"And the rites are in time what the home is in space . . ."
-- Antoine de Saint-Exupery
MY HUSBAND and I had planned to start family traditions early. But the first few years of parenthood, in a perpetual daze from a triple dose of that delightful syndrome the books call "night waking," we took the easy way out. We propped an artifical tree in a playpen, produced a few carelessly wrapped presents and ordered Kentucky Fried Chicken for the holiday meal.
Once the children were old enough to make contact with other children, they began to complain.
Stuff like: "Rodney's mother has a wreath on her front door. Rodney's mother says Santa only comes to houses that have a wreath on their front door." And, "The Becksmith kids go to visit Santa every year. That's why they always get skateboards and boom boxes, and we get books. Santa doesn't know what we want!"
One year we were invited to an open house. Hanging by the fireplace were personalized embroidered stockings for each child.
"What a showoff," I whispered to my husband pointing at our hostess. "She probably bakes her own cookies, too." Later, I had second thoughts.
"Do you mind hanging up Daddy's sweatsocks?" I asked Adam.
"I'm always afraid Santa will think it's just the wash," Adam admitted. "Especially since there were no names on them."
This was not the Christmas spirit. Next year, I vowed, I would print nametags and pin them on the socks.
Everything you do with regularity could be called "custom." Imagine the year 2020, your adult children gathered together harking back to Christmas past.
"Remember how we'd always have turkey roll and instant mashed potatoes for Christmas dinner? And that nativity scene that was always on the mantle? Mom made it in ceramics and never finished it so there was no baby Jesus."
Traditions that you want them to remember could range from attending a yearly production of The Nutcracker to serving green olives on Christmas Eve.
For the first 20 years of my life, my grandmother pronounced each Christmas' bird, "the best turkey ever." Often before tasting it. I never see a roasted turkey without remembering the warmth of those gatherings.
Each family devises, develops, adopts or continues traditions to suit their style. These suggestions could make good traditions, but are also designed to get the focus off presents and onto the spirit of the season:
DECORATIONS GONE WILD --
Do not restrict Christmas to the five square feet taken up by the tree. Decorate far and wide. Give each child a box of sturdy or inexpensive decorations and let them arrange them where they will. You'll end up with garlands under the bunkbed, tinsel in the bathroom and plastic snowflakes dragging on the rabbit ears.
Last year, I gave Emily, 3, a set of angels, each of which had a different instrument. I found them in the living room of her dollhouse. "They wanted to watch TV," she explained.
READING RITUALS --
During the month of December, hold an occasional nighttime reading -- including "The Grinch that Stole Christmas" and Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." I read my kids a simplified version of Dickens last year.
"After your Grandad read this to me," I told them, "I wouldn't leave my bedroom."
"Why not?" they asked.
"I was afraid Scrooge's ghosts would get me."
"You could have called the Ghostbusters," suggested Ben.
THOSE GOLDEN ORANGES --
Include an orange in each stocking. It is inexpensive, smells good and takes up the toe. Besides, being a tradition, it will live in their memories longer than a Tinkerbell lipstick, G.I. Joe Figure or Swatch.
The legend of the orange comes from a story about St. Nicholas. He wanted to give dowry money to some poor maiden sisters, so he threw bags of gold down their chimney and the bags fell into the stockings hanging there to dry. The golden oranges symbolize the bags of money.
If your child tells you (as mine did) that he would prefer the gold, ignore him.
CHRISTMAS EVE OPENING --
Allow each person to open one present during the magic of Christmas Eve. You'll find this tradition has a tendency to grow until, when the kids become teen-agers, all presents are being opened Christmas Eve and there is no need to get up in the morning.
BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION --
Along with cold cuts, or roast beef or whatever you serve Christmas Eve, provide a decorated cake to celebrate Jesus' birthday.
TURNING BACK THE CLOCK --
Set up that American Flyer or Lionel outfit you received in 1953. OK, OK, so Uncle Clarence has long since died and nobody else can figure out how to make it actually run, but it will still look nice circling the tree. If the houses, fire station and school are gone, build new ones with Legos.
ADVENT ADVENTURE --
Buy an Advent calendar or make an Advent wreath to increase anticipation and give children an ongoing activity during the days before Christmas. A wreath can be an ordinary evergreen circle with four red candles poised in it. Light one candle each of the four Sundays before Christmas.
TREE TIME TOGETHER --
Try cutting down your own tree. It's probably at least as much fun as tooling up to a gas station in the rain and trying to determine whether that Scotch pine will look any better when its branches relax. Make the tree decorating a major event, not, as we have done in the past, something to be finished before "Dallas." Devote an evening to it, and let each child place the ornaments special to him on the tree. Play Christmas carols, serve eggnog or cranberry juice mixed with ginger ale and string popcorn and cranberries to go on the tree, too.
MAKING MUSIC --
Christmas carols evoke all sorts of memories. Don't rely on the school to teach them. Play them on the record player or sing them in the car during unavoidable delays, like the time it takes you to get out of the mall parking lot.
GINGERBREAD HOUSE --
Bake and build a gingerbread house. There are instructions in most women's magazines and some cookbooks. If the frosting mortar simply won't stick, break up the sheets of gingerbread and throw a party for the birds in the backyard.
DRESSING FOR SUCCESS --
Your own, not the turkey's. Select a dress, shirt, kimono, bikini or apron that's appropriate and wear it every year (if you can get into it). The memory of it will make all those Christmases more vivid in your children's eyes 20 years hence.
"Remember how Mama always wore that green dress and the frilly red apron on Christmas Day?"
"Yeah. And how, right after dinner, she'd rip it off, toss it at Dad, and say, 'OK, Charlie. It's your turn in the kitchen.' "
"Yeah. Those were the good old days."
THOSE POST CHRISTMAS BLUES --
To avoid them, wrap (in advance) several small gifts in gold to be left under the tree and opened only on the day the tree is taken down. They represent the gifts from the wisemen.
The same day you dismantle the tree and return the decorations to the basement of attic, buy some fresh flowers to remind everyone that spring is coming.
Ann Yost last wrote for Weekend about making your own Halloween costumes.