My Christmas Tradition

I’ve been celebrating Christmas for as long as I’ve lived in America, more than a quarter century, but I only have one Christmas tradition.

My family usually gets together around the holidays, but sometimes it’s for Christmas day, and sometimes it’s not until New Year’s, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. We exchange presents in some fashion most years, but the process is always a bit uncertain, lacking both guidelines and routine. One year we might gather under the tree Christmas morning to tear apart wrapping paper, and another year, I might have Amazon ship my folks a box in early December. We used to set up and decorate a tree every year, but that custom grew more sporadic after the cat knocked down the Christmas tree so many times its stand broke. Even after the cat got too old to jump up the tree and eventually died, we started being away from home for the holidays more, and setting up a tree felt less worthwhile. Three years ago, Lawrence and I bought a little artificial Christmas tree for our living room, and we haven’t taken it down since, but that’s long lost the luster of tradition and probably better qualifies as background decor these days. For a few years past our breakup, I tried to keep alive the breakfast tradition I had learned with my ex-boyfriend’s family — cinnamon scones and scrambled eggs and bacon — but eventually that, too, faded into obscurity.

But planning a wedding this past year meant that I spent a lot of time holding traditions — bridal showers, bachelorette parties, cocktail hours — up to the light, examining them, and deciding whether they were right for me. In many cases (including all the aforementioned ones), they weren’t, so we skipped them. So maybe it’s not surprising that now, as Lawrence and I lay the foundations of our own family, I find myself turning that same scrutiny to Christmas. I want to apply that same care and thoughtfulness to the rituals of Christmas, elevating those that genuinely resonate with or hold meaning for me and discarding those that don’t.

Last year, just before Christmas, I saw a random tweet about an Icelandic tradition of receiving books and chocolate on Christmas Eve. The idea of spending the night before Christmas curled up somewhere cozy sinking into a new novel while slowly suckling chocolate sounded absolutely divine to me. I knew I had to make it happen. Once may be a whim, but this year, we once again treated ourselves to new books and fancy chocolate the night of Christmas Eve. So now it’s a tradition. My Christmas tradition. My only Christmas tradition.

So far.

After a Christmas Day yesterday that somehow managed to feel perfectly ordinary despite being in a new state, I’m already bursting with ideas for potential Christmas traditions that I want to test out in the future, rituals that make sense for me and my new family, structures to elevate the day with significance. Here are a few:

Christmas CD Advent Calendar

During this busy December, Lawrence and I seldom spared a thought for Christmas, and I think this lack of build up may have inadvertently curbed our enthusiasm for the holiday. We already own a Christmas CD collection large enough to listen to a different one each day of the month, but right now, that just means that we end up going through a Christmas season without listening to most of our Christmas CDs. My idea is to designate a specific Christmas CD for each day of December leading up to Christmas next year. It’ll be a two-for-one for getting in the holiday spirit. I always think that anticipation is half the joy of something, and a daily countdown would certainly help build anticipation. And, of course, a daily dose of Christmas music should help to set the mood.

Self-Care Stockings

My family did have Christmas stockings sometimes when I was growing up, but we used them primarily as decor rather than as a repository for gifts. As immigrants from a country without a Christmas tradition, I think the difference between tree presents and stocking presents was one of those things that got lost in translation when we tried to adopt a holiday wholesale without any examples or instructions along the way. Were they for gag gifts? Presents that were small in size? Who knew? But, looking back, I can remember at least one childhood Christmas when having a Christmas stocking and clear instructions could have spared a lot of grief.

Back then, I got exactly one present each Christmas, and I got to pick it out (within a budget). That year, I was getting a dollhouse where each room could be assembled from building blocks, some kind of Lego knockoff, and I couldn’t wait to start playing with it. On Christmas morning, I woke up in the dead of night, and there it was, waiting under the tree. I dragged it to my bedroom, tore off the paper, and had been happily playing with it for a couple of hours by the time my poor parents awoke to find that I had opened my Christmas present without them. It wasn’t even that I had violated an explicit instruction to wait to open presents together; it was that they had expected me to know better without being told, to be considerate enough to wait. The details are fuzzy so many years later, but I remember that my parents were furious, and I’m pretty sure the occasion ended in tears.

Here’s the distinction between stocking presents and tree presents that makes the most sense to me: stocking presents are those you can open by yourself, as soon as you wake up on Christmas morning. Tree presents are those that you open together, everyone gathered together leisurely, probably after breakfast. In that vein, it also makes sense to me for stocking presents to focus around self care and pampering and to be primarily consumable items rather than permanent objects: a box of tea, a bath bomb, lip balm, comfortable socks. A favorite snack; another bar of chocolate. Something to entertain an eager little girl who gets up hours before her parents (the sequel to the book from the night before?). And citrus fruit in the toe, because Lawrence’s aunt told me that’s what she did when she was a little girl, and as a lover of oranges, who am I to argue with tradition?

I’m already looking forward to putting these together — and opening them — next year.

Time Outdoors

Last year, we spent a magical Christmas afternoon snow tubing in the mountains of Washington state, and this year, we took three walks around the neighborhood of our AirBnB in a San Antonio suburb. In some sense, I suppose you could say that we have this tradition already. Both times, we felt invigorated and refreshed by the brisk air and the activity, but I can assure you that the two experiences were not equal. I’d like to give this tradition more thought in the coming year and formalize it enough to plan for it, so that when we return to it, we can have more playing in the snow and less strolling through the subdivision.

Tradition Reflection

In a recent conversation about Christmas traditions with a friend, she described a problem I’ve never experienced: having so many Christmas traditions that it felt burdensome to perform all of them. It was a good reminder for me not to get too carried away when adding new traditions. Much like my material possessions, I only want to keep my Christmas traditions if they have meaning, serve a purpose, or bring me joy. And that means that the most important Christmas tradition of all might be to continually examine my traditions, assess them, and honestly choose the ones that are right for me.


First Favorites: Dallas, Texas

In a matter of days, we’ll be jetting off to Texas for this year’s holiday celebrations with my family. We’ll be spending most of our time in San Antonio, hopefully with a day trip or two to Austin, but we’re ending our trip with a couple of days in Dallas. I last visited Dallas about 14 months ago, and it’s pretty unusual for me to return to the same place twice in two years. Especially because this will be Lawrence’s first time there, I’m finding myself thinking about what my favorite places were from my own first visit and which locations I’d like to return to this time.

Here are my top five attractions (and an honorable mention) from my Fall 2016 visit to Dallas:

Old Red Museum

Especially during a first visit, I love learning about the history of where I am, and the Old Red Museum in downtown Dallas provided a charming, accessible, and detailed look at the origin and development of Dallas, from prehistory through its early growth as a railway crossroads to its commercial and cultural maturation in the 20th century. Split over four time periods, each section of the museum featured artifacts, interactive exhibits, and a short film. The building itself, formerly the Dallas County Courthouse, was also lovely. For anyone interested in history, I’d be hard-pressed to recommend a better introduction to Dallas than Old Red.

That X on the ground marks the spot where JFK was shot.

Dallas Heritage Village

I love examining the layouts and interiors of houses, so I often find myself gravitating toward historic homes and buildings. Dallas Heritage Village was home to not just one but a whole array of them, originating from a variety of times and places and collected together in a single park. During our visit, my mother and I meandered from pioneer cabin to stately Victorian home, from chapel to general store, from farmhouse to schoolhouse. We learned about horseshoes from a blacksmith, befriended a goat who followed me around a building and across a field, and were even on hand to witness the celebratory arrival of the park’s new donkeys.

These were the old donkeys. They were tired.

Katy Trail

As a small town girl turned New York City transplant, I’m constantly looking for the green spaces in metropolitan areas. The Katy Trail was Dallas’s incarnation of the urban hiking trail, and it felt like a vibrant oasis in a concrete desert. While we didn’t cover its entire distance, my mother, sister, and I enjoyed several miles of invigorating walking starting and ending at Reverchon Park. The two attractions above helped me to connect Dallas’s past with its present, but the Katy Trail gave me a sense of the way its sprawling neighborhoods connected with one another. It was the type of place I’d frequent if I lived there.

This is the path in Reverchon Park we took to access the Katy Trail.

Dallas Museum of Art

I’m usually tepid when it comes to art museums, but I found myself unexpectedly enchanted by the free Dallas Museum of Art. Its expansive interior space complemented its similarly expansive global collection, and moving through it felt like the sort of exploration in which you could get lost and then found again. As someone who’s perpetually drawn to period rooms (see: Dallas Heritage Village, above), it’s no surprise that my favorite exhibit was the recreated Mediterranean home of Wendy and Emery Reves, Villa La Pausa, in the namesame Wendy and Emery Reves Collection.

This long hallway in the Dallas Museum of Art almost felt like an optical illusion.

Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden

I freely admit that the Dallas Arboretum enjoyed the advantage of my first visit falling in October, but I fell head over heels for this botanical garden during its annual pumpkin extravaganza. Nearly a hundred thousand pumpkins lined its every path and filled its breathtaking centerpiece, the Pumpkin Village. It was a pumpkin patch crossed with a fairy tale. There were so many pumpkins. Pumpkins everywhere. Endless pumpkins. How could anywhere else in Dallas compete?


Honorable Mention: Sixth Floor Museum

The Sixth Floor Museum, located in the former Texas School Book Depository, is the site from which the fatal bullet was fired that killed President John F. Kennedy. Now, an audio tour leads visitors through a meticulous reconstruction of the final days and moments of Kennedy’s life and places his assassination in its cultural, political, and spatial context. The experience was of excellent quality, informative, and somber. Within our deeply divided political climate, a memorial that educates us about our country’s terrible history of political assassination is unquestionably important. But unlike every other place on this list, I can’t say that I enjoyed the Sixth Floor Museum, and I wouldn’t choose to visit it twice in two years.




Monthly Walk Series: Green-Wood Cemetery & Sunset Park, Brooklyn

One of the most unexpectedly moving parts of getting married, for me, was the way it allowed me to experience my community. I don’t mean my geographic community — although my native New Yorker husband and I did take the subway to our own wedding and get stuck in traffic on the BQE on our way home — but my human community. Our loved ones took time away from their lives and flew across the country (or the ocean, in one case) or drove for hours and paid for expensive New York City lodging to witness an event we conjured. One friend even left his home state of Texas for the first time in a decade just to attend our wedding! It was a monumental reminder that each of us as individuals and our relationship to one another doesn’t exist in a vacuum but in a vast, strong, interconnected network of love, support, and community. Even months later, I feel full of gratitude at the thought.

After we came home from our honeymoon, we decided that it was important to us to actively cultivate that community and foster those bonds. One of the ways we’re doing that is by hosting a monthly walk series, an opportunity to explore and connect with New York and with our community here. We’ve led two so far. The inaugural walk took place in November: we met at Columbus Circle, walked the main loop of Central Park counterclockwise, and then had lunch at Whole Foods after. It’s one of my favorite routes in the city, but it was also one with which I was intimately familiar. Although the last one was years ago, countless long runs along that loop in snow and rain and blazing heat meant that I knew every water fountain, every incline.

This past weekend, we took the opposite approach in our second walk by visiting a neighborhood that was entirely new to us. We met outside the main entrance of Brooklyn’s landmark Green-Wood Cemetery, one of those places I’ve meant to check out a thousand times but never actually got around to visiting. It was the morning after the season’s first snow, brisk but clear, the cemetery blanketed in softening white. None of the four of us who met that morning knew much about Green-Wood Cemetery, but someone recollected that it had served as an inspiration for Central Park, and it was easy to see why as we walked along the perimeter of the most picturesque and fascinating cemetery I’ve ever explored.

We passed tranquil ponds, rows of hedges, steps that wove up sheltering hills. A field of plain grave markers contrasted with a cluster of ornate Grecian tombs, adorned with statues and columns. Everywhere, the inscriptions evoked for us stories we could nearly imagine as memories of an old New York. We examined a monument to D. M. Bennett, densely inscribed with his ideas. “He had a thousand friends,” the stone banner proclaimed (“and even more opinions,” we quipped). We read a poem on an elaborate stone, a tribute from a husband to his deceased wife, and observed from his much more modest marker that she must have died first, even though their dates were buried in snow. We found a grave for “Alexander the Great,” which appeared to be for an unnamed child of the Alexander family, dead the year after birth. We saw a tomb shaped like an Egyptian pyramid, decorated with Christian statuary. There was a point where we could stand and see the Manhattan skyline looking one way and the Statue of Liberty looking the other.

A lap later, we emerged back out of Green-Wood’s main gate and were tempted into Baked in Brooklyn, across the street, by the delicious aroma of fresh-baked bread. After we left, laden with cupcakes and enormous cinnamon buns and other confections, we walked through the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to its namesake park, which offered even more splendid views of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty than from the cemetery. From there, we made our way to 8th Ave, the main thoroughfare of Sunset Park’s Chinatown. In the stretch we walked, about a mile, it seemed full of the same sensory pleasures as every other New York Chinatown — tantalizing roast meats, mini hot cakes, gloriously colorful produce — but without the throngs of tourists. Easily accessible via the 8th Ave stop on the N train, now that I’ve been there, I’m more surprised than ever how few people know about or visit Sunset Park’s Chinatown. We stopped for lunch at Kai Feng Fu Dumpling House, where we gorged ourselves on astonishingly cheap comfort food; my favorite, the fried pork-and-leek dumplings, were flavorful and deliciously greasy and cost $1 for 4.