Friday, December 13, 2019

52 Ancestors - TRADITION: Coming and Going

Someone once said that traditions are the stories that families write together. I have been thinking about traditions a lot lately, maybe because of this week’s theme in the 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge. But also I can feel our family changing which means the traditions we have enjoyed so much over the years must change as well.

When I was a child, I could not wait for Christmas day. I was a good child – surely Santa would reward me with lots of toys. And he did – he never failed. Yet I hardly had a chance to enjoy my new dolls and board games because we had to get to my grandparents’ house for lunch and open presents there. Then we were off to visit my parents’ friends and my cousins. More presents. More food wherever we went. It was exhausting. It took years to get out of that tradition.

When my mother took over preparing the Christmas feast, she decided it made more sense to gather on Christmas Eve. Indeed, Christmas day was much more relaxing not just for her but for all of us. When she passed the baton to me in 1997, I continued the tradition of gathering the family on Christmas Eve for a big dinner.

In 2003, the idea of a Christmas pajama party popped into my head, and thus started a tradition that has continued with lots of enthusiasm. Each year, I present a different theme. Sometimes we get all dolled up for parties like the Black & White Party, Las Vegas Night and the Red Carpet. 

Guests walked the Red Carpet
and answered, "WHO are you wearing?"

Other times we have had fun dressing crazy for Ugly Sweater, Red Neck Shindig, Christmas in Whoville, and the 1960s.

Table decorations help carry out the theme as does a signature cocktail.
Grinch Christmas trees, Grinch cookie favors,
and the Grinch color scheme 
Tie-Dye Shooters
perfect pairing with the 1960s theme
Can't have a redneck party without antlers and burlap!

It is a lot of work, but I enjoy it. However, I cannot see my daughters continuing this tradition when it’s their turn.

In fact, they are creating a new tradition. They have outgrown the need to exchange gifts with cousins. Instead, they do a bottle swap. Each person brings a bottle of wine or a craft beer for a “Chinese Gift Exchange.” I love that they enjoy each other’s company enough to find a new tradition that works for them.
Beer or wine, which will it be?

Jordan reading a clue
One tradition that has been the hallmark of our immediate family is attaching clues to our presents to one another instead of signing our names. It started years ago with my mother, weary from signing “Love Momma and Daddy” on countless gift tags. A red, white, and blue skirt and sweater set was signed “From the Patriots.” We thought it was hilarious, and we wanted to do it again. And again. Eventually the clues became more sophisticated. A box of underwear was signed “From Chapmans Seat Covers Company.”  Get it? 

Wendy reading a clue
As everyone quickly caught on to those “obvious” clues, the next level of difficulty required recipients to make logical connections. Consider a gift signed “FBI.” Hmm. FBI--> Undercover agents--> Ah ha – UNDERWEAR!

Oh, but even that is WAY too simple by our standards today. Can you guess what was in the box from these clues?  I’ll start you off with some easy ones:
  1. From Helen speaks
  2. From the Nazis
  3. From the quotable Judy Carne
  4. From Sitting out a year
 I’ll give you a minute to think.

Time’s up.  Here are the answers:
  1. Wawa gift card (reference to Helen Keller’s first spoken words when she finally associated water with fingerspelling – you had to see the movie “The Miracle Worker” to appreciate this clue.)
  2. Brown shirt (reference to the uniforms worn by the paramilitary organization)
  3. Socks (are you old enough to remember “Sock it to me – Sock it to me”?)
  4. Red shirt
This tradition did not make it into one daughter’s family. Why? One practical reason is that she married a man with daughters from a previous marriage. There is no need to impose our tradition on them. Another reason is lack of time.

My husband remarked the other day that when we were dating, what surprised him most about my family’s Christmas was how organized we were. On Christmas morning at his house, wrapping paper just flew as all 8 children madly unwrapped their gifts at the same time. My family took turns. Starting with the youngest and progressing to the oldest, each person got the spotlight while opening gifts. Plus we all enjoyed trying to guess what was in the box based on the clever clues.

Our younger daughter switched it up one Christmas starting a new tradition. She inventoried the packages under the tree and wrote everyone’s name on as many slips of paper as there were gifts for that person. The person who opened a gift drew the name of the next to open. Her reasoning was that way, it wasn’t obvious who got the most gifts. I suspect she always felt sorry for her dad who always received the fewest gifts.

See the shopping bag?
Cocktail shaker was one of many little gifts.
When my sister and I became adults and were on our own, our mother continued being Santa. Our little Christmas stockings were replaced with a big shopping bag. Shopping bag gifts were not necessarily small nor necessarily cheap. The bag would be filled with any variety of goodies from hand lotion to earrings to slippers to kitchen gadgets to underwear to frying pans. Many years we got underwear AND a frying pan.

After our parents passed away, my sister and I decided to continue the Shopping Bag tradition because that was truly our most anticipated gift to open on Christmas morning. What would be in that bag? Some flavored coffee? New gardening gloves? Vintage pillow cases? A bell jar? Maybe underwear and a frying pan.

Changes in our family mean we must adjust our traditions. We can’t all be together in the same room at the same time anymore. A firefighter in the family sometimes works on the holidays. A new wife has a family she wants to see on Christmas morning too. My grandbaboo needs to be at HER house with HER new toys, not hopping from house to house collecting gifts.

This year my sister and I are cutting back on exchanging gifts with husbands and each other’s children. But following the family dinner on Christmas Eve she and I will be exchanging shopping bags filled with odds and ends colorfully wrapped, each with a clue guaranteed to send us into fits of laughter.

Surely we will be reminded of other Christmases with our parents, of the year we sat around talking with a Boston accent, of the year we learned so much about Hitler and the Nazis thanks to the clues, of the year we all bowed to the master of clue-writing and clue-solving, and so many other memories that together are our family’s story.

Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

© 2019, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved


  1. You have/had such great traditions and activities that made Christmas fun! Growing up, my mom established the tradition of taking turns opening gifts. She did that as there wasn't much under the tree so she wanted to prolong the opening as long as possible. We carried it forward with our kids and they would fight sometimes with who went last to open the gifts because they knew they would get to open the last gift that year. Since we lived miles away from family at times we made our own traditions with our kids. Now we have bowed out and let them with their families establish their own traditions and see where we fit in and find it okay if we don't and then figure out what traditions we want to make ourselves. I think traditions are great unless they get to be a chore. Case in point. For years, my sister with her hubby and 2 children traveled to Boston (they live in DC area) to spend Christmas with brother in law's family. Even with babies they did it and at times it was a chore. With her girls grown up now, recently she said she wished they had not done that yearly and had more Christmases at home just the four of them. However you celebrate it this year, I hope it is a merry one for you and yours!


  2. Wonderful memories that you shared here! I certainly haven't had as many traditions (or new ones) as your family has!

  3. These evolving traditions are fantastic! Thanks for sharing. I am going to suggest the bottle swap to my extended family!

  4. I LOVE these traditions and that you've not only kept up with them, but added more!