When I was little, one of my family’s favorite Christmas traditions was making gingerbread houses. On a December afternoon when we were all together, we would pile into my grandmother’s kitchen and construct graham cracker-and-gumdrop houses atop big cookie sheets. My cousins and I each had our own architectural visions—most of which involved stuffing as many marshmallows as possible into the square footage—and everyone helped build them. Aunts, uncles, moms, dads, and grandparents drifted in and out, assisting with the finer points of construction. They stabilized precarious chimneys with toothpicks, squeezed out the last drops from tubes of icing, and tried to anticipate sprinkle-related disasters before they became snowstorms dusting the kitchen floor.
As the afternoon hours passed, the gingerbread houses rose, their walls held together with thick sugary frosting, roofs decorated with scalloped swoops of icing, and assorted candies scattered and stacked for curb appeal. The houses looked different every year, but I remember one constant in the kitchen. There was always a pot simmering on the stove, and if you looked in, while you would occasionally see a batch of hot chocolate or apple cider, more often than not you’d see a cup or two of water, into which my grandmother had thrown a handful of cinnamon sticks and a sprinkling of cloves. The spices swam around while the pot spilled its steam; the heat spun through the house, diffusing the warm fragrance of Christmastime.
Decades later, the tradition of making gingerbread houses had faded, but new ones had appeared: making cheese straws with an antique cookie press, standing around the piano singing Christmas carols, decorating the tree, and asking for seconds while begging my grandmother for her Crème Celeste recipe, which she guarded like a sentry. As we got older and the shapes of our lives changed, our traditions did too. We never missed the old fun, though, and I wondered why until I realized that what made the traditions special was simply the fact that we were together. It was easy to make room for new traditions because what we did wasn’t as important as how we felt.
Now during the holidays, a few childhood traditions still stand, including the pot of spices suffusing the kitchen’s cinnamon perfume. I treasure the memories of holidays past, but I also treasure the fact that my family is never reluctant to start a new tradition or two. I know now, and I think my grandmother always knew, that what matters the most is practicing gratitude for the present, being together, and celebrating each other during the holiday season and all year long.
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What childhood traditions do you remember fondly? Are there any new traditions you hope to start with your family this year?