Almost universally the way we as individuals celebrate any holiday is determined by forces much larger and older than we. Centuries-old cultural traditions shape our celebratory habits and generations hand down the blueprints as the years pass. As each of us carries the torch of both the larger and smaller implementations of our traditions, perhaps we tinker with the specifics, handing down to our children something more personal.
When the Northern Hemisphere enters its darkest and coldest time of year, people of all faiths across the globe seek out the light. Cultural norms may require us to light a Christmas tree or a Menorah or a kinara. Gift giving, family gatherings and the consumption of certain foods may be among the habits that have evolved for many holidays, no matter their geographic location or calendar date.
Regardless of how we learn, or choose to mark the special days in our lives, regardless of what we call those days or in what ancient histories they may have started, tradition perpetuates them all. However cynical or jaded we may have grown in this modern age, at its soul—without the trappings of commercialism—holidays afford us a rare opportunity to be a part of something that transcends time, and if we do it right, will continue to do so for generations yet to come.
In this issue, which hits stands as Hanukkah is under way, Christmas is upon us and Kwanzaa is approaching, the staff at Boise Weekly has looked into our own pasts, seeking out long-held traditions that govern our holiday celebrations and discovering how things may change for the future.
—Rachael DaigleMy Big Loud Basque Family
It took my mom and I a while to get a Christmas tradition. Or, maybe adopt would be a more apt descriptor. An only child shared between two long-divorced parents, I've always felt like the longer leg on a home movie camera tripod—knobby kneed, overextended, the only thing those other two legs would ever have in common.
With an almost other-worldly penchant for fairness, I thought holidays should be split up like Halloween candy: deliberate and even. If I could help it, nobody would get stuck with the orange Now and Laters. This meant half-a-Christmas with mom and half with dad—perennially packing up Polly Pockets and strapping on Nickelodeon moon shoes to bounce from one house to the other.
But that all changed a few years back when my mom remarried, and we suddenly had our very own Big Loud Basque Family.
In an instant, our names were scrawled in fresh glitter glue on construction paper place cards—a strikingly close approximation to the 15 or so others, which had been created during some family craft project years ago. A steaming pot of clams and rice was set in the middle of an abundant spread, and hearty glugs of Spanish wine were poured into special holly-adorned wine glasses. A circle of hands grasped around the table, and my new 101-year-old great-grandmother, Amuma, led a prayer in Basque. Though our Christmas Eve two years before had been slightly different—watching Fight Club and drinking butterscotch apple martinis—my mom and I locked eyes across the table and smiled. This big family thing was shaping up to be pretty sweet.
But as I soon learned, Basques aren't the type to shy away from a celebration. Christmas Eve at Amuma's was merely an amuse-bouche for the real entree—Christmas night at Tia's house. After another round of Basque prayers, clinking glasses and clattering forks spearing peppers and potatoes, Tia quieted the crowd to announce that the evening's entertainment would soon begin. Plates cleared, and after-dinner drinks filled, we settled into the parlor's couches in time to hear her tap-tap the microphone and nod toward her 10-year-old on the piano. "Hit it, son," she cooed.
What followed next is hard to put into words. To say her rendition of "Rose Garden" would make Lynn Anderson roll in her grave would rob the experience of its sidesplitting awesomeness. Though her voice cracked on the high notes and failed to hit the low ones, she continued without an ounce of self-consciousness and all the grace of a velvet-clad lounge singer. As the guffaws died down and Tia feigned humility with "Thank you. Thank you," I looked over at Amuma and saw tears of laughter streaking her 101-year-old-face. With a round of hearty applause and a fair amount of heckling, Tia broke into her next number. As the night wore on, I hesitantly found my way to the makeshift stage as a finger-snapping backup singer. It was safe to say, I had become an official member of this Big Loud Basque Family.
This Christmas marks my third as an official step-Basque, and each year I feel more and more a part of the family. So watch out Tia, this Christmas I might just have to bust out the gold-lame and give you a run for your microphone-hogging money.
Oh, Those Christmas Trees
As the oldest of three girls, my sisters and I have all had to adjust to hosting our own holidays. As we've aged, it's been difficult getting past how wonderful Christmas was in childhood when Santa delivered a perfect morning, wrapped up in colorful paper with ribbons and bows.
Through our teen years, the holiday remained special even if Kris Kringle found new and inventive ways to test our festive tolerance levels. Christmas pranks became a way to blow off teen angst, like that time we visited Grandma and Grandpa in Arizona and my middle sister and I draped Gramp's bear skin rug on our little sister as she slept. The "littlest angel," as my Grandma lovingly called her, woke up with a Christmas roar that morning, as her first visual was the wide-open mouth and sharp teeth of a dead bear. Or like the holiday my sisters and I all received bike helmets from my safety-conscious dad. We wore them all morning to open presents.
Now that we're adults, we can't ignore the cold, hard realities of the holiday season. One of the main components of Christmas that helps all three of us deal with the ups and downs of yuletide is decorating a Christmas tree. We look forward to hanging ornaments, stringing lights and decking the halls to the hilt.
My middle sister, skilled at hitting Christmas clearance sales, is obsessed with sprucing up her Christmas tree and often finds herself knee deep in all the ornaments she has collected. She decorates everything that stays still and always wins the informal decorating contests.
My little sister has unwittingly started a Christmas tree tradition of her own. Each year, her family carefully decorates their tree, and every year the thing tips over. At this point she blames evil Christmas elves. She knows very well that it sounds funny when she tells it, but she assures us it is not funny when it happens. Just as her family basks in the glow of a fully decorated tree, no matter how tight or loose they adjust the stand, a creaking sound is heard and the tree comes crashing down on them, spreading decorations all over the room. They have to redecorate. And she says it hurts.
My Christmas tree story isn't quite so painful. In fact, my tale might be hard to top over the years. The first tree my man and I hunted was a late-in-the-season straggler—-a real Charlie Brown tree—but we found it ourselves after hiking halfway up a mountain, and we were proud to decorate it and make it our own. He gently suggested we decorate sparsely, and I tried my hardest to resist putting up that one last ornament or another string of tinsel.
As it turned out, he had an ulterior motive (besides avoiding a slew of bad memories about gaudy Christmas trees of his youth). Simple decorations made it much easier for me to spy the sparkling ring he had placed on one of the branches. I retrieved the ring off the tree, slipped it on my hand and agreed to spend the rest of my holidays with him. It's too bad we forgot to keep giving our engagement tree water, so every time I lovingly touched the branches in recollection, needles came cascading down.
All in all, I appreciate the prickly parts of the season right along with the rest, and that's why Jolly Old St. Nick is what Christmas is all about for me. Together my new husband and I will make the most of family during the holidays and cultivate our own traditions. We'll decorate the tree as simply or as intricately as we want or, at the very least, remember to make sure it has enough water to last into the new year.
Jan. 1, 2000, Estelesbos Farm, near Khorixas, Namibia—The year 2000 has arrived. It is a cool night with many clear stars. For seven hours, Tara and I will be separated by a millennium. I am so tired from a slaughter, hike and late night donkey cart ride. Must sleep ...
Morning. Couldn't sleep so well. I still feel a bit paranoid here ... A year seems so long. I can't really remember much of this last year. The last six months are clear, since May, seven months. But Cornell is so far away. In a half hour I will be eating day-old goat hacked to bits by two Damara teens with a strange sense of life and death.
Jan. 2, 2000. We finished off the meat for breakfast and I fear I may be sick of it. The plan is kudu meat tonight if we go hunting. Should be interesting.
I was not going to miss this event for anything. The poaching party tried to leave me behind, but as they gathered their two iron spears, I smiled and followed. We first visited the oms (hut) on the other side of the borehole and picked up the young guy and about five dogs. We were five people; hunters. We took off up the wadi (canyon) at a rapid pace. I was second to last. We came upon a high plateau and spread out a bit, I taking the left/eastern flank. Suddenly the dogs began to bark to my right and I ran to the guys to see an ostrich nest with 27 eggs. Big, heavy eggs, neatly arranged. I remembered some nature show about how ostrich may abandon their nest with any sign of intrusion and winced as the guys fondled the eggs. I could not resist and gingerly touched one. The ostrich had fled down the hill and we followed.
Soon, the young guy spotted a large male kudu in a wadi to our left and we crouched, made a hasty plan and took off running. It was a feeble, amateurish attempt. Winded, we regrouped at the top of the wadi and saw the ostrich bounding along the path below, where we had come from, back to her chicks. She slowed, wary of us and then took off again. We "tracked" the kudu westward over another hill, down a steep loose descent and then into a soft wide wadi as darkness settled about.
We then picked our way over loose rock and between thorny plants back to the ostrich, as I had feared. The dogs took off. I heard the staccato pounding of ostrich hooves. We were upon the nest. The boys' eyes gleamed as they fondled the eggs. I was tempted but dissented. Leave it, thinking out principles of conservation. We heard barking near; was it dog or bird? We crouched. I grabbed a heavy stone. Staccato pounding, coming nearer. A fowl death in the dark? Closer pounding and a white shape whizzed by 20 feet off. We whooped, out of fear.
Decided to head home, a long dark walk. Back at the neighbors we were taught to make fire with steel, white sparking rocks and a small pipe of tinder. A nice little trick. Ate the bitter fruit of a medicinal cactus. Then porridge with milk and sugar, tea and much needed rest. In the a.m., I slowly packed and walked out to the road.
Christmas is a Contentious Affair
Christmas and I are not the best of friends. We're antagonistic and querulous, each of us disliking the other more with every passing December. Christmas is like my snotty friend that I keep around only because I've known him my whole life. He's obnoxious, his expectations are high and I spend way too much time preparing for his annual visit only to have him rush in and rush out, leaving me to clean up his detritus. We always argue as his visit draws near, and the results are always the same. In a saccharine voice, Christmas says to me, "I know I'm a little tough on you, but I'm here every year, same time, same place and I'm only here for a day. You can get through one day, can't you? You know, some people actually revel in the joy and happiness of me. Even you get a really nice gift sometimes."
Turning a little ugly when I roll my eyes, Christmas snaps, "It doesn't matter anyway; I'm never leaving. Ever. Why don't you just suck it up and admit defeat?"
My voice cracking with anger, I reply, "Never! You're costly and ostentatious and I don't need any more stress. And you're not a one-day event. You start in October! I can never afford you, even if I start saving money and buying gifts in July. Why can't you just go away?" We are forever at an impasse.
The weirdness between me and the merriest of holidays started when I was a preschooler. The tradition in our house was that we could open one gift on Christmas Eve. I picked a big box under the tree with my name on it. Hoping it contained the baby doll I wanted, I tore into the wrapping to find a purple parka, and I'm sure my parents were pleased that their chilly child would be all bundled up for the next day's visits to family. Had I been a more creative child, I might have figured out how to play house with a coat. Instead, I went to bed disappointed.
For all these years since I was a tow-headed tot, as the countdown to Christmas begins, my heart rate speeds up. I worry about what to buy for all 25 of my immediate family members. I worry about how much money to spend. I worry about January's mortgage. I worry that I have to find a place to put new things in a house already full of clutter. I worry about why on earth I want a new pair of black boots when I already have a pair in the closet. By Dec. 25, I'm distracted, dismayed and not just a little huffy. I don't want to feel like that any more.
So this year, I'm determined to approach the yuletide with a little more cheer. I'm going to find inspiration in pleasant Christmas memories: the year my husband bought me a piece of jewelry to commemorate our 10 years together; the year I found what had to be the last Playstation 3 game console left in town for my sons; the first time my nieces and nephews were old enough to understand Christmas.
I'm going to search for contentment in the positives of the present. I'm going to make sure I donate something to charity. I'm going to be thankful that all 25 of those people whom I call family live nearby, which means I never have to spend hours in line at an airport or choose with whom to spend Christmas. We have taken pay cuts across the board here at Boise Weekly, but when we return to work on Jan. 5 from an extended holiday, I will still have a job to come back to.
Maybe I'll never be entirely rid of the disquietude this time of year brings, but I'm willing to give the holiday a try. I'm just not telling Christmas that until Dec. 26. I hate it when he gloats.
Chasing New Year's
It took more than 20 New Year's celebrations to pry me from the safety of my home one New Year's Eve. Told throughout my young life that New Year's Eve was the best night of the year to meet my maker, I dared not venture from the ball-dropping spectacle on TV until the millennium.
As 1999 became 2000 at the International Date Line, I watched from my Boise apartment at 3 a.m. as public television chased the New Year around the world. In Tonga, a fleet of locals welcomed the new era with a traditional dance; a choir of 1,500 sang at the Acropolis; 2,000 doves took flight in Bethlehem above a choir of Palestinian children; a parade of boats slunk down the Nile with the Giza Pyramids in the background (this is Egypt's seventh millennium); Nelson Mandela walked the corridor of his 18-year prison and passed the flame of his candle onto South Africa's newly elected democratic president; and in Japan, a 21-year-old chef wed a 29-year-old hairdresser.
That day, I made a New Year's resolution; the only such promise I've ever kept. Having never left the country, I made a list of places to travel. Then I headed to downtown Boise where I rang in the new millennium on the Capitol lawn.
That summer I crossed off the first of several destinations in my list. After a few trips to Europe, a jaunt in Africa and a New Year's Eve in Times Square, I left a lousy 2004 in Sydney Harbor, fully committed to beginning anew in 2005. And begin anew I did. A few times.
Six weeks later I sucked down a bowl of street noodles in Singapore during Chinese New Year.
A fortnight later, in Bali, it took three days to coax in a new year. First with the sacrifice of a small pig in a ceremony in the streets and a parade of fierce papier mache warriors, which ended in their fiery demise; then with a day of utter silence, blacked-out windows and no electricity. As a Balinese friend told me, it's a day of meditation—a day to consider the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. The Balinese spend the final day among family, and 210 days later, the celebrations begin again.
The need among us to make a clean break from the past and mark spiritual and personal progress seems universal, perhaps innate. That year, I celebrated my fourth and final new year in April. I arrived in a coastal town in Cambodia and within minutes of stepping off the bus, I watched a woman die at my feet. Trying to revive the woman, her family violently rubbed ointment on her earlobes and into the palms of her hands, they pinched her arms and punched her legs. Later that night, I celebrated my last new year with a customary surprise dousing of water and talcum powder thanks to a few rambunctious Cambodian teens. The next morning, I sat barefoot on the rooftop of my hotel and re-read a passage in my wrinkled copy of Walden: "so our human life but dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity." And with each coming new year, that which is old within us springs forth new until the cycle completes itself yet again, one cycle folding back on itself again and again.
This year, I think I'll stay in and revisit the old ball-dropping tradition from my living room.
Where No One Has Gone Before
Not being particularly religious people, pageants and sermons have never marked the holiday season for my family. Nor did we hold big family gatherings since the vast majority of our extended family is in the Midwest. Instead, we were left to our own devices—for better or worse—to create our own holiday traditions.
Be they odd or random, we love our traditions. They are all inclusive, from rotating who gets to put the angel on the tree with who gets to hand out the presents on Christmas morning, to where we sit to open presents. Most of the odder traditions began in the slightly twisted minds of my sister, my father or myself, leaving my ever-tolerant mother to roll her eyes, shake her head and go along with it.
It all starts with the tree. Over the years, we've collected an array of ornaments, but none more prized by my sister and I than our Star Trek memorabilia. That's right, we are big ol' sci-fi geeks and somewhat proud of it. My father started the trend by forcing us to watch the original Star Trek with him when we were kids and it took hold.
He was the one who first ventured into the local Hallmark store and discovered the Star Trek line of Keepsake ornaments. Before long, we had a veritable armada of matching space ships gracing our annual tree. Most of them light up, and some involve sound, meaning that every time my mother wanted to turn on the lights on her beautiful tree, she was forced to listen to a chorus of Borg wishing her a happy holiday.
We, of course, were never content with just hanging the ornaments haphazardly. My sister and I set up elaborate battle scenes on either side of the tree, using my mother's hand-blown glass bulbs as planets and suns. She loathed one ornament in particular: the Klingon Bird of Prey. Not that she has any particular vendetta against the crinkly headed aliens, but the ornament features a blinking light, which she claims bores into her head. Having slightly evil streaks (which my mother maintains we inherited from our father), my sister and I always positioned the ornament in question to point directly at where we knew our mother would be sitting.
Come Christmas morning, amid the overall warm-fuzzy feeling, we would catch her casting irritated glances at the tree, and we would know the Klingons were winning the battle.
As if the intergalactic war weren't enough, my poor mother is the subject of yet another long-standing tradition. After several years of her crying "Save the bow!" with every gift we opened, we began to ceremoniously chuck them at her before we even made the first tear in the wrapping paper. It's developed into a sport, in which the bow-thrower gets extra points for getting the bow to actually stick to her. To be fair, we do restrain from hucking any hard or heavy package-toppers at her. Strangely, I've noticed more of those gracing presents in recent years. She has her own special ways of getting back at us—less overt, but equally effective.
Earlier this fall, my mother boxed up our respective ornaments and shipped them home with my sister and I in an effort to reclaim her tree. While she denies it, I think she secretly misses being greeted by the Borg. Her tree may be silent this year, but she still better be ready to duck.
Markets crowded with people shopping for new clothes. Stores filling up with goods and toy stands everywhere. This was the typical scene of the days leading up to Eid Al-Adha in the small Palestinian town of Halhoul near Hebron. As young adults, on the morning of Eid we'd get up early, full of energy and excitement, ready to start the four-day holiday. We would put on our new outfits we just got for Eid.
We would then leave the house with our dad and go to visit our relatives in their homes, wishing them a happy and blessed Eid. Fifteen homes later, along with the same number of Turkish coffee cups and sweets sufficient to keep one up and running for days, we would end up back at our house. I remember smelling the feast mom was preparing from a few blocks away. She always made her traditional Eid meal, which had to include none other than her well known leg of lamb and stuffed chicken along with all the salads and trimmings to go with it. The leg of lamb is what we kept from the lamb that dad sacrificed the day before, while giving the rest of the meat to the poor, a Muslim tradition for Eid.
Relatives would shortly start to show up at our house and then shower us kids with cash. Nothing is more dangerous than kids high on Turkish coffee and sweets who are loaded with cash. We would race to the toy stands and spend every last penny.
When it was time to feast, we would gather around the table along with many relatives and enjoy mom's delicious cooking.
It's not so much the light and heat from 36 burning candles I recall, so much as their reflection in our window. These 72 real and reflected flames are seared in my otherwise slipping childhood memories of Hanukkah celebrations. As the eight days of this Jewish festival progressed, so too did the amount of fire we kids got to handle. Each day an additional candle is lit, so that by the eighth day the Menorah is fully engulfed in flame (nine candles actually; an extra one is used to light the rest). It's an impressive, indoor display, and it was placed in the window so that the rest of the neighborhood could see that we were a flaming Jewish home.
This part of the Hanukkah message—the freedom to practice Judaism without fear—may have been wasted in our house, since we had no neighbors and lived in a predominantly Jewish area outside of Baltimore.
But last week it all came rushing back in a pyromaniacal Hanukkah fantasy when my 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter asked why we didn't have Christmas lights.
We went home, took out all the Menorahs and lit up early, making sure to place them prominently in the front window for all to see.
Sharing is the heart of the holiday season. To celebrate, we share food, kind words and gifts. Ever since I can remember, at the Boise Hare Krishna Temple, we celebrate the holiday season by collectively chanting more than 1 million names of Krishna on New Year's Day for all the residents of Idaho. (The word "Krishna" is a name of God in the Sanskrit language which means "He who is all-attractive.") On that day, we sing and chant the names of God for eight hours in unison. Everyone in the community comes together and feels joyful. After the chanting, my friends and family cook a vegetarian feast of traditional Indian dishes. To uplift the mind and senses, we burn natural incense which produces many earthly aromas. One of my friends strings flower garlands made of carnations for Krishna, and at the end of the day they are given away as New Year's gifts. Finally, when everything is done, and Jan. 2 has come, we wish that everyday could be like this—in praise and glorification of Krishna. God is like the root of the tree and we are its branches and leaves. If we water the root, then automatically all the leaves of the tree become nourished. Similarly, if we serve and praise God, then everyone feels satisfied.
When Shari Ashley first moved to Boise from Sacramento, Calif., 17 years ago, she did not find much in the way of African-American culture.
"There's just no culture here and I wanted my children—[since] they were being raised in a predominantly white culture—I wanted them to have a pride of their culture," Ashley said.
To fill the void, Ashley hosted a celebration at her home on the sixth night of Kwanzaa and 60 people showed up. The theme: kuumba, or creativity. That need to instill a strong cultural identity became even more acute when her son, Shaka Williams, started kindergarten in Boise. As Ashley tells it, Shaka's young classmates made fun of his name and pulled on his dreadlocks. Their teacher was not equipped to intervene, let alone explain.
Ashley brought in her Kwanzaa set—a kinara (seven-candle candelabra), African fabrics and a bowl of fruit—and the class learned about her family's journey to discover their collective African roots. Enlightened to the royal origin of his name and the beauty of his braids, the kids embraced young Shaka.
"From that point to this, and he's 16 now, he's almost famous," Ashley said.
—Nathaniel Hoffman, as told by Shari Ashley