I’ve always envied people who grew up with holiday traditions. The Hoekstra clan has never exchanged fruitcakes or watched Miracle on 34th Street on Christmas Day. We trim the tree when it’s convenient, rather than at midnight, and our Yuletide feast varies from year to year: Ham dominates, but turkey, beef, Cornish hens, and even ravioli have appeared on the menu, too. Intermittently, we’ve attended performances of The Nutcracker, Messiah, and even Black Nativity, but nothing really ever stuck.
Part of the problem with settling on a good tradition is that my family ancestry is Dutch. Other nationalities have respectable Christmas rituals: The Germans sing “O Tannenbaum” and make wooden ornaments; the French bake bouche de Noël; the Norwegians wait for the arrival of a gift-bearing gnome; and the Swedes have Santa Lucia. The Dutch? Well, they believe that Saint Nicholas arrives on a boat from Spain and is accompanied by a black guy named Zwarte Piet who hauls bad children off to the Barbary Coast. I trust you can see why this is a bad idea even without my mentioning that reenactments often involve somebody in blackface.
Sometimes you have to invent your own traditions. A few years ago, in an attempt to inject some extra jolliness into my family’s holiday gathering, I bought a box of “Christmas crackers” at Williams-Sonoma and took them to my parents’ home in southern Minnesota. A paragraph on the back of the box indicated that crackers were an English tradition, enjoyed the world around, from Scotland to New Zealand. “The instructions say you pull on the ends,” I explained, passing the crackers—which resembled giant Tootsie Rolls—around the table. My mother tugged at the favor’s wrapping and it burst in two, emitting a short, sharp sound like a cap gun going off. Inside was a short cardboard tube, and inside that was a piece of hard candy and a tissue-paper hat. Every cracker, in fact, contained headgear. Puzzled, I consulted the box. “They’re crowns!” I announced enthusiastically. I put mine on.
My sister-in-law poked at her crown. “It’ll mess up my hair,” she sniffed. Bah, humbug.
Let me be clear: I like the holidays, and I like my family. Typically, on Christmas Day, we go to church and exchange presents and eat a big dinner and fall asleep in overstuffed chairs in front of the TV for an hour in the afternoon—a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell. But can you blame a guy for wanting something more? A holiday tradition that celebrates the bonds shared not only by kinsmen, but by countrymen? Some spiritual connection that unites us as Americans? Something more than our unique, unflagging, much-coveted ability to nap in a La-Z-Boy?
A few years ago, an older couple I know invited me to join them for their annual holiday ritual: an afternoon of lefse-making. I briefly hesitated (would pickled herring be served at lunch?) and then accepted. As the windows fogged up, Marilyn rolled out the dough and Mike manned the griddle. The paper-thin sheets piled up by the side of the stove as we drank strong coffee and listened to old St. Olaf Choir recordings. It wasn’t my family’s tradition, and the lefse was no bouche de Noël. But it was conversation, connection, and comfort.
Wishing you the same this holiday season.
Joel Hoekstra, Editor