Defined by Our Family Traditions

It’s been four years since I last went home for Christmas, which probably explains why I’m so excited for next week. For the last three years, I’ve spent the holidays either with Anthony’s loving family in California, on a random trip to Toronto, or in New York when my parents decided to visit me instead. All three years had been fun, of course, but nothing beats going home. I imagine most of us feel that way. Despite the tragic commercialization of the season, this time of year gets two things right: a desire to be with family, and an appreciation (or at least toleration) of whatever quirky, incomprehensible traditions your family does.

Hosting Parties

My family used to host a Christmas party at our house each year. I would go all out for these parties — I’d play a series of Christmas songs on our Bösendorfer grand piano (I always saved “The Christmas Song” for last because it pulled the most heartstrings); I’d print out the lyrics and create little booklets for each guest so they could carol along with me; and I’d provide themed games and prizes (paid for by my parents, of course). Looking back on it, I must have looked so silly — a little precocious child, taking over a party of amused adults from my dad’s university. Our guests would spread out throughout the house, settling in the kitchen (for those who liked to watch my parents cook), living room, patio (for those who wanted to play pool), dining room, and TV room (for the less sociable guests). The enjoyment of our guests was always such a satisfying achievement to me, and my love for hosting parties has persisted.

The Nutcracker

I’ve performed in The Nutcracker just a handful of times, but almost any year that I wasn’t in it, I would watch it — either Ballet Hawaii‘s version at Blaisdell Concert Hall, or NYCB‘s version at Lincoln Center. Christmas never really felt complete until I saw the Snowflakes chaine-ing across the stage, as white paper “snowflakes” fell from the ceiling. The Nutcracker was one of the few times my company would hire professionals from around the world to play the really difficult roles (e.g., Cavalier, Sugar Plum Fairy), so students like me actually had the chance to perform with (and geek out over) ballet legends. I think all of us had a childhood crush on Joaquin de Luz, so when I saw him perform in Swan Lake a few months ago, I could feel the 14-year-old in me dying of happiness.

The Nutcracker is often looked down upon in the ballet world; it can be appreciated by people who don’t normally watch ballets, and there are enough easy roles that can be performed by nonprofessional dancers. Regardless, my ears still perk up every time I hear “March of the Toy Soldiers” and “Waltz of the Flowers”, even when they’re playing awkwardly at Duane Reade.

Camping by the Tree

The tree of choice for my family was usually a six-foot Noble Fir. We’d dedicate a few days to decorate the tree, each night bringing out a couple of storage bins filled with ornaments collected over the years. Some years, we even set up a tent by the tree and slept in the living room together while Christmas music filled the vaulted ceilings. It was our version of camping. I don’t know which one of my parents came up with this crazy idea (probably my dad), but I ended up writing about this experience for my college application essays. (Admissions Office of Reed College, did you find this endearing??)

Baking Gingerbread Cookies

It’s my job to help bake gingerbread cookies. We use a recipe from an old, disintegrating cookie cookbook that my parents have had for ages. These are still the best gingerbread cookies I’ve ever had — soft, chewy, full of spices, and exponentially better than those store-bought or pre-made dough versions. Baking these cookies takes the whole evening. It involves sifting flour, using a KitchenAid mixer, rolling out the dough onto a huge marble slab, and refrigerating balls of leftover dough to be used for another batch. Even our icing was made from scratch, using meringue powder, water, and confectioner’s sugar. The best part, of course, was decorating the cookies. Our cookie cutter collection has expanded over time, and our containers of decorations are a sight in themselves: sprinkles in every color imaginable, gum drops, mini M&Ms, sour belts, etc. My friends would look forward to when I’d bring cookies for them on the last day of school before winter break.

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Ready for decorating!

Analyzing the Neighborhood

My family always dedicated a night to Honolulu City Lights, a month-long event that features elaborate Hawaiian Christmas decorations all over Downtown Honolulu, but what I enjoyed even more was walking around my own neighborhood with my dog Smoothie. Christmas decorations are a great way to learn about class hierarchy. I grew up in a neighborhood in which residents tend to be either upper-middle class or disgustingly rich. If you’re like my family, your house probably has subtle (or not-so-subtle) decorations that you’ve amassed from department stores over the years. We have glowing Winnie the Pooh and Tigger statues standing around a spiral Christmas tree in our rock garden, all of which are linked up to a timer so that the lights turn on automatically when it’s dark outside.

But then there are the other homes in our neighborhood that remain completely dark and devoid of Christmas decorations. These are not the mere million-dollar houses that I’m used to; these are the mansions that cost tens of millions and function as vacation homes to the elite who have their parties in Kahala and hire valet parking for their guests — much different from the wholesome parties my family throws! Growing up, I’ve seen families forced to move out, while speculators swoop in and knock down the older homes in favor of ostentatious estates that will be visited a few times a year.

Oh wait, we were talking about Christmas traditions…

Christmas Eve Dinner

Our big dinner was on Christmas Eve, and my parents usually cooked something like paella or grilled shrimp and honey-glazed ham. I’d spend the afternoon making a menu for our dinner, using any construction paper, snowflake stickers, glitter, and stamps I could find in my bedroom. I still make menus for every special meal, even when it’s just Anthony and me.

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One of our Christmas dinners (and my menu on the right)

Opening Our Presents

On Christmas morning, my brother and I would wake up — usually earlier than on any other day, of course. We were allowed to check our stockings, which hung by the oven because Hawaiians don’t have chimneys, but we weren’t allowed to touch our gifts under the tree until after breakfast. When I was younger, Christmas breakfast was probably the fastest meal I ate all year. When I got older, however, I would try to play it cool by taking my time and pretending that I wasn’t looking forward to opening presents that much. When we finally got to open our presents, the four of us would take turns, and one person (usually my mom or me) would write down where each gift came from so it would be easy to write thank-you cards later.

The traditions we grow up with define the type of person we become. My traditions explain why I know all the words to more Christmas songs than I care to admit, why I really want a KitchenAid mixer even though our tiny kitchen in Brooklyn doesn’t have the counter space for it, and why there is a collection of menus on our fridge — a great way to document exactly which wine we liked that one Thanksgiving, by the way.

Appreciate the random traditions your family does. Anthony and I have already created some of our own Christmas traditions since moving to New York: afternoon tea (this year we’re trying the one at the Mandarin Oriental), buying one symbolic ornament a year for our tabletop tree, and gift shopping at the holiday pop-up market in Union Square. It will be interesting to see which traditions from our families and from our time in New York will live on when we start our own family down the line.

May you all be stuffed with good food, warm memories, and traditions (old and new) this season!

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