WHAT MATTERS THIS SEASON by Ellen Donker
Honoring our traditions even as they shift
As the holidays are upon us, I’m looking forward to any excuse to be with family and friends again. Last year was the first break in our 23-year tradition of hosting Christmas Eve dinner, and we missed celebrating with our extended family.
Although that tradition will continue, I wonder what new ones will be made. For instance, last year my friend Judy Erlandsen invited me to a cookie exchange. Instead of being held in her living room, we bundled up in her back yard. That day, the skies were overcast and the afternoon temperature hovered at a chilly 40 degrees, but Judy made her patio cozy even if we had to hold our wine glasses with gloved hands. We sat in chairs surrounding a roaring fire pit; yummy snacks were on a nearby table.
All of her guests came prepared with enough homemade cookies to share with one another. I hadn’t been to a cookie exchange in years and was flummoxed by what to make, so I consulted The New York Times cooking app and chose three recipes. Yes, I went overboard. Only one was required, but I wanted to be sure I had some edible offerings. Fortunately, my daughter, Madeline, helped me get to the finish line.
After catching up with each other and giving a brief presentation on our cookies, we voted by secret ballot for the tastiest one. Apparently, my cornmeal lime shortbread fans were a hit because I won Star Baker; I have the plate to prove it, courtesy of Karen Donovan, who excels at pulling the right giveaway from her stash of gifts that she accumulates for just these kind of occasions.
Another memorable holiday event that never would’ve happened without the nudge of a pandemic is my neighborhood’s holiday market. Patterned after a German Christmas market, neighbors set up tables on the back alley that runs behind our houses and served food and drinks, some which matched their country of origin. Those of us who had merchandise sold our wares and gave the profits to a charity. Others contributed items to a silent auction, begging neighbors to buy them so they wouldn’t have to lug them back home. The afternoon also featured a dog costume contest, activities for children and a visit from Santa. The graphically-talented Lizzie DiBiase designed a charming map identifying the offerings at each back yard stop.
Madeline and I had made macramé ornaments and plant holders; we also potted up some succulents that I had propagated. Our charity, the Bowery Mission, received $75 from our sales. The silent auction netted $400 for the Community Food Bank of NJ and a neighbor got Google, her employer, to match it at 100 percent, yielding an $800 donation.
Since it was a cold day, Madeline and I had to find creative ways to weigh down our tablecloth and protect our succulents from a cold and gusty wind that kicked up as the festivities began. But I remember feeling a sense of wonder from being part of a carefree day when neighbors offered outdoor hospitality and children and dogs ran around freely just as holiday lights started to twinkle with the setting sun. After spending so many months cooped up, it reinforced why our neighborhood is a wonderful place to call home.
I don’t know if either of these events will be repeated this year. Maybe someone will come up with another novel celebration and I’ll count myself lucky to be invited. Still, the most meaningful traditions are those that have stood the test of time, even a pandemic. Cheers to honoring the old with the new and simply being together this year.