Monday, December 22, 2014

It's in the Smiles ...

Have your Christmas and New Year’s traditions changed over the years? Have they changed since you were a kid? Or even from when you were in college, a young adult versus now, in your ol’ ripe age – whatever that age is?

My husband asked me the other night, when I was making 30+ small little packs of presents for my co-workers and writing their cards, when did my whole gift giving for everyone around Christmas start and whether I have always done it. And it made me recall years past, and how traditions changed for me. I can’t say that they changed because I didn’t like the old ones, because all my memories, as far back as I can remember (and don’t worry: I can still remember even the night when I knew there was no Santa Claus anymore!), are amazingly beautiful and peaceful and rich. But they kind of changed because of different people that spent the Holidays with us, or because I started making my own “new” ones just out of a sense of ownership of who I was, or because I moved to a different culture and everyone around me was doing things differently, and they taught me different things.

Back in the day, when we were kids, I can’t remember that adults every gave each other gifts. I can definitely not recall when mom and dad and grandma even gave any presents to any strangers or even distant relatives. The presents were for the kids, and we would get ONE present, unwrapped, and under the tree, and it came from Santa (Mos Gerila or Mos Craciun). We always had plenty of food though – that was the main tradition, I guess: for days and even weeks everyone would cook fridge-ful of courses, savory and sweet, we made fresh sausages that we hung on laundry lines outside to dry out and then fried them for Christmas Eve dinner. We also made the tree on Christmas Eve. Never before then. And we always had a real tree, growing up. The main family meal is consumed on Christmas Eve in our family. The meals after that (we celebrate Christmas for three days back home) are with friends and distant relatives. But Christmas Eve is for family, for those living in the house.

It’s kind of unfair to say that lots of food was a Christmas tradition, because Romanians cook a lot, no matter what the occasion is, and no matter how poor they really are. Somehow, they will find someone to lend them money for food. And they cook, for birthdays, and name days and Easter, and New Year’s just about as much as they cook for Christmas!

When we celebrated with our relatives, on the farm, in the mountains, we would hang pine cones, and walnuts and apples in the tree, and very little, if any, “fake” ornaments. My friend’s older brothers would cut the tree in the forest in the back yard – the smell of that mountain pine was like nothing I have ever smelled since.

I think I was in middle school when I made the very conscious decision that I would buy a Christmas present to everyone who was going to be in the house. I would buy something small, sometimes a nice smelly soap for my mom and grandma, some socks or a notebook for my sister, pens (always pens!) and a note book for my dad – something small, that I would place under the tree, wrapped in newspaper. I still remember how my fingers would be black with newspaper ink from all the wrapping. I was the only one doing this. When we were in the mountains, with our distant relatives, on the farm, I’d have presents for them, too.

I remember when I left, right after college, my sister saying “we won’t have many presents under the tree this year, since you’re going to be gone”. But I encouraged her to keep the tradition going. Not sure where, really, this urge to “give” sprang from, for me. This was way before moving to America and really being immersed in the consumerism it very clearly displays, as a culture. Now, looking back and trying to make sense of it all, I think it was in the smiles. Romanians are a very stoic and very serious-looking (only “looking”) culture. But everyone, no matter how serious, smiles when they open a gift. Have you noticed that?! I have always loved giving presents and hated receiving them. But I think the main reason for me, is the smiles on people’s faces. The surprise, the unexpected. The unspoken gratitude.

Someone at work asked me the other day whether in Romania Christmas is about “the baby Jesus” or about Santa. Well, the carols are about baby Jesus, more than they are in the US. But the gift giving and food gorging and revolving door of your house for the next two weeks are about … friends, family, love, smiles and togetherness. Catching up, telling stories, counting your blessings, and remembering those who are gone, recalling the happy times of the year or those less than fortunate events and thanking God (I guess, ‘baby Jesus’, you could say) you made it till the end of another one. We’re all about Jesus for Easter, but Christmas, back home is an odd mix of partying, baby Jesus and heathen traditions, too. It’s mostly about the good times had by all, and that includes food, gifts, drinking - and whatever else your family perceives as a celebration.

Nowadays, Christmas is still lots of foods and lots of bounty, in the form of gifts, mainly, for me. I start buying and packing gifts for my family, far in advance, at the middle towards the end of November. By December 1, I try to have all my presents mailed to Canada and Romania – I wrap each gift (and everyone gets more than one) with a smile on my face, anticipating the smile on theirs, when they’ll open it. I do the same when I wrap them for my husband’s gifts, when it’s time to wrap those, closer to Christmas.

I make my tree the weekend after the Thanksgiving weekend. We either host a Christmas party, or we go to one that our friends host – and again, we have gifts for everyone. When we host our own, we hide a pickle ornament in our tree and have our guests find it – this is German tradition my mother in law passed on to us – it’s for good luck and good fortune in the New Year, for whoever finds the pickle.

For Christmas, we sometimes travel to see family – to Canada, more often, or maybe to Michigan, we hope, some day. When we stay home, we unwrap one gift for Christmas Eve (to keep somewhat of a Romanian tradition) and we have our family dinner on Christmas Eve, too – just like my parents do. We also have a big Christmas Day breakfast (usually a rich and warm casserole dish), and my own tradition is to make Mimosas on Christmas Day – I borrowed this from a dear friend of mine with whom I spent four Christmases back in my late 20’s and early 30’s.  Then, we open presents for the rest of the morning, and then we call family who is far, far away.

By the evening of the 25th it all wraps up in this country. It’s funny: Americans start early, and celebrate all the month of December. Romanians fast for most of the time in December, and prep for the “big feast”. Then, only when the calendar announces The Eve, they start celebrating: for three days, first, and into the New Year, till January 6th, the feast of John the Baptist, when the Holidays really wrap up! Romanians are nostalgic, melancholy people – they hold on to things and have trouble letting go. Americans are apprehensive, starting early, but when that clock strikes midnight, they are ready for the next challenge, next party, next “fun” stop: New Year’s and then Superbowl, Valentine’s Day, St. Patty’s Day …

No matter whose traditions you’re choosing to celebrate, or even if you make up your own, even: enjoy and remember the smiles. I do believe firmly that our brains stay younger, more flexible and more ready for what it may come if we subliminally tell them we’re happy. There is nothing better to trigger happiness to your mind, and to your core than a smile.

I dug up this old picture of me, my sister and my parents – it was taken on New Year’s Eve one year – and it always comes back to my mind when I am looking for my “happy spot” for Christmas. It says it all. 

Happy Holidays, all, and to all, a better year ahead!