By Jennabeth Taliaferro
As I passed the mirror in the kitchen, I glanced at the red cape tied around my neck. No, it was not Halloween; I was not a toddler in an adorable outfit or pretending to be some caped crusader. It was a few days before Christmas, and my grandmother had succeeded, yet again, in recruiting all the instrument players in our family (read: all of us) to participate in her annual Christmas caroling party. After a feast of buffet-style Mexican food in her dining room—where about 30 of us stood around balancing plates, cups and conversation—it was time to practice. I wielded my flute, my father his trombone, my mother her French horn, my brothers and uncle some form of brass instruments, and we began to play. We played “Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” all to the sound of a tinny tambourine that my grandfather hit against his thigh.
With her black and white accordion inscribed with diamond-encrusted letters spelling out her name, P-A-T-T-Y, my grandmother led the charge like a general into battle, her trusty steed a rented black bus, her lieutenants donning red and green capes with hoods. I never knew from where or why she had those capes, and I never thought to ask. Our caroling troop traveled around Abilene, TX, stopping by any Christmas party that was occurring that night. I didn’t understand why I had to expose my fingers to the freezing cold and run around town with a bunch of my parents’ friends, but at the end of the night, my brothers and I were usually rewarded with hot chocolate and an early Christmas present to open.
Many family traditions are passed down from generation to generation. Their meaning may be lost over the years, but the activities thrive, sometimes to the dismay of younger children. It’s difficult to make a child care about tradition and family when there are presents under the tree. Parents persist, however, because they know, and children eventually learn, how important these traditions are. Even though I hated playing songs and wearing that cape, I see now that my grandmother just wanted to be with the ones she loves. And she found a way to bring joy to others, even if our playing and singing was a little flat. Okay, very flat.
Every December 25th, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came to Earth to live among men and die for our sins. Although the actual date of His birth is controversial, the Gospel is clear that he was born in a manger to the Virgin Mary after she and her husband Joseph found no available rooms in Bethlehem. We give presents to represent the Magi who found Jesus by following a shining star to worship him and give him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. For Christians, the season of Christmas is about celebrating the Savior who came to give eternal life; it’s a celebration of self-sacrifice, love, and generosity.
To Americans, and homes across the globe, a central feature of Christmas is the Christmas tree. There’s nothing that says “Christmas” more than a fir as the centerpiece of the house, decorated with lights, ornaments new and old, and a star or angel at the top. The custom of decorating a real tree in the home to celebrate Christmas can be traced back to 15th and 16th century Germany. It became so special throughout the next few centuries that songs and fables were written to draw attention to this beautiful manifestation of the Christmas Spirit. From the 80-foot tall tree in Rockefeller Center in New York City, to my three-foot tall baby tree my first year out of college with only one ornament and nine working lights, Christmas trees make the holiday season seem that much more magical, and a little surreal. After all, when else is it normal to have a real (or fake) tree just hanging out in the living room?
My family typically alternates Thanksgiving and Christmas between my mother’s family and my father’s family, but I always like when it is just the five of us in Abilene the night before Christmas. After a colossal dinner of turkey, creamed corn, green beans, rolls, and pecan, cherry and buttermilk pies, we curl up in front of a roaring fire in the living room while Christmas tree lights dance on our faces. Their hands around mugs of hot chocolate or spiked eggnog, my brothers lounge with their legs crossed the same way, and my dad sits in his chair with his reading glasses on.
“What’s the scripture again, Honey?” he asks, flipping through the Bible to find the story of Jesus’ birth.
“Luke chapter 2,” my mom says from her perch on the couch. I can smell the pine as my father reads the Christmas story. We follow up with either a reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, or a rehashing of our favorite movie quotes, interrupting and talking over one another as if there were a cash prize for the family member who can quote “Forrest Gump” the loudest.
Christmas was all I knew of the holiday season until I was 16 years old. A friend from boarding school invited me to celebrate Hanukah one night with her family. She didn’t have to do much convincing after I learned about latkes, the potato pancakes traditionally eaten during Hanukah. As the potato cakes cooked in their kitchen, I stood by with my hands clasped in front of me while my friend and her little sister lit the menorah and said prayers. Later, we ate delicious, traditional Hanukah food, including the latkes, and played games. They even let me try my hand at spinning a dreidel.
Historically, Hanukah commemorates the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and celebrates the miracle of the Temple’s menorah burning for eight nights when there was only enough oil for one. It is a representation of the faith and love that binds the Jewish people to God and to their community.
Both Christmas and Hanukah customs are based on centuries of historical rituals, but their meaning is either forgotten or simply unimportant to some families. A staggering 95 percent of Americans celebrate religious holidays in December, despite less than half being religious. To non-religious families, the holidays are a time to exchange gifts, eat delicious food, and get together with friends and family.
“My mother and I, being technically Jewish but not at all religious, basically viewed Hanukah as a time to eat a lot of potato latkes, dance and get lots of extra presents,” says Amanda Bestor-Siegel, who celebrated both Christmas and Hanukah growing up, not partial to neglecting any holiday where lots of food and presents are involved.
“Every Hanukah, on the first night, we would go to a family friend’s house…where my mom’s boyfriend would play “Hava Nagila” on the piano in the living room,” she says. “We would dance along with it, and he would speed it up each round so that by the end we were tripping on ourselves, and we wouldn’t stop until someone got hurt or at least visibly winded. By then the potato latkes would be ready and we would all sit down and eat them.”
She adds, “we had no idea what Hanukah was about, but we celebrated the same way every year and somehow, probably somewhat offensively, it was always my favorite holiday.”
Over the last few decades, some secular holidays have become an integral part of the winter season. Kwanzaa, a non-religious festival celebrated in conjunction with Christmas from December 26 to January 1, was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga to bring African Americans together and celebrate their rich and distinct culture. Dr. Karenga wanted to pay tribute to African heritage and its impact on culture in the United States. Families observe Kwanzaa in different ways, but most celebrations include traditional songs, dances, African drums and storytelling. Kwanzaa concludes in a feast and the giving of gifts to celebrate the strong sense of unity, community and faith that all Americans value.
A family of 120,000 people, Abilene itself has customs and traditions each holiday season that celebrate our city and the generosity of our citizens. For 63 years, the Holiday Home Tour has benefitted the Abilene Philharmonic Orchestra by showcasing Abilene homes festively decorated for the holidays. The homes are not the only attraction, however, as local musicians perform live at some locations. The annual event celebrates the music and culture that the Abilene Philharmonic brings to our town. This year, the homes on the tour will be in the Saddle Creek area, just south of Abilene Regional Medical Center. Families will open their homes and invite attendees to celebrate our city’s cultural and philanthropic spirits during the season of joy and giving.
Another annual Abilene tradition is Junior League of Abilene’s Christmas Carousel. A four-day event of cocktail parties, fashion shows, shops and Santa Claus, it is a hat tip to the sense of community and citizenship that Abilene fosters. Some families have even made the Junior League event their own tradition, since mothers and daughters who are members of the organization find themselves at the Civic Center each year to bring holiday spirit to Abilene.
We lean on tradition to remember who we are and where we came from. Whether it’s church on Christmas morning, a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve, or dancing around a piano on the first night of Hanukah, these are the occasions with which we mark our lives and by which we find joy. New customs may come and go, but as long as family and friends gather to celebrate each other and hope for a bright future, the holiday season will always sparkle with lights of unity and love.
Although my grandmother’s Christmas caroling party eventually fazed out due to aging participants and her musicians going off to college, we still talk about her parties as one of the great Taliaferro family traditions. Every couple of years, we’ll bring out an instrument or two, find a few tattered pieces of sheet music, and sing our classics. Sometimes, I even wish for that old red cape as I remember the sound of an accordion playing “Jingle Bells” on a cold December night.