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Tete-a-tete: Serve up a slice of family traditions, new or old

As children grow up and leave the nest, long-held family holiday traditions change. Sometimes they’re replaced with new traditions, and sometimes the old traditions evolve to accommodate the current shape of family life.

Since their marriage nearly three years ago, Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law have alternated holidays between their families, spending Christmas with one and Thanksgiving with the other. Since they spent Thanksgiving with us in 2015, they celebrated Christmas with us in 2016.

Though we certainly miss their presence on Christmas, their absence on Thanksgiving is considerably more challenging as it affects the logistics of our annual pumpkin pie-making competition. Historically, the four of us siblings split into two teams and compete to see who can make the best pumpkin pie, using the same recipe that Oldest Younger Brother and I have used since childhood.

We aren’t the greatest bakers, though Oldest Younger Brother has shown marked improvement since moving out of the house and learning how to cook for himself. Making the “best” pumpkin pie means not making too many mistakes in measuring out the ingredients and coming up with a result that is generally edible.

Now that Sister-in-law has joined our family, we split up into one team of three and one team of two. But when Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law aren’t with us for Thanksgiving, there’s no fair way to divide the remaining three siblings.

This past Thanksgiving, Dad proposed a novel solution to our dilemma. Instead of us siblings competing, he and Mom would duke it out for best pumpkin pie bragging rights. They agreed that Dad would make the recipe we traditionally ruin – I mean, use – and Mom would make a recipe from one of her cookbooks.

Mom made her pie first, and her efforts quickly began to mirror that of myself and my younger siblings. She somehow managed to cut herself without having anything sharp in the vicinity, with the possible exception of a broken eggshell. It had been a while since Mom last used the mixer, so she had forgotten which direction to turn the dial to shut it off. Regrettably, she chose the wrong direction and pie filling sprayed across the counter.

Dad surveyed the scene and commented, “I made the turkey, and I didn’t use that many dishes.”

“You may have made the turkey, but I made the mess,” Mom cheerfully retorted.

Dad cleaned up the kitchen before starting his pie, for which he used one bowl and no mixer. Mom kept a close eye on him, jokingly criticizing his cooking process: “He’s looking a little messy over there.”

She nudged me. “Don’t have anything to drink before dinner. It might make Dad’s pie look better.”

Dad finished his pie – and both his and Mom’s cleanup – in 15 minutes. Mom’s pie preparation took about half an hour to 45 minutes.

In Mom’s defense, one reason it took her so long to make her pie was because she was simultaneously having a conversation with me, which impacted her ability to focus on what she was doing.

The other factor was Mom’s proclivity for substituting ingredients. Her theory is that if two ingredients are roughly the same color and texture, they are interchangeable. This has led to such occurrences as the Savory Muffin Incident, in which she substituted cilantro for parsley.

Cooking also brings out Mom’s natural creativity, which can lead to her adding ingredients that seem like they’ll mesh well with the rest of the recipe. Given her theory about substitution, this does not always end well.

In the case of the pumpkin pie, she was thinking about adding some additional spices. I ultimately talked her out of it, making the argument that she didn’t want to lose to Dad because she had strayed from the recipe.

Finally, it came time for the moment of truth – which, I must admit, was somewhat anticlimactic. Mom was especially eager to know our thoughts on the pies and which one we preferred, but it was hard to choose.

To my palate, both pies were excellent but similar, with Mom’s tasting a little bit sweeter and Dad’s having a slightly stronger pumpkin flavor. Youngest Brother and Younger Sister didn’t taste much of a difference either. To Mom’s great disappointment, it ended in a draw.

I will confess that my perception of the pies’ flavors may have been affected by the sizable amount of whipped cream I had automatically placed on my slices. After nearly three decades of eating burnt pies with incorrectly measured ingredients, it’s a reflexive act of self-preservation. Without a hefty serving of whipped cream, you might taste the pie, which isn’t always a good thing.

Though Oldest Younger Brother and Sister-in-law are slated to spend Thanksgiving with us this year, it’s hard to say if the pie-making competition will revert to its previous format. Youngest Brother will be a sophomore in college and might study abroad, and Younger Sister will be a college freshman and may or may not come home for the holiday depending on her location. More changes will come over time as spouses, children and job changes continue to enter the picture.

Cherish the traditions you have while you have them and embrace the ways in which they evolve. It might require some adjustment on your part, but the new memories you make and the new adventures you have will be well worth it – especially if they involve your parents mocking each other’s pies.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Jan. 5, 2017


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Tete-a-tete: Even the best-intentioned Christmas traditions can fail to take hold

For every successful holiday tradition, there’s an attempted tradition that never quite made it off the ground. It might be a recipe you hoped would be passed down through the generations but instead remains largely untouched at the holiday dinner table. Or perhaps it’s an ornament you anticipated would become a focal point of the décor but barely makes it out of its box, much less onto the tree.

In my family, our most memorable failed tradition is The Book. And yes, it merits the capitals.

Mom purchased The Book when Oldest Younger Brother was in upper elementary school and I was in high school. It was designed to be read during Advent, the period of time leading up to Christmas. For each day of Advent, there was a reading that corresponded to a Bible passage and a related family participation element, like a reflection question that every member of the family was encouraged to weigh in on. Each day also featured a Christmas carol, complete with music notes and the lyrics for every verse.

To ensure maximum family participation (this was before the arrival of Youngest Brother and Younger Sister), Mom would read from The Book every night after dinner while everyone was still seated at the dining room table. We were forbidden to leave until all aspects of the nightly celebration had been completed.

This wouldn’t have been an issue if the process had taken, say, five to ten minutes. Unfortunately, the combination of the reading, the family participation element and the Christmas carol took about half an hour. At least, that’s what I recall. Mom believes it took less time, and Dad believes it took longer.

To further include the family in our newfound “tradition,” Mom would ask for volunteers to read. I think there may have been some volunteering initially, but after a few nights, she had to start making personal requests because of how long the readings were.

As Oldest Younger Brother recalls it, even though each reading was a single page, the font was very small and the type was densely packed, so that what was crammed on to a single page could easily have fit on two pages or more if properly spaced. (Mom disagrees with that, too. I didn’t bother to ask Dad.) For my part, I remember my mouth starting to cramp up halfway through the reading process. By pre-teen/teenage standards, it was a torturous ordeal.

After the reading was complete and the family had grudgingly participated in the family participation element, Mom would play the Christmas carol on her flute and we would all sing along. It sounds picturesque and Rockwellian when described thus, but Mom had last played the flute in high school. As such, we sang as many verses of each carol as necessary for her performance to be flawless.

And if for some reason we missed a night, Mom would try to add it to the next night, so that we would do two readings, two family participation elements and two carols. I believe that was tolerated once, and then we simply had to forgo any missed nights due to dinner time encroaching upon bedtime.

Though The Book was introduced prior to the births of Youngest Brother and Younger Sister, this attempt at tradition did continue into their infancy/toddlerhood. Like most little ones, sitting quietly at the dinner table for an additional 30 minutes wasn’t a reliable part of their skill set – though they did enjoy listening to the flute – and Dad was only too happy to whisk them away from the table when they started to get antsy.

None of us took issue with the content of The Book – Christmas has always been a very important time of year for my family, especially in terms of the spiritual aspect of the holiday. It was simply the sheer amount of time that this “tradition” required on a nightly basis.

Over the course of several seasons, The Book’s appearances gradually became fewer and farther between until they stopped completely. This was partly due to Youngest Brother and Younger Sister learning how to walk and being less inclined to sit for extended periods of time and partly due to us “forgetting” to take it out of the box when we brought the Christmas items out of storage.

Mom, however, still wanted to have some sort of way for us to mark Advent together as a family. Taking into consideration our attention spans as well as our increasingly busy schedules, she invested in a reusable Advent calendar. It’s a three-dimensional tabletop display featuring a snowman and a Christmas tree. Each day, you select an ornament to plug into one of the holes in the plastic tree. The ornaments then light up and a jolly electronic voice proclaims that there are so many days left until Christmas.

Though it lacks the spiritual and musical elements of The Book, it does still have a family participation element in that we take turns choosing which ornament to plug into the tree. If we happen to miss a day, catching up takes a minute or two rather than another half hour. I would also venture to say that having a less stressful way of marking Advent enables us to focus more fully on the reason we count down the days to Christmas, which is that we are anticipating the birth of Jesus Christ.

Not every holiday tradition sticks. Some fail to become meaningful, others are too time-consuming or complicated to sustain. That, however, makes those traditions that do become a regular and enjoyable part of our celebrations even more significant.

And if you’re looking to try a new tradition this Advent season, I have A Book I’d be happy to give you – I’m sorry, I mean, “lend” you. (Mom is reading over my shoulder again.)

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published Dec. 3, 2015


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