There was a stretch of time when my family hosted a “red and green dinner” on Christmas Eve when I was growing up. Everything from the main dish to the beverages had to be red or green. The kids’ milk was even dyed with food coloring. If the entrée was spaghetti, my mom would buy spinach pasta and my dad would make the marinara. For dessert we’d have mint ice cream with maraschino cherries, or layer cake dyed with more of that red and green (petroleum-based) product.
Other than your standard holiday customs—turkey, decorations, presents, lights, (cough) Bruce Springsteen’s “A Very Special Christmas” album—my family didn’t establish traditions other than the short-lived “red and green” dinner theme. In fact, my parents would say they “made a tradition out of no traditions.”
Eventually, as my two sisters and I got older, the red and green dinner evolved into a classier feast without color restrictions. Although, there was that one year when my dad attempted to start a “canned food only” holiday dinner, an idea that was shut down rather immediately by his three teenaged daughters.
Thing is, I’m a totally sappy, tradition-loving, tradition-craving person despite being surrounded by mostly tradition-less people. My family all out-voted me one year in favor of a tropical vacation, which meant “no tree, no presents and not a thing resembling Christmas whatsoever.” I complained right up until we touched down on the tarmac in the Grenadines. I swore to them that when I had a family of my own, I’d never break a tradition.
Over the last 12 years living in various cities, I’ve tried to implement annual dishes or gatherings; some last for more than a couple of holidays, but others don’t. I’ve made Julia Child’s beef bourguignon for Christmas dinner a few times. I’ve established “Friendsgiving” as an alternative for friends who can’t (or don’t want to) travel home. There was one year when I had to work Christmas Eve in New York City and couldn’t make it home to my family, so I invited my coworkers over for cheese and beer and pie, thinking maybe I could re-enact the same scene for years to come (little did I know, most of the people at that dinner would move out of the city within a year, including myself).
What I’ve discovered living on my own is that establishing holiday traditions and keeping them is hard—it takes forethought and work—and for some, traditions can be boring or simply not a priority. After all, rituals are weird and subjective. One person’s idea of a tradition might be someone else’s nightmare.
Christmas Day a few years ago, I woke up, put the kettle on, prepped some gifts and turned up Springsteen’s “Merry Christmas Baby.” My boyfriend emerged from the bedroom looking a little confused, motioning to the stereo. “What kind of Christmas music is this?” he said, laughing. “Can we put something on that’s a little more traditional?”
Claire Jeffers is a freelance writer living in Portland. She’s worked as a cook, server, recipe tester, barista, bar reviewer, cheesemonger and personal chef. These days, she’s a home cook, but only when she can fight off the temptation to dine out.