When facing the advent of a new year, people tend to want to look forward, to illuminate the possibilities of the future. It’s an about-face from the weeks prior, a time bookended by Thanksgiving and Christmas, which forces us all to examine our past and — if we’re really unlucky — to sit at a table and eat baked ham with it. The holidays can’t help but bring memories. The holidays are like a mother meeting her daughter’s first adult boyfriend. Regrettable photos and stories only told in a faltering whisper to a licensed therapist will flood the room!
While the customs and lore a family leaves behind with its estate cannot be ignored, the questions inevitably abound as to whether this legacy suits the present day circumstances. The rebellion starts with the tiniest of murmurs, “Maybe we should start new traditions?”
While the souls of the aunties of yesteryear — who are all Sicilian, like mine, for the sake of this story — burst into flames, your wicked little trespass starts to gather momentum. You plead your case to your significant other and are met with grunts which seem vaguely upbeat, proving this idea is not just some flight of fancy. You take to the internet, scouring blogs and Google for new rituals, ignoring the glaring contradiction inherent to cherry-picking a new tradition. You don’t know what it is you’re looking for, but you will know it when you see it. It has to be secular and spectacular!
That’s when your head will be turned by something such as the Elf on the Shelf. You’ll go to the store so that you can do a drive-by, see if it’s something that might appeal to your family. The principles seem simple enough: Move the elf daily while promulgating the notion that the elf reports the daily tantrums and victories back to headquarters. So long as you can ascribe some holiday merriment to the police state you’re creating within your home, everyone can happily coexist. More appealing than its purpose is the packaging. It even declares itself a tradition on the box!
That’s when the bubble broke for me, right there in the high-gloss aisles of Target. You can’t call something that is a few minutes old a tradition. That’s like saying listening to Taylor Swift and drinking egg nog macchiatos are a tradition. They’re a habit, a penchant perhaps, but they fall tragically and importantly short of tradition. Traditions must be time-tested. Traditions have to be tired and unreasonable. You have to hate them with half of your soul and with the other half think it’s important to pass them on so that your children understand your screwed up life.
In my own family, holiday traditions include a stroll through nature in search of pieces that could festoon the dining room table for the big dinner. I don’t exactly know what generation originated this, but it certainly sounds like something people did when there weren’t better things to do — such as surf the internet. Eating pannetone bread on Christmas Eve at the nursing home with your grandmother’s friends who call you Dandy is another one.
The latest one to have been handed down to me comes in the form of a clay-like angel that is meant to be hung on a wall. She was bequeathed to me by my mother who might have even purchased the angel its own seat on the airplane just to ensure its safe delivery. I winced upon opening it because it’s the most unfortunate looking icon one could ever imagine, but its appearance is of minor significance compared to its smell. For some reason, this clay angel smells exactly like the subway in August. And like the subway in August, the smell worsens as the day goes on.
I enter our mudroom in the morning to be greeted by the miasma in its mellowest form, and I end the day by throwing the things I’ll need for the next day down the hallway just to avoid entering its sphere again. Friends come over, and they pinch their noses and say, “Do you have hockey pads around?” I find reasons to leave the house all day just to escape the odoriferous angel on high.
That said, every time I return home, I smile — after dry heaving — to think that my mom was the keeper of this angel, that she tirelessly wrapped it in bubble-wrap for safekeeping each year, and believed it the right time for us to do the same. This angel is one-half misery and one-half illuminating, and those, to us, are the unavoidable underpinnings to tradition.
Or the best way to get your own house smelling better.