Tuesday, December 22, 2015

tra·di·tion * trəˈdiSH(ə)n/

Tradition is a word we hear a lot this time of year. According to Merriam-Webster, its definition stems from the Latin word traditio, which means “the action of handing over.” In twenty-first century America, it’s termed as “a way of thinking, behaving, or doing something that has been used by the people in a particular group, family, society, etc., for a long time.” Traditions often provide a source of identity to those who participate, strengthen family bonds and offer comfort and security.
No matter the struggles and strife that may occur within our families throughout the year, Christmas traditions always bring us back to center. These are what create that joy we feel in our hearts as adults when recalling the holidays we experienced as children. They’re what make our souls warm and our faces smile when we think about Christmas.
I remember our annual Christmas Eve trip downtown in the early 80’s to see the festive displays at Pogue’s and Shilito’s, and the CG&E train display, and Fountain Square adorned with twinkling lights. My dad still occasionally mentions the year one of the talking reindeer told me I “might be a little greedy!” Thankfully I don’t recall that episode! Santa would always drop off one gift for my sister and I on Christmas Eve morning that would accompany us downtown later that day. I particularly remember the year Rainbow Bright was in her heyday, and she joined us on our holiday city visit later that afternoon.

Chris and I took our boys downtown this season to ice skate at Fountain Square, and they were over-the-moon excited! We attended Cincinnati Reds’ Fan Fest down at the Duke Energy Convention Center first on that Friday evening in early December, and then walked the several blocks up to Fountain Square to the holiday ice rink. After about a half hour in line, and then the Zamboni’s inopportune cleaning right as we were fitted for our horribly uncomfortable ice skates, we finally checked into the rink about 10 pm that night. After a little more than an hour on the ice, we shut the place down well after 11. And, on the way home stopped by United Dairy Farmers for a midnight ice cream treat.  Our boys are certainly at a prime age to remember all the exciting details of our downtown holiday experience this year. Thankfully there were no mishaps on the ice!

The Murray's in downtown Cincinnati for a fun ice skating adventure.

I recall decorating my grandma and grandpa Stranko’s Christmas tree each year as a young girl with all the women in our family, and that memory warms my heart to this day. My grandma would leave that tree up until Valentine’s Day nearly every year if she could! And, who could forget my father’s silly Christmas tapes he would unbury each holiday season that included carols that no one else on this earth has ever heard. My sister and I still twitch when we hear Barbara Streisand’s version of Jingle Bells! 

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has also been a great family tradition that began when my family saw it in the theater on New Year’s Eve the year it came out – 1989! We would watch it on VHS (and later, DVD) at least a dozen times during the Christmas season every year, beginning with Thanksgiving weekend, and always culminating with a viewing during our Christmas Eve celebration with Dad’s side of the family, before heading to midnight mass. The one-liners from that movie are thrown out all year long in The Goodman Family! “Oh, Eddie... If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn't be more surprised than I am now.”

Special holiday traditions would certainly become a part of our Murray Family Christmas season. Some began before our boys were even born, like our Travel Tree. Some we incorporated into our household once the boys came along, like St. Nick and “Elfy.” And, others were just born this year – like our journey out to the tree farm for a real tree, and our Advent wreath centerpieces on the dining room table. The boys love this stuff, and all of it makes my soul smile from the inside out!

The Travel Tree
I brought home an ornament from Santa Cruz, CA during our honeymoon up and down the California Coast in July of 2000. I honestly didn’t think much about it, other than it being a cute little keepsake from our honeymoon that would adorn our family Christmas tree for years to come. Then, the following year we took several vacations, and I picked up an ornament from each locale – Key West & Key Largo, Cancun, etc. And, the following year we ventured down to Florida – Jacksonville and Amelia Island and then on over to Tampa, Clearwater and the like. At each destination, I picked up an ornament. By the time we built our new home in 2004, I had accumulated quite the collection of destination-based ornaments from our travels, and the idea occurred to me to buy a Christmas tree for our bedroom that holiday season. The Travel Tree was born!
The Travel Tree is a 5' artificial tree that is placed in our bedroom each year, and is adorned with
memories from all our many travels since 2000.
Truth-be-known, the Travel Tree is Chris’s favorite Murray tradition. It’s entertaining to re-visit all the great places we’ve traveled through the years – be it a family vacation, a work trip or just something fun we experienced regionally together on our boat. The newly-added ornaments of that year are always the first to be hung each year, and then we continue on hanging each of them, one at a time, recalling something fun about that location. Sometimes I’ve had to be creative – like when we went to Cabo San Lucas and I was unsuccessful with finding an ornament, so I converted a magnet into one that Christmas. Or, when we ventured down to Lake Cumberland a few years back…there’s an unsinkable keychain in the shape of a red life jacket hanging on my tree from that getaway. 

Our Lake Cumberland "ornament" is actually a floating key chain.
The boys’ favorites are the Disney ornaments - I'm sure for all the "magical" memories the destination conjures up in their little minds from our family vacation there in 2013. They are now old enough to remember the origins of many of the ornaments that cover our Travel Tree, like Hilton Head, The Outer Banks, and The Smoky Mountains. But, I love fielding the many questions that arise each year as they hang up ornaments from destinations they have not visited. One of my favorites is that round, red Las Vegas ornament. Little does Connor know he was our most treasured Vegas souvenir from our vacation to Sin City in 2005!

Ornaments from Disney, Hilton Head and Vegas are just a few of the many highlights of The Travel Tree. 
St. Nick
Santa Claus found his way to America, thanks to the rich tradition of St. Nick in European countries. In many places St. Nicholas is the main gift giver. His feast day, St. Nicholas Day, is December 6, which falls early in the Advent season. In some European countries, he arrives in the middle of November and moves about the countryside, visiting schools and homes to find out if children have been good. Other places he comes in the night and finds carrots and hay for his horse or donkey along with children's wish lists. Small treats are left in shoes or stockings so the children will know he has come. It’s a tradition that has been passed down from generation-to-generation from Europe over to America.

The celebration of St. Nick is popular among Catholic families in the United States. I was raised Catholic although, I didn’t attend Catholic school, and my household was certainly not engrained in Catholic tradition. I attended CCD (now known as PRP), and often times it was my Papa who brought me to church on Sundays. I spent a lot of time at my maternal grandparent’s house when I was young and befriended two neighbor girls, Holly and Lisa, who ironically attended church and school where my household now attends – St. Bernadette. These friends were who first taught me about St. Nick – primarily because they always received fun little treats from this visitor the first week of December every year. I often wondered why this guy didn’t stop by my house too, and assumed it was a “Catholic school thing.”

My paternal grandparents immigrated to America from Holland (The Netherlands) after World War II. I was blessed to have known my Dutch family overseas for many years, the last living family member of which passed away this past year – Aunt Reik. My dad’s aunt, Aunt Reik, adored her American family, and would often send little trinkets to us around the holidays. When Connor was born, she sent him a pair of wooden shoes (“clumpers”). When these arrived, the wheels immediately began to turn regarding how I could weave his Dutch heritage into these shoes. And, the Murray St. Nick tradition was born. Owen also received a pair of wooden shoes from Aunt Reik when he was born a few years later, and she even sent a treasured picture of herself in the Amstelveen market when she purchased them!
Aunt Reik in the Amstelveen market where she purchased Owen's wooden shoes in 2008.
Every December 5th, the boys set their clumpers outside their bedroom doors. This past year, after I read a brief story to them that evening about the history of St. Nick, Connor got the idea to cut up some apples (since we didn’t have any carrots) and leave them in their shoes for St. Nick’s horse (tradition has it that he makes his rounds on a horse or donkey instead of a reindeer). And, even though St. Nick brings my boys pretty much the same thing every single year, a gingerbread kit and two wooden clumpers full of candy treats, they still get excited. We’ve made this tradition not only something they treasure as Catholic children, but one that keeps their Dutch roots alive and well in their hearts. 

The boys in their "clumpers" on St. Nick Eve.
My mother-in-law discovered The Elf on the Shelf in 2009 shortly after this holiday tradition hit the market. She was so excited to bring him and his book over to the house. I hid it that first night in late November on the shelf in our entry way, and my oldest, only four at the time, got such a kick out of this jolly little elf. At only 18-months-old, Owen was too small to really get the gist of it, but enjoyed the hunt every morning with his big brother.

Since then, “Elfy” has made his annual appearance the weekend our first tree of the house goes up – generally the weekend after Thanksgiving (this year he arrived a weekend late, since we were a bit delayed getting our trees up). He is a mischievous little character, hiding in places that are sometimes more obvious than others. The boys’ favorites include the toilet paper party he has every year in the bathroom, and when he ends up dragging out their toys for his own nighttime amusement. This year that silly little elf even took a little poo and left behind some remnants on the toilet bowl! “Elfy” always gets into the cookies when we bake our annual holiday batch, and the night before that this year, he was hanging from the oven door in great anticipation!
"Elfy" makes a lot of mischief during our Christmas season!
What I love most about this holiday tradition is the boys’ excitement. My ten-year-old still barrels down the steps each morning in December wondering where Santa’s helper could be hiding. They leave him notes, and stare at him magically. I know the dynamic of this tradition in our home will probably change in the next year or so, but I’m confident we will morph it into a family hunt as they get older. What a fun way to celebrate the “magic” this season holds.

A new tradition
Shortly after Connor was born in November of 2005, Chris and I bought a beautiful 10’ artificial tree for our great room. We knew the next few years of having little ones toddling around would make for mayhem during the holidays, and an artificial would be far more practical. Me being the perfectionist that I am love to be able to mold and shape the branches of an artificial tree around each ornament. I also like being able to keep my tree up well into January if I wish. I can drag it up the basement steps on Thanksgiving weekend, and then back down whenever I please. I’m a Type A personality, and us Type A’s love an artificial tree! However, last year was the final year we could muster out of that beautiful artificial tree. We ditched it after the holidays.

Back in November I suggested to my husband that we take the boys out on a tree hunt this year. I didn’t want to purchase a new artificial tree, because we plan to move in another year or two and I don’t want to invest in another artificial tree not knowing if our next house will have high ceilings or not. He agreed. This would be a fun family outing, seeing as though our boys have never experienced a real tree in our home at Christmastime.

We picked the boys up from school the Thursday after Thanksgiving and headed out to Corsi's Tree Farm in the neighboring county east of ours. Chris and I had purchased several trees from Corsi’s when we were DINKs (dual-income-no-kids), but hadn’t ventured out to the multi-acre farm in many years. We were delighted to find only one other car in the parking light when we arrived around 3:30. We stepped inside the large heated barn that also poses as a small gift shop that offers customers holiday music, hot chocolate, and other festive treats. There was even the family’s large yellow lab lying next to the wood burning stove…an added extra for the boys! We told the owners what we were looking for – a 10’ Frasier Fir, and he advised where on the farm we should look. And, so we ventured down a long trail with our hot chocolate and Chris’s hand saw. The big trees were in the far back lots. About 45 minutes later, Chris found it – a beautiful Fraser tucked in between a couple of other large trees.
"Family Selfie" at the tree farm!
After about 30 minutes of sawing, I placed a call to the owner for “reinforcements” in the form of a chain saw and a John Deer Gator. They hauled our monster tree (and our boys) back up to command central on The Gator. After another cup of hot chocolate, and some friendly conversation with the farm owners, we loaded up our new tree into the back of our Ford F250 and headed for the house. 

Our boys and their tree.
We spent the next four days decorating our new holiday treasure. This tree is lit with more than 1200 white lights! Sufficed to say, the ladder stayed in our living room for nearly a week as this anal-retentive mother tweaked and re-tweaked her branches, but it was worth it. What memories this real tree brought to our family this season! The boys will never forget seeing half of daddy’s body stuck under that tree at the tree farm as he attempted to saw it down. Or, Owen’s little Charlie Brown tree he found that day (it was the top of another tree that had been sawed off, but they hauled it for him nonetheless, just the same as our big one, and even wrapped it for the ride home). His little tree sits in our living room with virtually no needles left, adorned with all his favorite little ornaments. And, Connor will never forget the moment he did the honors of cutting the rope that held up the branches once we got her stable in the stand…it was like a scene from National Lampoons Christmas Vacation! This tree is HUGE, and it’s perfect for us, and the memories it has brought us this Christmas season will leave a lasting impression for years to come. And, after this first experience of a real tree from the tree farm, we’re now confident this has become a new Murray family tradition. 
"Before" and "after."
This year we also incorporated two Advent wreaths to the mix of our festive home (one wreath for one child, and one for the other, so we would not have a fight on our hands each week when it came time to light the wreath!). Our boys learn about Advent each year during the Christmas season at their school, but we had never committed family time to celebrating the season with this Catholic tradition. Our parish conducted an Advent wreath event the first Sunday of Advent where families could make a small wreath and learn a little more about what this symbol stands for in the Catholic Church. Each Sunday evening during December, we spent a few minutes in reflection at our dining room table discussing what the Advent wreath symbolizes, and then we would light the candles for the week. The boys enjoyed the weekly lighting…especially Connor, who is oddly enamored with fire right now! I hope to carry this tradition through the years in our home, as it not only re-iterates important traditions the boys learn during the holiday season at school, but helps them to understand that Christmas traditions can be very simple and basic, and are not always centered around such pomp and circumstance.

Our family's advent wreaths.
What I love most about these traditions Chris and I have created for our own family are the smiles I get to experience on our boys’ faces that will hopefully be transformed into joy in their hearts as they grow older, just as our own childhood holiday traditions left an indelible footprint in our minds of what the season brings. I can only hope they will experience this joy well into adulthood whenever they think back on the season of Christmas and recall how they experienced it in our household. And, maybe they will even carry some of these traditions into their own families. I firmly believe this sense of childlike joy is what Jesus wants us to experience, as this season is all about families and love, just like it was more than 2,000 years ago in that little town of Bethlehem.

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