Tuesday, November 21, 2000

holiday traditions

With the holiday season nearly upon us and my daughter’s first birthday now in the recent past, I find myself wondering about the holiday traditions my wife and I will be able to create for her.

Family traditions, after all, are what make some holidays stand out, and others, well, not stand out. They’re why we will make a big deal out of Christmas next month but will notice Presidents Day only if we don’t have anyone in the White House by that time next year, which given the carnival in Florida lately doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

I find myself wondering what sort of traditions Evangeline will associate with the holidays. Will she grow up with memories of a Christmas tree left up until July? Or will she remember tearing the Christmas wrapping paper from her presents in a disgraceful display of self-indulgence before breakfast, only to realize too late that she’s unwrapped her little brother’s presents and hers are still under the tree?

Christmas is still a little while off, but with Thanksgiving only two days away, I find myself thinking more and more about how my family celebrated Thanksgiving when I was a child.

Thanksgiving always began around 10 a.m. with a bowl of Cheerios and a televised broadcast of the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. After about 23 seconds of nonstop excitement listening to someone talk about the Spider-man float and get her facts wrong, I would tear myself away from the television and join my three brothers at looking for something to do until dinner at 6 p.m.

Einstein once theorized that time slows the faster you go. If that’s the case, my brothers and I must have been traveling at something dangerously close to light speed the entire day. The eight hours between breakfast and utter gluttony were the slowest we ever knew.

Part of the problem was the lack of anything structured to do. The TV schedule consisted mainly of annual holiday specials, and it didn’t take a genius to realize that if George Bailey’s friends had bailed him out for the past six years, they probably would rescue the old deadbeat this year too.

Our chief escape from monotony was to take our dog, a half-Cocker spaniel, half-poodle mix named Fonzi, out for a walk. At first, Fonzi shared in our excitement, just as relieved as we were to get out of the house and do something, and he would jump for joy as we reached for his leash.

But as the day wore on, Fonzi’s enthusiasm would ebb, and by the 4 p.m. "Intergalactic Thanksgiving" cartoon, the poor dog had had enough. One of us would reach for his leash, and Fonzi would jump, and run for cover under the living room sofa, where he would whimper and lick his paw pads.

The ennui was even worse when we visited a relative for Thanksgiving, especially if we had to wear the unbearably stiff dress clothes usually reserved for making us uncomfortable during church Sunday morning.

(We mostly endured those visits, but we actually enjoyed ourselves one year when Ward missed the warning that the punch bowl had been spiked and was only for adults.)

I think Fonzi secretly was relieved to have the house to himself for the day those years, and when we came back home, the hunted expression usually was gone from his eyes .

But eventually, whether at a relative’s house or our own, the waiting would end. Amid building excitement, the turkey would emerge from the oven, cooked to a golden-brown perfection and filled with steaming-hot stuffing the Society of Worry-Warts Who Want to Ruin Your Day now tells us it should have given us all salmonella poisoning.

And then, right on cue, my father would get off the sofa in the family room, walk through the kitchen to pick up the bird, and carry it to the dining room table with the ceremony of someone who has slaved over a hot stove all day to make a perfect meal. My mother, unnoticed, slumped into her chair, exhausted.

The seating arrangements also were fixed. My father sat at the head of the table, where he would put the food on plates and serve it to us. I sat at my father’s right hand, within easy swatting distance, and to my right sat my brother Brian.

At my father’s left, also within swatting distance, sat my younger brother, Ward, sandwiched between our two parents since that was the only way they had found to control him.

My brother Herb, two years older than I, sat at the end of the table opposite our father. Herb, my parents had long since discovered, was far past the point of being controllable, and sat there so that my father couldn’t strangle him during dinner.

We always ate Thanksgiving dinner by candlelight, a tradition that made the holiday all the more magical, particularly since no one could tell when we slipped pieces of yams under the table to Fonzi, who had emerged from the sofa once he was sure this wasn’t another ruse to get him to go on a walk.

In truth, I’m not sure why we ate by candlelight. Part of it could be that every time someone stood up at the table, they would bump the chandelier with their heads and as a result we never had more than half the lights in it working at any given time.

I suspect the chief reason is that in the dark, my parents could pretend they didn’t see us hit each other and could even get in a swat or two of their own and feign innocence.

But it was during dinner that the biggest tradition came. This was a tradition so important that we observed it every holiday without fail. Someone, some time, had to spill a glass of milk.

Herb and Ward usually were exempt from spilling anything since they aren’t big milk drinkers and Thanksgiving dinner was one of the few meals we were allowed to have soft drinks, and I did my best to avoid making a mess. I’ll let you figure out for yourself who usually did the honors, and we’ll leave it that.

Suffice it to say that the tradition of the spilled milk is a duty so sacred that last Thanksgiving, I excused myself from the table to call my brothers in Vermont, Indiana and Maryland to let them know the tradition had been upheld and they could eat their meals free of obligation.

And then, as fast as it had begun, it was over. The lights came up, revealing lots of fresh bruises and we would discover that Fonzi didn’t like yams any more than we did. Soon the table was cleared, the milk was cleaned up, and it was time for dessert.

And so it would go year after year. And so here I am, wondering what traditions Natasha and I will be able to create for our family so they can treasure these special days as they grow older.

And more than that, I’m wondering how we’ll survive the process.