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It doesn’t matter how a tradition starts, as long as you have fun doing it.
It’s never too late to start a new family tradition.
Traditions have to start sometime, after all. There must have been a first spectator to throw a fedora on the ice after a hat trick, the first genius to pour molten maple syrup on snow, the guy who decided dropping a sparkly time ball would be an exciting thing to mark the turn of the new year.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, unable to travel or gather in the usual ways, many of us had to improvise in marking occasions without the usual fanfare. In many cases, big parties and family dinners were swapped for simpler celebrations with our immediate families.
Pandemic aside, deciding what customs to keep or discard from your own upbringing can be a tricky undertaking if you choose to have children of your own. If you co-parent, it can be fraught deciding whose holiday traditions will win out. And in blended families, the stakes feel even higher. How do you keep a sense of continuity for your kids while establishing the rituals of your new family? Most importantly, how can you make the holidays feel special, not just for the kids but for the adults, too?
Growing up, most of my family traditions were religious: weekly lighting of the candles on the advent wreath, going to midnight mass, singing Christmas carols. On the secular side of things, we would watch White Christmas and lean into decorating with a fully loaded balsam fir, several tabletop trees, a model train, a porcelain English village nestled on cotton fluff snow, and an animatronic angel with loudly crinkling white robes that always made it sound like something was on fire.
But I’m not religious, and I don’t want to go overboard with decorations, so all that’s left is watching White Christmas. It doesn’t feel like a lot to bring to the family table. Yet over the years, I’ve collected a few other holiday habits: completing the Globe and Mail’s giant crossword puzzle, rewatching the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy and bringing home a couple of panettones, thanks to the power of suggestion at the grocery store. After years of living in Quebec, I’ve started serving tourtière on Christmas Eve.
But this holiday break, I think we should sustain the improvisatory spirit of the past few years and start some new traditions. It’s all too easy to let our precious time off go by in a blur of cooking, cleaning and naps.
Find an activity you like and convince your family to do it with you — ideally, paired with a delicious treat. With any luck, it’ll be so much fun you’ll want to do it again next year. Better yet, let everyone in the family choose an activity: e.g. a favourite winter sport, movie, or game.
Here’s what I’m hoping for this holiday: a family dance party with bubbly and ginger ale. Travel mugs of hot chocolate and going downtown to look at the Ogilvy window display outside the McCord Museum and the lights at Place des Arts. More hot chocolate, paired with skating at Beaver Lake or La Fontaine Park. Eggnog and Boggle. Pannetone and putting together puzzles. Baking snickerdoodles with liberal cookie dough sampling allowed. Writing down and reading out our New Year’s resolutions.
And one of these years I hope to emulate an Icelandic tradition that has attracted global attention on social media: the Jólabókaflóðið, or “book flood,” in which family members exchange gifts of new books on Christmas Eve and spend the evening reading and drinking hot chocolate. Win-win.
It doesn’t matter how a tradition starts, as long as you have fun doing it. According to the NHL, throwing hats onto the ice can be traced back at least in part to promotional gimmicks by Toronto and Montreal menswear companies. The New Year’s Eve ball drop was started by the owner of the New York Times to plug their new headquarters. Iceland’s book flood began with the annual circulation of a new book catalogue by the Icelandic Publishers Association.
For some, the idea of inventing or adopting traditions is a non-starter, but however we celebrate and whatever we believe, we should embrace the holiday traditions that make us happy.
Saleema Nawaz’s latest book is Songs for the End of the World. Visit her website, saleemanawaz.com.
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