I’ve been thinking about the magic of Christmas. Long after my brother and I were old enough to know the truth about Santa, my mother insisted that Christmas didn’t rely on the existence of a chubby old elf improbably squeezing down the chimney. There was a Christmas spirit, a magical frame of mind that infused the holiday and made it special.
I’m starting to think that that intangible Christmas spirit took shape in our traditions. It’s that combination of decorations, food, and rituals that brings us back to childhood and creates a certain kind of magic.
For us, like so many others, one of us forgoes our Christmas traditions every other year to spend the holidays immersed in the foreign holiday rituals of the other’s family. It can be exciting to see how other people spend Christmas. But the experience can also feel anthropological, like an outsider working to study and understand but not to contribute and immerse.
I like the Polish traditions. Waiting for the first star as the cue to start in on the 12 dishes of Christmas Eve dinner. Eating only fish and vegetables because on Christmas Eve animals can talk. Next comes presents from Santa opened in a chaotic flurry. Then on Christmas Day we have a feast that more than makes up for the pescatarianism of the night before. This is typically followed by a stroll through the village to admire the mysterious infrastructure (sidewalks to nowhere, abandoned factories, aborted building projects) of a place still regaining its footing after the destruction of war and communism.
To my husband, this is the real Christmas. But to me it feels, in a way, like Christmas never happened at all because those family rituals, so ingrained as a child, were replaced with these others. I long for stockings hung by the chimney with care and Christmas morning breakfast of warm cinnamon rolls. I miss throwing in a joke present for my mom just to see if she can find a reason to like an outhouse calendar or a shiny pickle ornament.
During our American-based Christmas celebrations we like to incorporate Radek’s Polish heritage by serving a traditional Wigilia dinner of fish and pierogi. But because of cultural differences and maybe even a nationalistic fear of cultural dilution, I’m discouraged from adding any of my holiday rituals to our celebration here in Poland. Radek already gets enough flack from his family for having become too Americanized. I don’t want to make it any harder for him than it already is.
When it comes to travel, I generally feel like a one person choir singing “Go Tell It On The Mountain” to any person contemplating buying a backpack. But this time of year the theme of home is so pervasive and travel can seem at odds with that sentiment. Traveling as a family over the holidays, the most important thing isn’t opening our minds to new experiences and embracing new places as is so often the case when we leave the house. The most important (and often challenging) thing is building those unique traditions, specific to our family, so that we can create Christmas magic for our daughter wherever we may be.