Traditions and nostalgia are funny things. Nostalgia is really about forgetting, presenting the past in a glowing haze. Traditions are a little different. Sure, there is a lot of forgetting, some remembering, and, of course, intransigence.
The host of any family Thanksgiving dinner may bravely choose to try something new…but it is usually avoided. For me, Thanksgiving is about (in this order) turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, corn (or succotash), stuffing, sweet potato casserole, rolls and, of course, pies. Lots and lots of pies. (Others like to include creamed spinach, creamed onions and the ubiquitous string bean casserole.) Those brave cooks who try to mess with the formula are not rewarded. At best, new dishes are ignored, at worst, jeered.
Traditions allow us to celebrate our lives and carry them onto the next generation. Who, by the way, do not often comply…our Thanksgiving feast has been interrupted with healthy and vegetarian dishes…that are ignored by the grown-ups, of course.
Christmas traditions are unique to each family. Christmas for us meant cold weather; fragrant evergreens; warm beverages; soft, glowing candles; crackling fireplaces; hot, fragrant dishes, all to take the chill out. Christmas carols nonsensically reminded us of the cold (even though, of course, it was warm where Jesus was born), the snow, the icicles, the greenery.
So, after my husband died, and I began to spend my winters in Key West, Christmas became quite difficult. I missed the cold weather, the warming accoutrement and the heavy clothing; the soft, silly Christmas sweaters; fluffy scarves, lined gloves or mittens.
In Key West’s warm weather, evergreens dry out within a week. So, it is artificial everything, artificial trees, artificial wreaths, artificial decorations.
I needed to create new traditions. And Key Westers, being a little offbeat, had the answer…wacky outdoor holiday decorations. In warm weather, outdoor displays are not the challenge that they are up north. And since it is Key West, conventional rules do not apply. You will see Santa’s sleigh pulled by flamingos or he may be sporting a bathing suit.
Key West holds a contest every year for the most daunting display and many homeowners go all out (sometimes using cranes for their rooftop displays). They have everything: Santa, snow (from bubbles), holiday music blasting onto the street, reindeer, snowmen, wise men, nativity scenes, plywood cutouts of cartoon characters, inflatable displays, flamingos, Hanukkah themes, and lots and lots of multi-colored lights. So many lights, that they rival the infamous house in National Lampoon’s Christmas vacation. Residents decorate palm trees magnificently, fences sport falling icicle lights, projectile light displays create patterns on homes, and there are colorful lights, everywhere.
So, we have created a new tradition. On Christmas eve, we cycle around Key West admiring the homes. Many of the homeowners are outside to greet us and we share laughs and compliments. It is all in good fun, a new tradition, an alien one, given what I came to expect from Christmas.
I have a lot of traditions, old ones that I treasure (and sometimes yearn for) and new ones that I am creating.
And that is really life, isn’t it, celebrating our past and creating our future.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.