it is intended to be (and receive a few gift books myself...). What a great way to discover new authors and read books you might never have stumbled across otherwise. And spending the Night Before Christmas in bed with a book sounds absolutely delightful.
And that, Virginia, is how holiday traditions are born.
May your holidays be laden with beloved traditions and full of friends, family and joy.