Growing up, my impression was we were not a family of long standing traditions. Often my mother would think up a new tradition -- sometimes it would stick and other times it was forgotten by the following year. Here is what I remember of Christmas traditions.
When my sister and I were little we would end up at my grandmother's apartment with coffee cans covered with contact paper and her entire dinning table covered with cookies as we made these treats for friends, teachers and neighbors. I remember delivering these to Mrs. Long who lived in the big house on the corner. She always seemed impossibly old and I was a little afraid of her although I am sure she was as sweet as could be. As we got older and they stopped selling coffee in cans (or at least my parents weren't buying it), my mother kept this tradition alive and gave it a formal name "Cookie Saturday". It falls a few weeks before Christmas and involves making all the cookies you can imagine (especially the complicated ones that don't get made often -- remember those stained glass cookies with melted hard candies as the windows? and the cookie press cookies and all the ones that involve chilling and rolling out.)
There were two couples that my parents were particularly close friends with and they seem to fall heavily into my memories of Christmas. Around the middle of December we would have these families over for lasagna. I am pretty sure the recipe came from the Playb*y Cookbook. There was lasagna and garlic bread and salad. One year when several of the daughters had reached driving age (I wasn't yet 10) we went to the Alexandria Roller Rink where the likes of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison had preformed. It was just blocks from the house and rather decrepit. I found the cutest little skater here who taught me how to skate backwards. On Christmas eve, one of the couples would have a big Christmas Caroling Party. We would eat BBQ and have fruit salad with whipped cream that was whipped with a hand crank egg beater by the man of the house. There were big bowls of Hersey kisses and tinsel garland to wear. We would walk the neighborhood singing and as the youngest child I would often get asked to come to the door for a gift. The one a remember was a Mary Candle. She was a little statue in blue. I think it stood with our creche for years. Christmas day we would go to the other couples house for Christmas dinner. We couldn't have done this all that often as we also had Christmases with grandparents and Christmases at home but I remember it well as if it happened often.
My great Aunt Kay made candles. They were large candles that started out fairly simple and as years passed they became more and more complex -- little sculptures and works of art. She made them for all of her siblings and my grandmother would pass along last years candle to us. She lived in California and would mail these beautiful candles out in early December and all of the recipients were to light them at 5pm PST on December 24 and think of all the family that couldn't be with you on Christmas Eve. I still try to stop and light candles on Christmas eve and think of my family both far away and in my heart.
Christmas morning we would open presents (although sometimes we would get to open one on Christmas eve -- this was when my dad was in the habit of buying us cute matching Lanz nightgowns and we would wear them to bed). We were not allowed to wake my parents until after some set hour and usually my sister would crawl into bed with me and make sure I was up and properly excited and giddy with anticipation (she has been known to do this on my birthday as well). We would take turns opening presents although some matching presents could be opened simultaneously. For this reason, I am sure, my mother always took care that we had the same numbers of presents and of roughly equal sizes.
We always had a real tree and for many years it was live as well so the tree rarely went up until the weekend before Christmas and then was taken down on the day after Twelfth Night (Epiphany). When we were little the ornaments were willy nilly and often those made in library workshops and pre-school. As we got older, my father took over decorating and his trees were always very dignified and had a color theme -- Gold and Red, Silver and Green, Blue and silver -- designer trees. I think my sister and I may have complained because the tree theme was rotated for a few years and when it was my sister's turn to pick one year she used baby's breath on the tree -- it really was stunning. As the youngest, I may have been the longest hold out for the cutesy but all of the trees I have decorated as an adult have been fairly simple. There were a few years where they were no more than white lights.
My parents separated when the year I left for college. I remember Christmas that first year and everyone pretended like they were still together. Then, I started to avoid coming home since I didn't want to play favorites or figure out how to spend my time. I would be that person who would volunteer to work over the holidays and then maybe come home for New Years, or things like that. I have eaten Christmas dinner with a couple of boyfriends and their families, with coworkers, with friends and even spent them alone.
Now as an adult, my mother has given up on the holiday and its commercial trappings, my sister married a wonderful man who doesn't celebrate this particular holiday and they are raising their children in his church, my step-mother usually travels to spend the holiday with her family (or this year she will be taking a fabulous cruise around South America) and my dad is no longer with us. It leaves me a little at loose ends figuring out how to make my own traditions.