"Without tradition our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof. -- Tevye the Dairyman in "Fiddler on the Roof"
Holiday rituals can be almost anything -- from a simple song to an elaborate candle-lighting ceremony.
The specific family custom is not so important, says sociologist Jay Schvaneveldt, "as the results it yields: the sense of 'we-ness' that grows out of shared experience and the feeling of rightness that comes from its repetition."
Anthropologists call holiday rituals "rites of intensification" -- seasonal traditions that reaffirm one's heritage, link generations, mark yearly milestones and reinforce the identities of specific social groups.
Holiday customs also have great emotional significance. The aura of security, belonging and love that surrounds a family feast can make the occasion as satisfying to the heart, say psychologists, as to the belly.
Children, in particular, seem to cherish holiday rituals that are repeated exactly -- without a single change -- every year. And while adults realize that life is change, they also yearn for continuity.
So amidst the inevitable uncertainties -- a favorite uncle dies, parents divorce, children move away -- family customs assume a special significance. The things that remain the same year after year, to perhaps nourish and inspire us, are the holiday rituals, such as these:
Amanda McKerrow, dancer:
"We always have a big Christmas Eve dinner at our house. My sister makes chestnut stuffing, my sister-in-law makes homemade mashed potatoes and my grandmother makes my favorite Waldorf salad. We have pumpkin pie and homemade ice cream for dessert . . . which is my weakness.
"It's the one time of the year I let myself go and really pig out. But this year I'll be fitting it in between 'Nutcracker' performances -- I'm dancing the sugar plum fairy and the snow queen -- so I'll have to go easy.
"After dinner my sister plays the piano, my father plays the trumpet, my two brothers each play a recorder and my sister and I sing Christmas carols. 'White Christmas' is our favorite. We've worked up a rendition with harmony.
"Then my two nephews help put the presents under the tree and hang up the stockings. The next morning we get up early. The stockings come first. Then we wait for my grandparents and other family members to arrive, and we open up all the presents. Then there's eggnog and cakes and Christmas cookies.
"It's been pretty much like that as long as I can remember. With my schedule as a dancer I don't have much time for holidays -- even my birthdays get sort of lost. So Christmas is very, very important to me."
Benjamin Spock, pediatrician:
"In my wife's family, reading aloud 'Twas The Night Before Christmas' on Christmas Eve was a must, so it became an important ceremony in our family, too. We all gathered around the fire, and got quiet while one of the parents read it. The impact was terrific . . . it choked up the whole family.
"In the family I grew up in, you could open one package the night before Christmas, which is something we did with our sons. There was always great deliberation as to which present to pick.
"On Christmas morning we opened the stockings -- there always had to be a candy cane sticking out the top. Then we had breakfast. We waited for my grandmother to come before we opened the big presents. She imposed a certain dignity upon the occasion."
Pearl Bailey, entertainer:
"Honey, I couldn't live if I didn't give. The thing for me at Christmas, and all through the year, is giving.
"When I came along we made a list which had to start off with Mother, Father, Auntie, school friends and everyone we would buy for. We never bought for ourselves. Then we took that $3 to Woolworth's, or wherever, and what that money could buy!
"I continued that list idea with my children. And I raised my children so that when we had Christmas, each person had a dinner plate in front of them. Before they opened the gift they'd take the card off and put it on the plate. Otherwise, the cards get lost and you never remember who sent you what.
"Then, before the holiday was through, they'd write a thank-you note to everyone who sent them a gift. It didn't have to be a long letter -- just an acknowledgment. If the person has taken the time to think of you, I think you should take the time to thank them.
"This year my husband and I aren't giving each other material gifts. We had a talk with each other when we moved from California to Arizona and started unpacking. We have so much stuff. What would we give to each other? Another bracelet?
"Instead, I'm going to buy him his toilet water that he'd buy for himself anyway, and he's going to buy me mine. We both like to smell nice. Then we'll take that money we would have spent on each other and put $50 here at a soup kitchen, and $50 there at the firehouse where they collect the toys for kids, and another $50 someplace else where they need it. That's how we'll celebrate Christmas this year."
Penne Laingen, wife of L. Bruce Laingen, former U.S. charge d'affaires in Iran and one of the hostages, now vice president of National Defense University at Fort McNair:
"This will be an especially nice Christmas, because it's the first time since the reunion at West Point that the family's all been together. Last Christmas was worse than the first one without Bruce, because our hopes kept going up and down. I bought a beautiful tree that we kept up until he came home on Jan. 26. We'd saved him two years' worth of presents.
"The Christmas tree is a very special symbol in this family, and we've collected ornaments from our travels around the world. When we were in Afghanistan they sold tall, skinny little trees made in Japan. In Pakistan we had poinsettias, one year we had a bamboo tree and in Malta we had a fake tree. At home we usually go out to the country a week before Christmas with very close friends to get a tree. We end up at an inn that's all decorated for Christmas.
"On Christmas eve we go to midnight services at All Saints Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase . . . it's the church I grew up in, where Bruce and I were married and our children were baptized. At the front of the church there's a little stained glass window of a lamb that they put a wreath around and sing 'Silent Night.' It's very effective and the children love it."
Dave Butz, Washington Redskin:
"I started playing Santa Claus for our 'No Greater Love' program when Ron McDole retired. They needed someone large to fill the part. I'm 6-6, 295 pounds. The kids' reactions are great. Santa always gets a big kiss. One year some mothers wanted to sit on my lap, too. That was fine with me.
"Last year, when my son was 3 years old, he and Mark Moseley's kids would have nothing to do with me in my Santa suit. They must have heard something familiar in my voice. When they were brought over to me they started crying.
"We usually make it back home (Belleville, Ill.) the night before Christmas. My mom and dad put up the tree and decorate it for us and stock the 'fridge. We pack the Christmas presents in the van last so they don't get crushed.
"Since we live in Washington half the year, Christmas Day is when the whole family gets together. We have a big Christmas breakfast, then everyone goes to church. In the afternoon a lot of people come by just to say 'hi' and see how we're doing. That's particularly special for me."
Julia Child, cook, author and TV personality:
"We're a food family, so much of our Christmas centers around food. We always have a nice big turkey -- so we can have a lot of leftovers -- and a good old ham. I've been working on a recipe where I soak the ham for two or three days, then steam it in port wine.
"My husband and his niece are very good at decorating the table . . . they arrange fruits and nuts in a handsome design. We usually cover the tree with things to eat -- popcorn garlands, candy canes and cookies that you make with a little hole punched in 'em that you can tie a string through. We have stockings filled with little jokes and one nice thing.
"We lived in Norway for two years and have adopted their practice of making toasts and little speeches at Christmas dinner. Each person says something about love and pleasure and affection. It gets quite sentimental. When we're through, everyone's in tears."
Charles "Lefty" Driesell, U. of Md. basketball coach:
"Christmas is also my birthday, but we usually don't make too big a deal about it because it's right in the middle of the season. My mother usually comes up to visit, my wife cooks the turkey and I usually get a birthday cake at the end.
"My wife and kids always get up real, real early -- like 6 a.m. -- and open up the gifts. I stumble in a little later, and we all go to church. Then we come back, eat dinner and watch the football or basketball game.
"This year I'll be 50, half a hundred. That should be good for something. Maybe they'll surprise me."
Tom Braden, writer:
"We still hang up stockings, even though our kids are all too old for stockings . . . the youngest's 16. All eight of them come home. Hanging the stockings is actually a big nuisance, but it's gotten to be sort of a sentimental rite that we do for old time's sake. We still put silver dollars in the toe . . . when I was a kid we always had silver dollars. Then, after Christmas, we collect them and save them in a box for next year because where can you get silver dollars these days?
"We no longer get up at the crack of dawn. Everybody sleeps until a decent hour, then we open the stockings and the presents. The decorations are usually things the kids made in school years ago that are getting a little worn and crumpled, but we still hang them up. We string cranberries on the tree . . . that's something my mother used to do.
"We pull out the old Christmas records, I think some are 78s. I have a record of John McCormick -- who was the leading Irish tenor in the '20s -- singing 'Silent Night.' After Christmas we wrap the records up and put them away until the next year."
Wes Unseld, vice president, Washington Bullets:
"We've combined ways my wife's family celebrates and ways my family celebrates to make our own traditions. The problem for me is being home on Christmas. We usually have a game, but most of the time it's a home game.
"My family used to go to church the night before Christmas. Our stockings were always stuffed with nuts and fruit and Christmas candy. When I grew up, as one of 10 kids in Kentucky, that's all we got at Christmas. We still stuff the stockings with nuts and candy, but my two kids get toys, too.
"Each year, my wife's tradition is that each one of us picks out a bulb for the tree that appeals to us. They're all different kinds, and some of them on our tree are very old and valuable.
"We have the traditional turkey dinner, and we may invite over some teammates who live out of town and can't be with their family. If there's a game I'll eat early. I can't really get too full.
"And then there's my eggnog. It's from my mother's special recipe, and it'll set you on more than your ear. But that's a once-a-year thing."