It’s funny the traditions we hold dear. I remember fondly many holiday seasons singing carols around the piano, steeping fruitcakes in rum, testing the tree lights to see which had survived another year in storage.
Then there was the annual appeal from my father just days before Christmas: “Any gift ideas for mom?” We’d slip out to brave the crowds, dangerously close to the deadline, Santa’s little soldiers on the front lines of the Christmas rush.
These are the memories that survive, long after gifts and painstakingly planned holiday menus have been forgotten.
So when my own children were past the crawling stage, I started shopping around for our own family rituals, trying some on for size, discarding ones that did not fit. Call it the trial and error approach. Our mistakes have helped us perfect traditions I hope my children will enjoy long after they stop believing in you-know-who.
The first tradition we claimed as our own was an immediate hit: the gingerbread house-raising. Inspired by childhood memories of a friend who made edible castles with turrets, towers and mosaic walls of red-hots and jelly beans, I began by consulting Web sites and magazines for blueprints and recipes to make it from scratch. There were pages and pages of them.
In the end, I bought a kit at the supermarket for $19.99, with gingerbread and frosting mix and a cardboard container that doubled as the foundation. You still had to mix, roll, cut, bake and then piece the dough together with icing “glue.”
This required an accuracy I don’t possess, and you would not have called the resulting house structurally sound. Not that that bothered the children. They were delighted to heap on bags of M&Ms, gumdrops and peppermints until all surfaces vanished. They posed for a photo with their rococo creation, and a tradition was born.
The next Christmas, I opted for a kit with the gingerbread already cut and baked. We still had to mix the frosting and piece the house together, but it looked less likely to be condemned. Definitely the way to go for us.
A wide selection of gingerbread kits — from mix to preassembled houses — is available online or at supermarkets and gourmet stores, starting as low as $9.99. Or you can always piece a house together with graham crackers and vanilla frosting.
For those determined to start from scratch, here’s some advice from my town’s gingerbread expert, who enters her construction in a contest every year:
“You have to plan it out. You can’t just say, ’Let’s make a gingerbread house tomorrow,”’ says Marguerite Kret, of Maplewood, N.J. Her husband rolls out the stiff dough, and her daughters come up with decorating ideas.
“I usually assemble it over two nights, getting the walls done the first night and the roof and chimney the second,” she says. “You have to let it set overnight before you start heaping icing and candy on.”
Once the gingerbread house gets our creative juices flowing, we’re warmed up for tradition No. 2: baking Christmas cookies.
You don’t need a lot of equipment or expertise to pull off a variety of colorful cookies. Many parents of young children already have a collection of cookie cutters — they’re usually covered with play dough.
“If you’re a novice, don’t go crazy putting so much stress on yourself that the task seems impossible. If you need to buy something pre-made, then go ahead,” says Karen Ciancio, editor of CookNook.com.
The first year we made cookies, I had collected so many recipes I was overwhelmed. I gave up and just rolled out sugar cookies. The children made shapes, sprinkled them with colored sugar, baked them and, presto, we had Christmas cookies.
A good trial run. The next year I experimented with a few recipes in small batches, then settled on four varieties. Making small batches is not only a good way to test a recipe, but it keeps cookie-making sessions shorter. Kids do love rolling dough and cutting out shapes, but their attention spans can crumble long before you make it to the second batch.
So be prepared to do a lot of the decorating yourself, or invite neighbors to join in.
After our cookies are baked, decorated and tied up with ribbon, we set out as a family to knock on neighbors’ doors and dole out some holiday cheer.
The door-to-door theme leads us to another Christmas tradition I’ve tried to revive, with less success: caroling.
In my younger years, the season always offered a variety of caroling invitations, whether to the door-to-door variety, an informal gathering around a piano, or an organized event in a church or auditorium. With no invites forthcoming these days, I decided to organize a caroling party myself.
It was a flop.
My first mistake was to assume that knocking on doors and singing songs to your neighbors is easy. I provided no sheet music, no flashlights, no rehearsals. I assumed the lyrics would roll off our tongues, and that we’d start in the same key and tempo. In the end, our repertoire of 12 Christmas classics was reduced to “Jingle Bells” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” And we didn’t do those very well.
The next year, I was better prepared. I ordered sheet music, instructed people to bring flashlights, and we agreed on a modest selection of five or six songs. We even rehearsed each one before setting out. Still, traveling in packs of 15 to 20, including small children, was chaotic. You couldn’t tell if you were singing the same song everybody else was.
One year later, I hit paydirt in the form of a professional singer who joined our ranks. She was the powerhouse we needed to hold the group together musically. Fortuitously, we also thought to agree upon the song we would sing before we actually rang the doorbell.
But there remains one formidable barrier to claiming the caroling tradition as our own: The children don’t like it. They may enjoy the hot cider and cookies that follow, but singing outside on a cold, dark night does not fill them with holiday spirit.
So this season, I’ll try to find an indoor caroling party, the kind organized by many churches, chambers of commerce or museums.
I would happily settle for a community sing, or a smaller crowd of friends around an old, upright piano. Perhaps with a few more years of practice, we’ll find the perfect fit.