December 16, 2007
Paper chains and fishing poles
We joke in my family that you have to be careful about doing anything two years in a row. Because once it's been done twice, well, then it becomes a tradition. And my extended family, which includes four siblings, are big keepers of tradition.
When I was growing up, we had many holiday traditions, some of them kind of arbitrary. For example, on the day we went to cut down a Christmas tree, my mother would always have chili for supper. Her reasoning was simple: she could make the chili ahead of time, and when we came home, cold from tramping around in the woods looking for the perfect tree, supper would be ready. As a kid, I didn't even particularly like chili, but I would have been upset if she had made something different. Family traditions provide stability for a child, providing cues as important as leaves changing color in the fall or the first snowfall of the winter or the first green sprouting in spring.
The Christmas chain was another tradition. We kids would work on it together, usually at a card table set up in front of the big picture window, and make it as long as we could, using all the available construction paper we had. Unfortunately, the stacks of construction paper at our house always seemed to be weird colours like brown and purple — all the primary colors long since used up for school projects and such. One year we had no construction paper when the urge to make a chain came over us, and so we took white lined writing paper, colored it on both sides with red and green crayon, and made a chain out of that. I can remember thinking that the soft colours were quite pretty.
Back in the day, making a paper chain took patience. The technique was to take a strip of paper, swipe it across a shared pool of glue, insert the link into the chain, and then hold the link together until it dried. I don't know if staplers hadn't been invented yet, or we just didn't have one. For that matter, often we didn't have glue. The desire to make a Christmas chain usually came on the first snow day, which was never a planned event, and often we'd be out of glue, since it got used up so quickly on any project that involved glitter. But Blonde Sister would make glue out of flour and water, mixing them into a sticky paste. The flour-and-water glue was a sadly inferior product which meant that links on the Christmas chain were always popping open when we'd go to hang it up.
As a kid, I especially liked any tradition that involved candles. It used to be my job to set the table at night, and during Advent, my mother had a centerpiece on the table that had two red candles in it. Having those candles lit during supper was a big deal to me, a reminder that Christmas was coming. We kids would fight to see who got to put the candles out, especially after someone taught us the method of licking our fingers and then just grasping the end of the wick firmly to let the flame splutter out.
When I was young, my siblings and I would spend Advent making homemade gifts for my parents. We'd decorate a cardboard box and try to fill it with gifts. My siblings used to make fairly artistic wall hangings or things like that, but my talents were limited mostly to felt bookmarks, homemade candles, and poems. But of course, these gifts themselves became traditions, and my mother would always claim loyally that she could always use another bookmark, candle, or poem. On Christmas Eve, we'd have my parents sit in the living room, dim except for the Christmas tree lights, and we'd go get the special box, and carry it down with great ceremony. We'd be carrying lit candles and singing, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," a song chosen mostly because it's the carol at the end of the Charlie Brown Christmas special. (Have I mentioned that watching Charlie Brown was yet another tradition?)
My youngest sister, Urban Sophisticate, who is nine years younger than I am, and whose first pseudonym (given to her by Kindergarten Friend) was Grubby, used to share a bedroom with me, and she and I came up with some of our own holiday traditions, including digging up a little pine tree each year and putting it on top of our chest of drawers. But our favorite tradition, the highlight of Christmas Eve in our minds, was the fishpole tradition.
We'd plan way ahead of time. We'd collect the round cardboard containers that orange juice concentrate comes in, washing them carefully, letting them dry, and hiding them away in our room. We'd take a whole day to make popcorn balls, too, using a recipe that my friend Outdoor Girl had given me. (The recipe called for light karo syrup, and for some reason, that was always hard to find. I still have the urge to buy it whenever I see it in a grocery store.) The most fun part of making the popcorn balls was the moment when we'd have to smear butter all over our hands, dip them into the hot gooey mess of popcorn and syrup, and work frantically to shape the balls before they cooled.
A few days before Christmas, we'd go the bulk food section of the White Guy Grocery Store and buy all kinds of hard candy and individually wrapped chocolates. We'd lock everyone out of our room so they wouldn't find out our secret project (which of course wasn't very secret since we did the exact same thing every year), and spread the candy in piles on the bed, dividing it up equally, and filling the orange juice concentrate containers, which we'd decorated, turning them into holiday party favors that looked, we thought, like something you might buy at a very fancy store.
On morning of Christmas Eve, we'd make a fishing pole out of a baton or a tent pole or a golf club or whatever we could find that year. We'd tie a rope on the end, yarn if we had it, or an old jump rope one year. Then that evening, after all the other traditions had been done, we'd announce that it was time for the fishing game. I recall that Red-haired Sister would always obligingly act excited about the event. We'd pull the couch out from the wall, and both hide behind the couch, crouched down with our bag of goodies. The rest of the family each got two turns at the fish pole. We'd trained them by now. They'd let the rope dangle behind the couch, wait patiently while we tied on a popcorn ball or container of candy, and then when they felt the tug, they'd pull up their present, and pretend to be surprised.
It turned out that no one in my family actually likes popcorn balls, but of course, they were a tradition so we made them every year. We were all relieved when Blond Brother-in-law married into the family because he would eat the popcorn balls and say that he liked them.
Many of the traditions that began when I was a child have morphed into other traditions. When my extended family gets together at my parents' house on Christmas Eve, we have to start at about 3 pm in order to get all the traditions in before bedtime. And then we all return to my parents' house the next day for a big meal and more traditions. One of my favorite traditions, for which I will take full credit, is the candle ceremony during which we each light a candle and say something we are thankful for.
My kids seem to understand the importance of traditions. My daughter is 21 years old now, but she spent time this month happily making a paper chain with With-a-Why. They've changed the tradition a bit — they buy red and green paper so that the chain is Christmassy looking, and they use staplers instead of glue — but of course, each new generation is allowed to make changes to a tradition. And as soon as I have grandchildren, you can bet I'm bringing back the fishing pole game.
The boy in the photo is With-a-Why, of course, and the cat is Gretel.
Posted by jo(e)