December 4, 2006

Family Christmas Traditions

Many families have them, sometimes we talk about them, sometimes we don't. Sometimes we love the traditions and sometimes we don't. Well I come from a big Irish family. One who actually creates traditions so we have yet more reasons to all get together. We get together a lot. Well I should say they do as I am from New York where all my extended family is and we currently live in Minnesota. This was actually my first Thanksgiving home in 13 years! Still I was raised with these traditions so even if I don't have the opportunity to do them every year I know them by heart and they still feel like my traditions because I know that my family is doing them a few states away.

Some signs of the tradition still show up even in Minnesota. For example if you come to my home during the holidays you will likely notice that you are drinking out of a 12 days of Christmas mug and that as much as I am not a knick knack type person I have a full set of the 12 days of Christmas mugs and plates. This does seem out of place for my personality, but it a big part of who I am.

How can a song be a big part of who I am? Well it is a long story and it involves some crazy but fun family traditions that I am about to explain. As I said I grew up in a big family. My father is the middle child of 5 and when his siblings grew up and got married they all had a bunch of kids and we all get together A LOT. I grew up with aunts and uncles close like extended parents and cousins that at times felt like siblings. We are not quite My Big Fat Greek Wedding but something closer to that than to most families only we are Irish. Everyone is in everyone's lives and knows everyones business and everyone loves one another unconditionally and we spend time together.

At no time is this more apparent than during the holidays. Thanksgiving dinner had 26 people all around the table - yes it was one huge table and we were not even all there - that was only some of us we spent the day together. We were at my uncle's house from about 3pm until nearly midnight. My kids just jumped right in and even though we have not been around much you would not know it with how well everyone was getting along and how seamless it was to jump back in. One of the things I love about my family is there really is no gender divide. It is not women in the kitchen men watching football kind of a day. Sure some women were in the kitchen and so were some men. Some men and boys watched football but so did some women and everyone was so mixed up there is no divide like that - I love that and was raised thinking that was normal. Then grew up to see that it is rare. But everyone has Thanksgiving traditions and there really isn't anything unique about ours other than the fact that we always have sardines (well they do we are vegetarian).

What is unusual is about to come now. Two days later we returned to the same home for the first tree decorating party of the season. My dad and his siblings all go to each others homes to decorate their Christmas trees together and make a big party day of it. This year the first party was early to catch those out of towners here for Thanksgiving. So we arrive around 4 pm and visit and just chat - yes we still had lots to talk about just two days later. We had dinner and then started decorating the tree together complete with teams of people holding the garland as it is strung and many critics on how the lights and garland look on the tree. Years of shared memories and ornaments are there and we sing a lot. We don't know all the words and we make some up sometimes and we hum a lot. But we also have a lot of fun. We pick individual songs as we go up. Like Rhia this year "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth" or "I'll have a blue Christmas" when an ornament goes up for someone not there or "Grandma Got run over by a reindeer" when a new grandma puts her ornament on the tree. It is crazy and silly and a lot of fun and a big part of who I am.

Not only do we put ornaments up together but our family carries on a tradition from my grandma's house started long ago, I always remember it so it has been going on to me what feels like forever, at least from the time I was a young child. Every member of the family has an ornament with his or her name on it. We put them on the tree in the order you came to the family. So sometimes like in my case I put an ornament on before my uncle who is older than me because I was born before he married my aunt. We start and the top and work our way down to the newest family member - which can at times include a serious boyfriend or girlfriend. When each family member puts their ornament on the tree they have to pick a song for everyone to sing while they walk to the tree and put their ornament on. Yes we have a big family and yes this takes a long time and yes we have repeat songs but it is a lot of fun and it is uniquely us.

Then after this is all done desert is typically served and at the table you will find glasses or mugs with eggnog. Whether you drink eggnog or not you need to take a glass. Your glass typically includes your whole family group or some combination of people as there are only 12 glasses and many more of us. Then the fun begins as family members try to swap glasses, steal them sometimes, or try to con someone out of their glass. The goal for most family members is to get the highest possible number and avoid the low numbers, except for 5 which is always in high demand and 2 which is almost always assigned unofficially. Wondering what is going on. Well in my family at the tree decorating and at Christmas we always sing the 12 days of Christmas. You and your group of people have to sing the part of your cup. Thus the desire for high numbers as the lucky winner of 12 only has to sing once and the two turtle doves sing just about every time. Somewhere along the way we agreed that everyone would sing the partridge in a pear tree part, two turtle doves is usually reserved for a certain couple (such as the newest, or soon to be married, or just married, etc) and five is coveted and fought over. It is another fun and goofy tradition that I love as does everyone else. We grumble when we get a low number and we do try to get the other cups but all enjoy doing it and it is a part of who we are.

One other thing I forgot to mention whenever a door opens and someone arrives at the house we all sing "We wish you a Merry Christmas" and head for the door, no matter where we are in the house. It is really a great way to be greeted and to greet one another at the holidays. For many years on Christmas day we ended up with an impromptu band in the basement complete with drummers, guitarists and singers. We have mistletoe, and eggnog, liquor and lots of snacks and all the normal things that other families have but we also have our own traditions that make us who we are. So that is why I have a 12 days of Christmas set here. Though we have never had the family here to decorate a tree - Minnesota is just a bit too cold not to mention too far for most of them to travel. Still the traditions are part of who I am and hope to pass on to my children and eventually their children.

We have many other "Irish traditions" in our big clan. Next summer I can share more about the Family Olympics which is when we all get together and divide into teams the in-laws and the outlaws (who are the actual blood siblings) and compete in athletic events against each other for a prize at the end. We have elaborate themes, catch goldfish with our bare hands and have a lot of fun. Yet another "tradition" created so we could get together. Hope you enjoyed a glimpse into my history and family. Anything you want to share about your own holiday traditions?



  1. reading this made my day. I have always pushed hard to make sure we continiue some of our crazy traditions and was always concerned that the traditions would sometime go by the wayside. Knowing that the next generation looks forward to our family traditions and plan on continuing to keep these traditions alive well into the future puts me quickly into the holiday spirit. Traditions even if they appear silly to some are what keeps us together as a tight knit family. I usually get some strange looks when I explain traditions like the Family Olympics to people but in the end it usually ends up with the person saying I wish I was part of your family. Having a big family that stays together makes the individual stronger and makes the celebrations that much more special

    Family Forever

  2. Mom Said:

    After reading this I am crying...I am glad that you love and keep up the traditions and it makes me even sadder that you and your brothers are not here to share in these crazy days. This is who your father is and why he loves the holidays so...I have no fond childhood memories of the holidays and my life and love of the holidays started when I met your father...I am now back to not wanting to do the holidays because there is no one here to share with them...even though the extended family embraces us we still miss all of you and at these occasions it is so evident how proud that I raised four such independent children who could move away and stand on their own...but, it is a two edge sword this pride for it makes it more evident while I am with the rest to the extended family and their children are around that mine are not. I dwell in the love and knowledge that you are all doing well and love where you are and it makes it better...but, I will always miss you and your brothers and will always love the rememberance of the christmases and holidays that I shared with all of you when you were little...treasure those now with your little ones for unfortunately the years slip by all too quickly....keep up the singing and the traditions and all the crazy things you were brought up with...the circle goes on, and on...Love you all always...Mom