When my brothers, sister and I were school age, our picture window remained darkened while our classmates’ glistening fir trees announced the approach of Christmas.
At school my classmates would ask, “Why don’t you have a tree? Are you atheist or something?”
“My mum’s from England and we don’t put up our tree until Christmas Eve,” I’d reply.
The word “Mum” usually produced cackles, which reminded me that I needed to call my mother “Mom” while speaking of her in third person so that I could seem more like my peers.
Our family followed a British tradition of displaying a decorated tree from Christmas Eve through Jan. 6, marking the Epiphany (hence the 12 days of Christmas) when the three Kings arrived at the manger.
In spite of our classmates’ confusion, my siblings and I eagerly looked forward to our family’s traditions. Christmas Eve would finally arrive and, after dinner, we would sip hot cocoa and carefully hang the tree ornaments commemorating our global travels. We would painstakingly place the tinsel on the branches. Somewhere along the way, we had agreed that we were a one-tinsel-strand-at-a-time family.
The German nativity display would be set on a small table, the donkey with the missing leg propped at the back of the stable and the ceramic baby Jesus asleep in his straw basket hidden behind the stable to be placed in the manger on Christmas morning. I’m not sure why we placed the three Kings at the manger since they didn’t arrive until 12 days later.
Once the decorations were in place, we had to stay awake for midnight Mass followed by a visit to our Hispanic family friends’ house for spicy pisole and tortillas, their family tradition.
Christmas morning, before opening presents, my youngest brother would place Jesus in the manger and quack, “Happy Birthday” like Donald Duck. He spent countless hours perfecting this skill. I have no idea how this tradition came to be, but we enjoyed it immensely.
My sister and I performed a dance — part Oompa Loompa, part square dance — to a big-band rendition of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” LPs were on the verge of obsolescence, and my sister was off to college across the Atlantic, which put a halt to our enthusiasm.
Over the years, we whittled the days to decorating our tree as early as Dec. 20. By our early twenties, my youngest brother was barely able to squeak out three quacks, at best, so the “Happy Birthday” song fell silent.
We started baking cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning and continue to do so. We baked sugar cookies, but that tradition was put to rest as nieces and nephews grew older. Now, my grand nephew has brought life to the sugar cookies again. We added (and deleted) boyfriends, girlfriends and spouses. We also added children – an extra helping of joy.
When I think back to our family’s delayed decorating, it occurs that I thought setting up a tree shortly after Thanksgiving was just as foreign. Maybe if I hadn’t focused on defending our way of celebrating, I might have given my classmates an opportunity to learn another country’s traditions. I might have learned from them, too.
My siblings and I wanted to conform to a standard of Christmas we perceived was the “right” way. Maybe we were in a hurry, too. Nonetheless, over the years, we have proven that there is no standard to holiday celebrations. Different family and friends sit around our dinner table. Recipes have been altered. My parents stopped hosting Christmas dinner; now, siblings take over each year.
Today, we will celebrate another version of Christmas.
Maybe I’ll find the Glen Miller song on iTunes so that my sister and I can reminisce, burn a few calories and enjoy a good belly laugh.
Heidi Fedore of Lakewood is a middle school principal in Gig Harbor. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org