In the 1970’s, our family elf sat perched in a sleigh, arms around knees, on a coffee table in our paneled den during the entire Christmas season.
Today his active elf-shelf descendants are publicly pictured in precarious positions each day on Facebook. Holiday customs pass down from generation to generation, changing with the times.
Such on-the-spot evolution has occurred at our annual Christmas party. One year, we broke tradition by trimming the tree as we entertained a small group of friends and family. Multi-tasking. Decorating while entertaining turned out to be a bigger hit than guests guzzling red wine from decorative glasses. We had holiday party participation!
After a few broken ornaments and some memorable moments, one of our guests – a recent émigré from Croatia — noticed a pumpkin under the tree, a leftover from last month’s carving contest. In the most serious voice I could muster, I explained that in America a pumpkin under the tree symbolizes the changing of seasons from fall to winter, the greeting of the winter solstice and a reminder of Thanksgiving. Hailing from a country that treasured tradition, this made complete sense to her after watching us carve pumpkins only five weeks before then having our children dress up as their favorite character and run around the neighborhood collecting free candy from strangers.
The next year, we conned more guests into mandatory tree trimming. As we completed the task at hand, our favorite Croatian asked, “Where is the pumpkin?” She reminded us of the great American custom to move the pumpkin from the porch to under the tree to symbolize the transition of the holiday seasons. Like Huck Finn, I quickly caught on and told her that we almost forgot. We searched the house and found a leftover pumpkin decorating the top of the refrigerator and placed it under the tree to complete the trimming. The tradition took hold.
Soon after, it was decided that the pumpkin should be carried in from the cold by a large group of partiers. The procession is led by the eldest attendee carrying a lighted candle, followed by a ragtag group of young and old that would make Dr. Seuss proud. As the Christmas train makes a circuitous route around a boulder in the front yard then down the side of the house and through a sliding glass door, into the kitchen and arriving in a circle around the tree. The person who traveled the farthest distance (Croatia, again!) stands in as the caboose, thrusting the orange gourd high for all to see before placing it under the tree. The ceremony continues with 12 costume-clad paraders representing each day of Christmas leading us in a carol. A tall guy with deep voice jumps high as he represents ten lords-a-leaping. The milking maid carries a gallon of 2% fat free and children compete to be the goose who sacrifices a half-dozen real chicken eggs by the end of the song. Ms. Five Golden Rings has big lungs and lots of jewelry and naturally has lots of help from the audience.
Seasons change. Fall to winter. Halloween to Christmas. Neighbors move and loved ones are lost. But our traditions live on and benefit from the cross-section of people in our lives. Those least expected to participate have the most fun. The spectacle confuses newbies who are soon smiling and joining in with the rest. No gift exchange, no awkward pauses, nobody looking at their cell phone. Strangers become friends. Children mix with adults. Seniors talk about past Christmases. Everybody finds a role as they clap and sing the verses. They stay until the end. Last year we added Santa Claus trivia after the partridge in a pear tree. Where it will go next, nobody knows.
To turn your holiday party up a notch, do something different. Leave a pumpkin under the tree. Give a reason to sing. Get guests participating. People, not decorations, make the memories and create the holiday spirit.