My Mum and Dad came from vastly different cultures. My Mum, for example, was infused with the values of her immigrant parents, who came from Lithuania in the case of her father and the German Sudetenland from her mother’s side in the 1940’s. What she remembers are mainly the Catholic German traditions; real candles on the Christmas tree, a series of never ending courses eaten on Christmas Eve, pillowcases of presents from St Nick, not stockings from Santa and Midnight Mass at the Church. The food included those German favourites; Stollen, bierwurst, sauerkraut, marble cake. So is it always the women who win out? When I look up the Lithuanian Christmas traditions there are similarities but also some traditions that never filtered down, like the one about placing straw under the Christmas tablecloth. This was a common practice in Lithuania whereby each guest gets to draw straws during the meal, the length of which predicts whether you will have a long or a short life. Is this where the phrase “drawing the short straw” really comes from? And what about the other Lithuanian tradition that the only meat permissible at Christmas is fish; in this case the Herring?
By the time I was born most of these traditions had gone. We had our own mainly English rituals of eating turkey and those favourites of the 1970’s; the prawn cocktail, cheese and biscuits and the Snowball. We gave gifts on Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve. All this may suggest that the father’s traditions came through the most but I think you’d be wrong. I prefer to think they were brand new traditions of the upwardly mobile working class in the days when social mobility could be displayed in what you ate, drank and where you took your holidays. I eventually had children of my own and it was my in-laws’ customs and practices that came through. Gone was the prawn cocktail and in came smoked salmon. Out went the Snowball and in came flutes of cava or champagne. These will be the traditions that my children remember when they grow up, yet how many of them will survive and how many will they re-invent?
Apart from the seemingly universal traditions of bringing a dead tree into the house, singing Christmas carols and the giving of gifts, I’d like to think that some of the old customs would have travelled across the generations. Apparently not. Perhaps this year could be different. Perhaps I could cover the dining room with animal feed, whip up a Snowball, dig into a prawn cocktail and settle down to a nice dish of pickled Herring with the sound of “Oh Tannenbaum” playing in the background. And first thing on Christmas morning I’ll start it all off with champagne and if anyone dares to scoff and say that it’s Christmas gone mad I can always turn round and say, “Well, it’s tradition!”
Written by Christopher Hall from the keyword Tradition.