Holiday Traditions That Last

As published in The Rye Record on December 4, 2015

Decades ago, my Nana made a Christmas tablecloth that is still used by my family every year. It is hand-beaded with a delicate mesh overlay. Green felt trees are sewn around the skirt, each decorated with the name of a family member. As a child, I would see this tablecloth on Christmas night, find my little tree, and feel like I was a part of something, as if I was permanently embroidered into this tribe. As an adult I am struck with a different kind of wonder: how is this thing still in one piece? Where’s the tell-tale red wine stain? Where are the moth holes?

My grandmother’s life was characterized by permanence. Not just because she lived to be 100 years old – it doesn’t get much more permanent than that – but also because of the care she took with everything she did and everything she had. It’s a joke in my family that things that are handed down from generation to generation arrive at my house only to be completely destroyed in a matter of weeks.

One year she gave me a cake server with a porcelain handle for my birthday. On that very day I placed it too roughly on my kitchen counter and it shattered. My guess is that Nana never placed anything roughly on the counter. Since that day, I have tried to approach all of her things with special care. I try to use her careful hands, her pace.

Nana took no shortcuts. Tea was worth making by the pot, with loose leaves. It was served in a matching teacup, even if it was just tea for one. Nana was all about hand washing and cool ironing. If she put up a hem, you could be sure it would last longer than the pants to which it was attached.

This quality of hers always strikes me during the holidays, especially as I am frantically purchasing items that I know my kids will enjoy for between one and seven days before losing or breaking. Before Christmas I purge giant bags of stuff to make room for more stuff that I will likely purge in a year. I do not remember this cycle of frantic acquiring and disposing in my grandparents’ generation. They seemed to buy a few well-chosen things that were meant to last forever.

Still, I try to find one or two gifts that will endure. Nana used to give each of us an ornament for Christmas. It was either carefully selected or handmade, and she’d embroider the year on the back. There was a little understanding in that stitched date that this was something to be kept and treasured. Each ornament holds in it the spirit of its particular Christmas. I can’t seem to find my college diploma, but the little pink angel from 1979 is always right where I left it.

Today my husband and my children’s names are on the Christmas tablecloth. Thankfully, my aunt (and not me) has inherited the responsibility of caring for it. The trees with my grandparents’ names, the originals, are at either end of the table, and there is plenty of room along the edges for future generations.