Category Archives: Nostalgia

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All Aboard: Celebrate National Train Day

Hundreds of cities and towns across the U.S. are celebrating National Train Day with events, entertainment and exhibits at train stations and other locations. Find a train event near you.

Sunset Limited. Hiawatha. Empire Builder. Super Chief. I can’t hear the names of the great American train lines without finding myself completely smitten. The Romance of the Rails has gotten to me pretty much every time I’ve taken a train, even a lowly commute one. My first long-distance trip was on the Coast Starlight, a two-night journey (was it supposed to be one? I didn’t care) from San Francisco to Seattle. I highly recommend this, and other long-distance routes, for family travel.

My 7-year-old daughter and I boarded the train about midnight, when many of the passengers were already asleep. We were given warm chocolate chip cookies as we tiptoed to our sleeping car. We both stayed up most of the night, staring out the train window at the houses and yards as they passed by in slices, under a full moon, at just the right speed for contemplation. The train’s mournful whistle occasionally sounded onto the empty main streets. At rural stops, a passenger or two would come aboard, their drivers shuffling back to their hulking cars.

ctempemploymentlawblog

In the morning, we ate on a table set with a white tablecloth, as the train circled a snow-covered Mt. Shasta. We’d later play games in the observation car, meet Europeans who talked politics and American father-son pairs touring the country’s ball parks, drink wine with a very knowledgeable and funny sommelier, watch movies in a beautiful, lower-level movie screening car, and continue staring out the window at the tiny logging towns, the green college towns, the gorge-filled Willamette Valley, and the fir-lined Cascade Mountains. We may have been a full day late getting into Seattle but, of course, we couldn’t have been happier.

mtshasta

cascadestream2

Richard Talmy, the sommelier, was indeed a trip highlight. He was encyclopedic about California wines and wine tasting, as well as train and Coast Starlight history, and he served all up with a great deal of verve, encouraging everyone to eat and drink up, to have fun, and to just acknowledge the fact that we’d “get on the train as passengers and leave as freight.”

Train Web writer and photographer Carl Morrison wrote a piece on parlor car wine tasting with Richard Talmy, where you can see the man in action and get a bit of the flavor of a tasting.

DiningCar

Anna and her new train companions enjoying a meal.

I’ve learned since that first trip that the Coast Starlight is the only Amtrak route to feature a parlor car with wine tasting and a screening room. (And that the parlor car itself is a refurbished car from the historic El Capitan line of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.) Even so, a few summers ago, I had the pleasure of taking the Washington D.C. – New York train (which bore the unromantic name, Acela) and, truly, just a window seat and a garden burger were enough to make my day. Dusk and sunset didn’t hurt the mood, either, as I took in every aluminum-sided diner (themselves former train cars), corner tavern, brick row house, backyard swing set, hilly main street, church steeple, and pane-windowed factory building as the train swung through Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and finally to its resting place in a tunnel beneath Penn Station. Only the vaulted Grand Central lobby would have made the trip more complete. I could have come with this placard of warning: Beware romantic, yearning West Coast person experiencing train rapture.

SunsetTrain

Our car attendant on that first trip was named Douglas and, like Richard, he seems to be a character of lore among Coast Starlight riders. From the cookie on, we knew we were in good hands. A big man, I’ll never forget him cruising through the dining car, about mid-morning, calling out “Hungry Man Walking.” His humor (and our laughter) continued the whole trip.

We slept in a “roomette”, really a closet with beds that hinged out from the walls. (We since booked a family sleeping car, for a second trip on the Coast Starlight. It is roomy and sleeps four, but sacrifices views.) What we didn’t have, apparently, was the grand-era Pullman sleeper car service and room. (Note: I have just returned from a Los Angeles-Chicago train trip in a vintage Pullman car. More on that journey in a future blog.)

While George Pullman didn’t invent the sleeper car, it was he who realized there was a market in luxury, comfort and service, and he and his Pullman cars dominated the industry during its golden age, when everyone traveled by train. A key component of Pullman service was the Pullman porter. The porters were black men — the first ones were former slaves — and it is said that, even though some of the work could be demeaning, Pullman provided them with almost unequaled earning opportunity and job security for the times. During World War II, there were 12,000 Pullman porters. Their union was referred to as a Brotherhood. It’s shocking, then, that the last Pullman car would take a run on December 31, 1968, a victim of the plane and the car.

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Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, and Olympic athlete Wilma Rudolph are just three famous offspring of Pullman porters.The last Pullman porters, many of whom are in their 80s and 90s, are gathered for last year’s Train Day celebration at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station.

National Train Day commemorates the “golden spike” that was driven into the final tie that joined the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railways, thus creating America’s first transcontinental railroad, on May 10, 1869. I salute Train Day, the Pullman porters and the grand era of rail travel, even if it comes in the form of a refurbished Parlor Car.

Hundreds of cities and towns across the U.S. are celebrating National Train Day with events, entertainment and exhibits at train stations and other locations. Visit the National Train Day web site for complete event information and other resources about train history.

I suggest this site to get lost in some wonderful train horn sounds.

amtrakstop

IACMusic.com

Pullman Photo Courtesy of A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum
Early 1900s: Waiter John Larvell Dorsey, left, on Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

Other Photos: Susan Sachs Lipman

Best (and Worst) Candy Heart Sayings of All Time

Iconic, goofy and sometimes romantic candy hearts from Necco are the second best selling Valentine’s Day candy, right behind chocolate. 8 billion little Sweethearts are produced each year. Their bright, chalky colors and pithy and sometimes irreverent candy heart sayings have been entertaining people and helping them declare love for 147 years, ever since the brother of the original Necco creator designed a machine that stamped words directly onto the candies with red vegetable dye. The original candies were large and had various shapes. When the company arrived at the small heart shape in 1902, the sayings got smaller to accommodate it.

Necco wafers themselves have been around 166 years and even accompanied two explorers on their expeditions (Admiral Byrd’s to the South Pole and Donald MacMillan’s to the Arctic) in addition to feeding the WWII troops. Necco’s wafers and sweethearts even survived a move to “healthier” flavors three years ago, which was thankfully scrapped.

 

I’ve watched the sayings get updated over the years, as new ones like FAX ME and  E MAIL ME came and went. New sayings in recent years include TEXT ME and TWEET ME (how long will these last?) as well as MY PET and U R HOT, as an addition to classics like SOUL MATE, SWEET PEA, SAY YES, TRUE LOVE and ALL MINE. Perennial favorites from the early years include BE MINE, BE TRUE, MARRY ME and KISS ME. The company adds about 20 sayings, out of 80, each year, so naturally some older ones are not going to make the new group. New sayings are often themed, like these pet-themed ones from 2007.

Some of my favorite new sayings over the past decade include HEART OF GOLD, MELT MY HEART, CLOUD NINE and HONEY BUN. A few that have bitten the dust, mostly because their lingo became dated, include DIG ME, HEP CAT, HOTCHA, SAUCY BOY and OH YOU KID.

However you express it, Happy Valentine’s Day!

Photos: Necco, The Fun Times Guide

Bonus Trivia Question: What does Necco stand for?

Answer: New England Confectionary Company

 

Read more:

History of Sweetheart Candies, Smithsonian Magazine

10+ Years of Conversation Hearts, Readers Digest

How Do They Get Those Tiny Words on Sweethearts Candies?, Time Magazine

17 Amazing Retired Sweetheart Candy Sayings, The Atlantic

New Sweetheart Candy Sayings by Year, Infoplease

Mixed Reviews for New NECCO Sweetheart Candy Flavors, Slow Family Online


Which Monopoly Token Should Be Replaced?

Which Monopoly token would you replace? That’s the question that Hasbro, maker of the popular 80-year-old game, is putting before its fans, many of whom, while having a favorite, can’t imagine the game without all eight of the current tokens:  race car, top hat, Scottie dog, shoe, wheelbarrow, iron, battleship and thimble. Of those, the wheelbarrow and the Scottie dog are relative newcomers, having joined the game in 1952. The others have been in play since shortly after the game was first marketed (originally using dyed wooden pawn pieces) in 1935.

Some tokens have come and gone over the years. A lantern, purse and rocking horse made it through the early period only to be replaced by the wheelbarrow, Scottie and a bucking bronco. A cannon entered the canon. (Many of us probably remember the cannon and the bronco.) An airplane briefly took flight. A bag of money appeared more recently. More than 20 Monopoly tokens have been made over the years.

Eric Nyman, senior vice president for Hasbro, maker of the board game that is played in 111 countries and has more custom editions than we can count, says that, while he acknowledged that “the tokens are one of the most iconic parts of the Monopoly game and we know that people are emotionally tied to their favorite one,” the new token will be “more representative of today’s Monopoly players.” The new pieces under consideration are a diamond ring, guitar, robot, cat or helicopter.

You can vote for your favorite tokens, new and old, on the Monopoly Facebook page until February 5. The winning token will be produced later this year.

Those who don’t like this change take heart: This 75th anniversary circular Monopoly board, which replaced the game’s traditional paper money with debit cards, didn’t seem to gain any traction.

Early Monopoly History

In my opening paragraph, I wrote that the Monopoly was first marketed in 1935. Its invention, however, goes back to 1904, to The Landlord’s Game, which was invented and patented by Lizzie Magie, as a way to teach economics, taxation and “land grabbing”. The game was played quietly for years, around Pennsylvania in particular. The first person to write up the current Monopoly rules, and give the properties their names based on street names in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was Charles Darrow, who patented his own version of the game and sold it to Parker Brothers. Parker Brothers eventually bought off Lizzie Magie for $500. Read more on two fascinating Landlord’s Game and Monopoly history sites.

Games that Help Kids Learn About Money

Although financial acumen is most likely a bi-product of Monopoly, rather than a goal, there is certainly much kids can learn by playing. Math, counting, reading, planning, budgeting, decision making, and negotiating all come into play, along with a little luck. There can even be an important role-play dimension, if players take the original “landlord” intent of the game seriously.

These are five lessons Monopoly teaches about finance.

Here are more games that help kids learn about money and business. Games and toys that help with role-play, such as toy money, order pads, paper to create menus and signs, cash registers, and sale items (such as art supplies or plastic food) are also terrific, because they help kids learn many interpersonal skills, in addition to financial ones. Many kids gravitate toward playing “store” or “restaurant”.

 What Does Your Monopoly Token Reveal About You?

All this talk of tokens made me wonder if a player’s choice of Monopoly token holds a clue to his or her personality. According to Philip Orbanes, author of the forthcoming book, Monopoly, Money, and You, it does. Find out what your Monopoly token reveals about you.

I must admit, as a (mostly) “hat” player, I was accurately captured.

Photos: Hasbro, UnderConsideration.com (Landlord’s Game)

 

12 Days of Green Holiday Gifts: Homemade Cookies

Cookies might be the ultimate green and well-received gift — They’re delightful, yummy and fun. They come from the heart. They’re economical. Making and exchanging them can be a fun holiday tradition. And you can always make a few extra for yourself.

Every holiday season I have the pleasure of attending a cookie exchange! Lucky me (and my family.) Each year the women who volunteer to help with my local Girl Scout group have an exchange in which attendees bring 4 dozen cookies and an empty container. The cookies all go out on a table, and we line up (Girl Scout volunteers are orderly) and go around the table, socializing and taking a cookie from each plate until they are all distributed. (A photo from a past exchange is above.)

There are several cookies that have become part of our holiday baking traditions. I usually manage to make a couple of types each year. They happen to be easy to make. Here are the favorites.

Spritz Cookies

I grew up making these every holiday season. My mom especially enjoyed making Spritz cookies and Halloween cupcakes. A certain whiff from an electric beater — she had a great, big Hamilton Beach one that sat permanently on the counter — takes me right back to childhood winters and falls.

Spritz cookies are made by pressing the soft dough through a cookie press and through various plates with interchangeable shapes. I love the efficiency and fun of pressing out lots of little cookies. Once pressed onto a cookie sheet, you can decorate them with the sprinkles of your choice. I think one of the keys to good Spritz cookies is: Be sure your recipe includes almond flavoring (or add 1/2 tsp. per 4-5 cups of dry ingredients, or half as much as your vanilla flavoring). The other is: Have fun decorating. This can be a very festive and delicious cookie. If you do color the cookies (which I recommend!) you might want to try professional paste frosting colors, which, with a little patience, produce a nice deep color. (You can get a box of 8 small color jars from ChefMaster, available at specialty baking stores, for around $7).

It also takes a little practice to learn to press the right amount of dough out per cookie. (Most presses have adjustable settings.) The good news is you can just scoop dough that didn’t work out back into the press and try again.

This site, from Wilton, offers the classic Spritz recipe, plus links for buying a cookie press. I recommend the reasonably priced Cookie Max.

Butterballs

You may know them as Mexican Wedding Balls, or Russian Tea Cookies. Butterballs are mine (and a lot of people’s) favorite cookie — They’re tasty, melt-in-your-mouth buttery, sugar-coated, and just all-around great, any time of year. I find the ones in The Silver Palate Cookbook to be the best of the best, perhaps because they’re largely sweetened with honey, which provides a great taste and crunch.

Here is the Butterball Cookie recipe, from The Silver Palate Cookbook.

Sugarplums

One more from the Silver Palate team — This one is in The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook: Sugarplums. Mythical, festive, evocative Sugarplums. (As seen in The Nutcracker and The Night Before Christmas.) They are certainly as much fun to pop into one’s mouth as they are to contemplate. The original Sugarplum recipe calls for corn syrup and cognac. I substituted agave syrup, a mild and more natural sweetener for half the corn syrup, and all of the cognac (using a little under 1/3 c. for the cognac portion.) And I did away with the cherry on top, the better to enjoy the pure, undiluted Sugarplum experience.

Enjoy!

For gifting, wrap in cellophane or fabric and tie with ribbons, or place in jars or decorated bags. Or bring to gatherings on plates.

My criteria for a green holiday gift? One that :

Promotes nature play or care of the earth
Uses all or mostly natural ingredients
Fosters observation and/or open-ended active and creative play
Doesn’t use extraneous plastic or other wrapping
Doesn’t break the bank to buy it.

Got any suggestions? Send them my way!

Other Green Holiday Gifts:
Root Viewer Garden Kit

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

Photo Friday: Occident Flour

My love for painted advertising signs on the sides of brick buildings is well documented here. It’s not unusual for me to yell “Stop the car!” or slow my family on a walk to capture one with a camera. More commonplace in earlier decades, they used blank brick canvasses to sell everything from mining equipment to toothpaste. I love coming upon them on country roadsides and in city alleyways. This bright one near St. Johnsbury, Vermont, was no doubt repainted and lovingly refurbished to its old-timey feel. I don’t think the site is a general store any longer.

I’ve since learned that Occident Flour was produced by the Russell-Miller Milling Company in the midwest from 1894-the early 1950s. It was sold to the Peavey Company in 1962 and acquired by ConAgra in 1982. That trajectory, along with newer advertising methods, partially explains the loss of painted signs for individual concerns.

Have you seen and photographed something unusual, whimsical, beautiful, or otherwise interesting in your travels? Has anything surprised you or caused you to pause? Or have you simply experienced a small, lovely moment that you wanted to capture? If so, I hope you’ll share with us by leaving a comment with a link to your photo. I look forward to seeing it!

 

Photo by Susan Sachs Lipman, Graphic from Occident Flour

You may also be interested in:

Photo Friday: Ghost Sign
Photo Friday: San Francisco Storefront
Photo Friday: Tamalpais Motel at Dusk


Celebrating 100 Years of the Mill Valley Library

 

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in an old-fashioned party to celebrate my wonderful town’s library, which turned 100 years old. Originally built as a Carnegie Library, in what is now a stately brick house, the Mill Valley Public Library has grown from an institution with 750 donated books to one with 132,000 books, a digital collection, a team of librarians, and live offerings almost every day it’s open, from noted local authors to pre-school story times, to performances outdoors and in. No wonder our library thrives while others around the country are forced to close. Hundreds of visitors per day find it relevant and exciting, a true community hub.

It was terrific then, and very fitting, to honor the library’s Centennial with a gathering in the grove of redwoods that adjoins it. There was a free and continual program of old-time music, a birthday cake, announcements and proclamations, sodas and hot dogs, crafts, library trivia contests, and games, which I led with Research Librarian Cara Brancoli and which, in keeping with the historical spirit, included Tug-of-War, Three-Legged Races, Sack Races, and Egg-and-Spoon Races. We also had jacks and hula hoops out for free play. Wonderfully, many children, especially the smaller ones, rolled the hoops, just as children may have done 100 years ago.

It was truly lovely and warm (in spirit, if not temperature.) Liz Greer of Mill Valley Life took some wonderful photos that really captured the event, as did Hans Roenau in the Mill Valley Patch.

Photos: Top, Liz Greer. Bottom, Ken Friedman. Others: Susan Sachs Lipman

 

 

Vanishing Breed: World’s Last Typewriter Factory Closes its Doors

Hold on to your ribbons and keys: The world’s last typewriter factory, located in Mumbai, India, is closing its doors. As late as 2009, the factory, Godrej and Boyce, was still rolling out 10-12, 000 machines a year (down from 50,000 a year in the 90s). But the ubiquitous computer just proved too much for it.

The concept of impressing ink-coated letters onto paper may date to a 1714 English patent held by Henry Mill. The first working typewriter was said to have been built in 1808 by Italian Pellegrino Turri. Our current typewriters (and computer keyboards) owe the most debt to the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, produced in New York, beginning in 1873, from gunmakers E. Remington & Sons. Some of you may still have Remington manual typewriters.

Sholes, a newspaperman from Wisconsin, created the QWERTY keyboard that we still use today. The first one made only capital letters. There is more early typewriter history on this excellent site. This is another great site featuring lots of pictures and information about different models of early typewriters, from American Visible to World.

U.S. typewriter production was dominated by just four brands — Underwood, Royal, Remington and Smith-Corona — from the 1920s until they stopped production. Remington, then Remington-Rand, moved production to Europe in 1961. The last Smith-Corona and Royal typewriters came out in the 1970s. Underwood merged with Olivetti in 1963 and began diversifying. The last Olivetti portable typewriter was produced in Spain in the 1980s.

Though I typed a “novel” on a manual typewriter in 6th grade ( a tome in which terrible fates befell the fictional denizens of an elementary school, truth be told), and learned manual typing from typing teacher Stella Staley to prepare for high school, for most of high school I typed papers on a series of lovely IBM Selectrics. These were probably the slightly outdated castoffs from my parents’ ad agency office, but still — they were quite sleek, in lovely colors (robins egg blue or gunmetal gray), and they had fascinating metal balls that spun around to find the designated letter. Best? You could change the font by changing out the ball. (I also remember the change-over from white-out to type-out correction paper.) It turns out IBMs had been somewhat stylish (and electric) since the 1930s.

Now, of course, there is a collectors’ market for typewriter ribbons and other accessories, not to mention the typewriters themselves. And while news of this last typewriter rolling off the factory belt may hit some of us with an odd sense of surprise and nostalgia, I note that the same keyboard from almost 150 years ago is still with us, and that some people (even in high schools today) continue to say “typing” rather than the duller-sounding “keyboarding” or, God forbid, “word processing”.

This wistful change brings both and “end of an era” feeling and the notion that I personally can’t imagine how long-form writers ever typed complete novels without the luxury of inserting, deleting, copying and pasting at will — even if I once tried it myself.

Be sure to see: The typewriter dance number.

This just in: Some typewriters are apparently still being made, in the U.S., for the prison market. So, perhaps more accurately, the world’s second to last typewriter factory closed its doors.

Photos: IBM typewriter ads, top to bottom, Model Year 1954, 1930, 1948, 1948, 1959, 1967. These and many more on etypewriters.com. Early writing ball typewriter, 1903 Remington ad and popular 1920s Underwood 5 manual typewriter on this typewriter history site. Later Underwood 5 typewriter on Wikimedia Commons.

Photo Friday: Tamalpais Motel at Dusk

I’m not sure quite why I can’t resist lingering over a neon roadside sign at dusk. Nor why I find some to be just a bit forlorn. Perhaps it’s the gulf between the sign’s bright promise — in this case evoking our local mountain, given the Native American Miwok name meaning “coastal mountain” — and the reality of a motel, or a bar, or an eatery that’s seen better times. Or maybe it’s just the time of day, the light, the glory and wonder of neon, and the beckoning of the open road, none of which ever grow old.

Have you seen and photographed something unusual, whimsical, beautiful, or otherwise interesting in your travels? Has anything surprised you or caused you to pause? Or have you simply experienced a small, lovely moment that you wanted to capture? If so, I hope you’ll share with us by leaving a comment with a link to your photo. I look forward to seeing it!

Photo by Susan Sachs Lipman

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Photo Friday: Ghost Sign
Photo Friday: San Francisco Storefront

Photo Friday: Ghost Sign

While in New York (site of last week’s Photo Friday), I became completely entranced with “Ghost Signs”, faded advertising signs painted on the sides of brick buildings. Most of these are from decades ago. Some are faded beyond recognition. Many offer goods and services that have seen more popular times: millinery, lithography, shirtwaists, coatfronts, sewing machines, steam heat, furs and skins, paper and twine.

As I walked around Manhattan’s streets, gazing up and peering around corners for ghost signs, I felt like an urban archeologist. Each sign held a clue to past generations. Each felt like a surprise to discover, as well as a fleeting treat. I knew that the next time I might pass this way, the sign could very well be faded completely, lost to memory — or lost to new construction, as glass and steel might completely cover it up, much the way the tearing down of old buildings to make way for new ones may have led to some of these old ghost signs seeing the light of day once more.

I try to photograph ghost signs wherever I go. I have found New York City and Portland, Oregon, to be especially rich places for them, in addition to forgotten main streets and quiet roads where rural barns advertise tobaccos and colas. Look for an upcoming post that will feature more.

In the meantime, keep observing, wandering, and being open to a surprise or two. Last week reader Alice sent a link to this story on Slow Photography, which is more about the joyful process of taking pictures than it is about the finished result. (Thank you Alice. See Alice’s photos on flickr.)

Have you seen and photographed something unusual, whimsical, beautiful, or otherwise interesting in your travels? Has anything surprised you or caused you to pause? Or have you simply experienced a small, lovely moment that you wanted to capture? If so, I hope you’ll share with us by leaving a comment with a link to your photo. I look forward to seeing it!

Photo by Susan Sachs Lipman

Downplay Gift-Giving and Bring up Ritual, Meaning and Fun

I am thrilled to have Amy at Frugal Mama here today with a guest post. I always get tons of practical and inspirational tips from her lovely blog and am honored that she wanted to write something for Slow Family:

“I think the best way to de-commercialize Christmas and other holidays with kids is to have lots of non-gifting traditions,” says Nancy Shohet West, Boston-area essayist, friend and author of the newly-released The Mother-Son Running Streak Club, a memoir about bonding with her son by running a mile with him every day for a year.

I like the way Nancy thinks about giving presents:  as just one of many holiday traditions.  (Clearly dedicated to routine, given she is now on day 1,215 of her daily running streak, I consulted Nancy when I took on writing this article for Suz and Slow Family Online.)

It’s Not that Gifts are Bad…

I’m not saying we should completely give up presents.  But too many can empty our savings, clutter our homes, and pile landfills with more junk. I knew things had gotten excessive in our family when we had to take a lunch break from Christmas present-unwrapping.  Now we have a one-gift-per-person rule.

This year we plan to revive the stockings, but instead of tiny wrapped do-dads, we’ll fill them with exchanged notes for everyone that begin with phrases like “I love how you…” and “I remember when you…”

But I still sometimes worry that fewer presents will be disappointing.

Make Those Traditions Constant and Pleasing

Holiday rituals — as keepers of our values and pleasures — have the power to replace the joy of giving and receiving gifts. As Nancy describes in her blog post A Month of Holiday Festivities, special activities fill all of December:

  • the town tree-lighting
  • a school holiday concert
  • a cookie exchange
  • buying a Christmas tree
  • decorating the house
  • throwing a party
  • making candy (truffles, peanut brittle, white-chocolate candy cane bark, toffee, and peanut-butter buckeyes)
  • a church pageant, evergreens sale, and children’s service
  • an annual holiday photo shoot and
  • composing the family’s customary 12-stanza poem

Breaking with Tradition:  Does This Happen to You Too?

Not everyone is as naturally inclined toward ritual as Nancy, however, and some of us face significant obstacles.

Since having our first daughter who is now eight, we have lived in five different places. (My husband’s medical training keeps us moving.)

Plus, we celebrate Christmas in different places each year:  at my parents’ Ohio farm, in my husband’s native Milan, or wherever we are living at the time. I’m sure people with blended families have an even more complicated geographical itinerary.

Traditions change even at my parents’ country house, which has been in the family since 1868.  Some of my favorite memories used to be singing carols around the fire on Christmas Eve while my uncle played guitar, eating tins of caramel clusters that family friends would send us every year, and taking a tractor ride up to the woods where we’d cut down a Christmas tree, roast hot dogs and make s’mores.

But my parents don’t own that little piece of woods anymore, my uncle doesn’t come these days (he has grandchildren of his own), and those family friends sold their popcorn company.

Then there’s the issue that I’m sure many mothers of young children face:  even if it’s possible to continue the same childhood traditions, do you want to?  Or do you adopt new ones?  If so, which ones?

Finally, piling on more have-to’s onto our loaded holiday plates can risk overwhelming us, instead of delighting us.  (If you have the feeling you need to pare down, Nancy recommends asking your children which traditions mean the most to them.)

So, creating a spectrum of rituals that your family looks forward to every year is not simple, but I think it’s worth working towards.  Especially for the power of tradition to take the pressure off material things.

Holiday Rituals that Captivate

Here are some activity ideas, besides the ones already mentioned, that could populate your holidays.  Presents or no presents, your family will remember this time as one of warmth and magic.

  • Make a gingerbread house (Suz has great suggestions for both hand-made houses and kits, as well as workshops and classes)
  • Attend religious events, such as midnight mass or creche scenes
  • Drive around festive neighborhoods at night or go to a festival of lights (zoos often put these on)
  • Light candles or make a cupcake Menorah
  • Give away toys to the hospital, deliver meals to shut-ins, volunteer at at shelter, or drop off cans at a food bank
  • Read aloud together Twas the Night Before Christmas in holiday pajamas
  • Or read books about the history of Santa Claus and how Christmas Chanukah, Kwanzaa or Winter Solstice is celebrated around the world
  • Make hand-crafted gifts and cards
  • Go sledding, skiiing, tubing, or ice-skating
  • Eat food you only make at this time of year, such as eggnog, roasted chestnuts, rugelach, mulled cider, cut-out sugar cookies, mincemeat, kugel, gingersnaps, peppermint bark, or potato latkes
  • See the Nutcracker, or stay home and play board games
  • Go to the botanical garden for a toy train exhibit, or downtown for a horse and buggy ride
  • Set cookies out for Santa, or deliver plates of goodies to neighbors
  • Every Friday night, watch a classic holiday movie like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or How The Grinch Stole Christmas
  • Invite an international student over for a holiday meal
  • Take a train ride to a festive old-fashioned town
  • Send care packages to friends or family who need a boost
  • Make snowflakes (create your own or try these beautiful snowflake patterns) and use them as decorations, gifts or ornaments
  • Don’t celebrate Christmas?  Make a tradition of going out for Chinese food and the movies on Christmas day.

Boost Your Chances of Success

Don’t worry if you miss one year of a time-honored ritual (or one you wanted to become time-honored).  Nancy was torn about missing her favorite holiday concert last year, but it made her more appreciative when she was able to go again this time.

I think the rituals we are most likely to stick with are the ones that we have strong beliefs about (like fostering a love of nature) or that we get great pleasure from (cookies we think are delicious, not just “what grandma made”).

If some traditions involve more values than pleasure (like visiting Uncle Eggbert for a piece of fruitcake); or the pleasure involves pain (like stringing lights over that stickery bush), follow them with something that’s pure enjoyment:  staying up late watching The Sound of Music, or eating fondue by a blazing fire.
Remember the procrastination-prone thank you notes?  Nancy creates a ritual out of that too, making it fun by taking her kids to a local coffee house, where they get to drink hot chocolate with whipped cream while writing to grandma.


What holiday rituals does your family look forward to year after year?

Amy Suardi loves finding the silver lining to living on less.  Subscribe to her blog Frugal Mama to get free bi-weekly ideas on saving money and making life better.

Stories and photos by Amy Suardi/Frugal Mama

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