Growing up, I always looked forward to coming home from church with Grandpa.
As we walked up the back steps of the house in Bay St. Louis, Grandpa would say in his booming voice, “Annie, you were so good in church today that I deserve a milk punch.”
Soon the smell of bourbon and nutmeg would fill the porte cochère, the little room off the kitchen, where Grandpa would blend his post religious cordial, pouring out a kid-sized portion for me. I’d pucker my lips to suck up the frothy cap of milk floating on top and relish this simple Sunday ritual. All was well in my world where Grandpas were reassuringly predictable.
I have taken to the occasional post Mass sarcasm with my own children. There’s something warm about traditions. We don’t always know quite how they began, but as the world spins around us, they are the constants and beacons of comfort ready to wrap us in their arms and remind us that we are safe.
Most of us have holiday traditions that we anticipate as the calendar rolls into December. My cousins in Lake Charles look for a pickle hidden somewhere in the evergreen of the Christmas tree. My neighbor spends a full Friday from lunch to dinner galavanting through souffle potatoes and French 75’s with friends in the front room at Galatoire’s. When my husband was a child every holiday season they baked ornaments from homemade clay and painted them. Most of the cutouts were altered in the hot oven, creating timeless characters like Sweaty Angel, whose wings were too small. Only copious sweat and divine intervention could allow the aerodynamic Christmas miracle that would get her off the ground. Then there was Black-Eyed Bart, the fear inducing Santa ornament whose eyes were black as pitch and whose red painted lips dribbled down his chin. The jubilation that would fill the living room when these ornaments were unpacked from ten months in attic hibernation each year was as anticipated as was their glee opening presents four weeks later.
My family celebrated two Christmases, one with our nuclear family of seven and another over New Year’s weekend back in Bay St. Louis with Grandma, Grandpa, and all our cousins. The first Christmas was for Santa and his magic. The latter was for the predictable magic: Grandpa’s scavenger hunt clues through the big drafty house leading to our Christmas checks and Pop’s poems.
My father knew the secret to sense of self: laugh at yourself first, and the rest will laugh with you, not at you. During Christmas he exercised this through verse written on the outside of our presents. These were also supposed to be clues, but more times than not, they only made sense to him. That was the best part – seeing Pop chuckle at his own expense, standing before the twinkling lights of the tree in his red shirt, ready to hand out the next gift, while the receiver scratched their head trying to connect the words to what they’d just unwrapped. There came a time when I began to save all of these poems. I knew that someday the predictability of Christmas poems would be gone and that they would be more valuable than anything he actually bought me.
As much as I find comfort in what is expected, I’m energized by the unexpected. There’s promise in the unknown because the future has not been determined. But this holiday season–the first gift exchange without Pop’s poems, without the glint in his eye, knowing how ridiculous they’d sound – I’ve had a lump in my throat. I’m paralyzed by the unexpected. Where will the silliness stem from, now that the Leading Player has finished his run?
Sweaty Angel and Black-Eyed Bart came from my mother-in-law’s annual effort to mix clay and gather everyone around the table for messy memories. My cousin’s pickle hunt is the result of keeping a date solid, and Pop’s poems only happened because he took the time to make them happen. Eventually, it’s not just the tradition itself that’s passed down. It’s the responsibility to memories. When a new actor steps into an established role, preceded by a long running fan favorite, the new actor has to make it their own. Otherwise, the performance is trite.
Nothing breaks the fourth wall like seeing a performer reach. In the same way, when we become the keepers of the keys formerly held by our ancestors, we have to do the best we can with the script we’ve been given. They set the scene and now it’s our turn. We may not follow through with the same flair, but we keep the story going. We may even spin off toward new traditions, new predictability of the season, building upon the family catalog of memories. Maybe that’s what it means to “muddle through somehow?” We take what we’ve been given and we serve the role of the Leading Player (not the traditions) and keep our motivation to what was theirs: transporting those watching us to that place where the joy of the season is felt.
I know enough to know that the silliness of the season is mine to lose. I only need forget that this is the role I was meant to play the instant I first laughed at those who came before me. For in those moments of unhinged joy, my heart bursting, I knew that somewhere in my memories that feeling would last and that I’d want to keep the laughter going.
Because just as Pop knew, laughter is best shared.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.