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December 16, 2009

Steve Luxenberg: The Making of a Tradition

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On this sixth night of Hanukkah, Steve Luxenberg --- author of ANNIE'S GHOSTS --- illustrates that one doesn't necessarily need to observe Christmas in order to celebrate its traditions and revel in the sense of love, family and togetherness that the holiday brings.

I can’t shed any light on whether it snowed for six days and six nights when poet Dylan Thomas was twelve, or if it was twelve days and twelve nights when he was six, but I can say that we have read aloud his A CHILD'S CHRISTMAS IN WALES on ten Christmases since I was thirty and six times in the past six years --- and on Christmas Day 2009, we will gather to read it aloud once again.

This tradition --- those numbers qualify as a tradition by now, I think --- doesn’t begin with me or my family. For much of my younger life, as well as my wife’s, the hours of December 25 passed quietly, without presents or trees or ornaments or mistletoe or fanfare of any sort, unless one of the eight days of Hanukkah happened to fall on the same day as Christmas.

Some of my Christian friends found it hard to believe that I didn’t feel left out. Isn’t it hard, they asked, to have nothing to do on Christmas with all this merriment taking place around you?

In a word: no. The glow of Hanukkah candles burns bright in my seasonal memory, but the appearance of my Baltimore neighborhood’s outdoor Christmas lights merely reminds me that fall has arrived, dotting the autumn air with red and green and white, often before the leaves have begun their annual gold-and-orange ritual. I enjoy the traditions of Christmas, but they are not my traditions, and they have never held any special meaning for me.

Dylan Thomas’s winter wonderland changed that. My wife, our two children (now 23 and 25) and I have become part of another family’s Christmas tradition, the tradition of our good friends Scott Shane and Francie Weeks. They no longer remember exactly what prompted them, on Christmas Day 1976 --- their first Christmas of their married life --- to read aloud the story of Mrs. Prothero and her fire, of the Useful and Useless Presents, of the Uncles, “who put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept,” and of “the few small aunts,” aunties Dosie, Bessie and Hannah, “who laced her tea with rum, because it was only once a year.”

But now, once a year, wherever Scott and Francie may be, home or away, the slim volume comes out for a re-reading. A once-blank page in the book lists the year, place and names of those in attendance. The book has marked Christmases in Baltimore and Moscow, New England and Merry Old England. Scott and Francie had no children when they started this tradition; now their three children, ranging in age from 19 to 26, have never known a Christmas without a visit to that mystical, almost mythical snowbound land near the edge of “the carol-singing sea.”

If you asked me in July, I couldn’t tell you the story’s details or which passages I had read aloud the previous December or why I smile every time at the image of “the Uncles breathing like dolphins.” But I can tell you why that this quiet, quirky, very Welsh narrative has become a part of my family of four’s holiday season: it reminds us of friendship and warmth, of being welcomed into another family’s special day, of a tradition with a special meaning all its own.

This Christmas, sometime after dinner, we will gather by the snap-crackle-pop of the fire, all nine of us if we’re lucky, and we will take turns, listening and laughing as Thomas’s story unfolds once again. Then we will say goodnight, go out in the chill darkness for the ride home, and we will sleep.

-- Steve Luxenberg

Tomorrow, Ann Herendeen discusses how she learned to navigate between the light-hearted and the profound, while Gwen Cooper traces major life milestones through numerous versions of the same set of stories.