Monday, 22 December 2008

Saving Christmas Past

I remember Christmas in years gone by being much more relaxed and calm – and I am not just talking about the Christmases when I was a child and innocent of all the work it takes to create the ‘perfect ‘ Christmas. Even as recently as a few years ago, I remember a much more leisurely pace leading up to the big day. Yes, there was still a lot to do, but the frantic, grasping panic that exists today was definitely not a part of it. I don’t know if it is because we are all getting busier and busier, or if it is just an effect of the post-modern age, but everyone I meet this year is rushed off their feet, stressed and panicked. And I have to admit I’m feeling pretty much that way myself.

It used to be that folks shopping for Christmas would be in a jovial mood. People would smile cheerfully in the supermarket and there were always enough parking spaces at the mall. Now it’s a fight nearly to the death for the last parking space and only a few brave souls are smiling. People are either stressed out about how they are going to pay for all their shopping, or worried that they won’t get the right turkey or the last bag of Brussel sprouts. Most of us are pressed for time, pressed for cash and in far too much of a hurry to actually enjoy the festive season.

Everyone I know is looking for a shortcut – a way to a special Christmas that does not involve spending much time or much cash. Whilst I can understand the desire to be frugal, particularly this year, I’m sad to think that so many of us are in such a vortex of activity that we do not feel we have time to celebrate and honour the traditions we hold dear. I heard one lady say that she was not going to make a Christmas cake with her mother this year, even though they had made one together for the last thirty years. “I’m just buying it; it’s quicker.” I wondered how old her mother was, and how many more chances they would have to bake together. I watched another lady put ready made Christmas cookies into her shopping trolley while the little girl walking beside her protested, “But Mommy we always bake those together. I like icing them.” Her mother’s harassed stare and icy reply put paid to her protests.

Don’t get me wrong, I know what it is like to be pressed for time – and I have a huge amount of sympathy for both these frazzled women – but sacrificing our traditions is not the way forward.

It’s easy enough losing our traditions by mistake, let alone on purpose. Our recent move means that two of my handwritten recipe books containing old family recipes are currently somewhere in the last few boxes waiting to be unpacked. At least I hope they are. Only the happy accident of finding a scrap of paper with my Mom’s handwritten recipe for Meat Loaf Wellington on it saved the tradition of an old favourite main course being served in the weeks leading up to Christmas. My son informed me the other day that we were definitely making Christmas cookies from scratch this year because it has been three years since we have done so. I was genuinely shocked to realise he was telling the truth. The last three Christmases have been very difficult ones due to my parents’ illnesses – indeed by last Christmas my Dad had passed away and my Mom would follow him not long after - so I guess I sort of forgot about the cookie tradition. In retrospect, it would have been enormously comforting to spend just a few hours doing something as therapeutic as rolling out dough and icing cookies. In fact, I’m definitely looking forward to some cookie therapy over the next couple of days.

And therapeutic is exactly what tradition is. In fact I would go so far as to say that there is no greater remedy for melancholy than to revive an old tradition – or even to create a new one. And what better place is there for Christmas tradition than the kitchen? Food, family and friends have always been the centre of this most wonderful of holidays.

It troubles me that in all the hustle bustle of our post-modern Christmas, family traditions are often being lost and forgotten. In many cases, we are so busy trying to create the perfect Christmas we forget that what made Christmas seem perfect all those years ago is the traditions our parents and grandparents passed on to us. We risk a generation of children remembering Christmases filled with fraught, stressed parents and a distinct lack of goodwill if we carry on like this. We are trying to buy the perfect Christmas – and trying to find something in those very crowded shops that simply is not for sale is an absolute waste of our very precious time.

So forget about perfection. Roll up your sleeves and bake some cookies, or make your Auntie’s recipe for Christmas squares and serve them on the plate she left you. Talk about your memories of her over a cup of tea while enjoying them. Or take a walk in the crisp winter air, and come home to steaming coffee and pumpkin pie. Revisit some of the traditions you learned as a child, and share your memories of them with your own children, grandchildren or nieces and nephews. And while you are at it, create some Christmas traditions of your own. It needn’t be expensive – all it requires is a little time and a little love.

The perfect Christmas really is not about how much money you have or finding the perfect gift, it is about sharing that most precious of commodities - love. One of the best ways to do that is to share the traditions that helped make you who you are today. And who knows - saving Christmas Past might just help you find the perfect Christmas Present.

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