Zelophehad’s Daughters

From the Archives: Christmas Traditions, Christmas Memories

Posted by Kiskilili

(originally posted in December 2006)

One of my family’s more unique Christmas traditions ordinarily takes place sometime between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. We call it simply “the Catastrofeast.” In short, everyone collects unusual recipes they’ve never tried and we go wild. (Creating fine cuisine does not seem to run in our family; just last night Lynnette and I spent hours trying to produce something remotely edible to give to our neighbors. We joke that the bishop will be contacting the Zelophehad family shortly and asking that we please find some way other than cooking to share our talents with the ward.)

In the past we’ve tried several methods for unveiling and sampling the mystery dishes–sometimes auctioning them off, sometimes playing “musical dishes” and passing them around the table (you’re allowed to sample whatever you’re holding when the music stops), sometimes ordering from a menu. But always the dishes are given code names: Leviathan Bait, Goblin Growth Hormone, Tauntaun Fodder, Death in a Pot. Ever since we started this tradition there have been eclairs, now universally referred to in our family by their original code name as “Crime Stoppers.”

The year we initiated this tradition, we assured my rather wary mother that it would be a “nice meal.” Little did we suspect that my younger sister Amalthea was planning to contribute Baloney-Os, replacing the frosting in Oreos with baloney. (Lynnette paid Melyngoch a dollar to eat one.)

When we were younger, a less structured but no less elaborate tradition involved arguing literally for hours over where in our living room to put our Christmas tree. My brother Ziff and I thought we were hilarious when we made suggestions like putting the tree on a miniature roller coaster and having it ride around the room, or installing trees with rockets in them in the corners of the ceiling, and then playing “Dodge the Tree” and running around the room as the trees randomly launched. (Okay, so we’re not the most practically minded bunch. This is, of course, why it took hours to reach a decision that was actually feasible.)

When we were kids our mother would hide each of our main Christmas presents somewhere in the house, and leave a trail of clues in the form of riddles around the house, putting the first clue in our stockings. One at a time, youngest to oldest, we’d be allowed to hunt for our treasures. As we got older we started drawing names and writing each other’s treasure hunts. The first year we did this it was a disaster. More fateful words than “make it as hard as possible” may never have been uttered, and twelve hours into the treasure hunts, when our in-laws had come over and were begging us to finish up so we could open the presents under the tree, several missions had to be aborted mid-hunt and the locations of the treasures revealed. (We should have known we were in trouble when Lynnette announced, several days before Christmas, that by her calculations Amalthea would find her treasure on December 27th).

Although I do have fond memories, a few years ago, of lowering Melyngoch’s present down from the ceiling just as she finished solving the last clue, since then we’ve transformed the treasure hunts into a complicated board game we play Christmas morning.

Like many families, we ordinarily produce constructions out of graham crackers and candy sometime during the Christmas season. Perhaps less like other families, these constructions are rarely houses. Sometimes they’re buildings, such as sackbut conservatories or dinosaur museums, but as often as not they’re bizarre conglomerations whose identities are decided not before but after they’re finished. (Was Elbereth the one who made a gingerbread garbage dump?) My best creation of all time was an R2 unit with a bad motivator, but unfortunately the rather unstable motivator fell off when someone walked by and jostled the table.

We have a history of failing to label the presents when we wrap them, or writing things like “To: Luke’s Tauntaun, From: Darth Maul Motorbikes Inc.,” which makes Christmas evening (when we open our presents, very slowly, one at a time) all the more exciting. For several years I’ve suggested leaving all tags off altogether, opening the presents randomly, and then trying to guess who each present is to and from, but my sisters maintain this would likely result in fistfights.

I think probably all of my siblings went through a phase at some point or other when wrapping presents in such a way so as to disguise them was an elaborate art form into which a lot of thought was put. My mother acted horrified several years ago when one present, when its wrapping paper was torn off, was revealed to be a cushion from the couch. (Amalthea had unzipped it and put the present inside.) Of course, no one had even noticed the cushion was missing.

But my favorite tradition of all is filling each other’s stockings, where the most exciting and unusual presents are put. The only sad thing is, there’s really very little at this point that would be shocking anymore, after the pickled pigs’ feet, the chocolate-covered spiders, the inflatable Jar Jar chair, the wind-up nun that spits fire.

What are your family’s favorite Christmas traditions? Or, alternatively, what are your fondest Christmas memories? Did you pay your little brother to tell you what he was giving you? Did you trick your little sister into giving you two presents? Did you hit your older sister over the head with part of a doll high chair and give her a concussion on Christmas Eve?

5 Responses to “From the Archives: Christmas Traditions, Christmas Memories”

  1. 1.

    Ah… So THAT is what Catastrofeast refers to. It all becomes clear.

    My birthday is Dec. 25th, so my family had the tradition of celebrating Christmas on the evening of the 24th. We would go out to Christmas Eve Mass as a family, followed by dinner at the Media Towne House. By the time we returned home, my dad had mysteriously managed to get all of the presents wrapped and put out under the tree (I later realized that he did this by pre-wrapping the gifts, and then ducking out of Mass early. For years I had just figured he’d needed to catch a cigarette REALLY BAD. Through the entire homily. And Eucharist.)

    We’d stay up late, opening gifts and snacking on pepperoni and cheese. At midnight, my family would wish me a happy birthday, and we’d trot off to bed.

    Christmas day itself was generally spent visiting our many family members. Since Mom and Dad had grown up three doors down from each other on the same street, this was not very hard to do. I usually tried to see how many birthday cakes I could score over the course of the day and evening. (I think the max was the year I got 5 in one day).

    Now that I am married, my husband and I do things very differently from how I did them growing up. We still live in the same general area as my family, and so Christmas Eve we maintain the tradition of going to Mass, dinner, and exchanging gifts with my sisters at my Dad’s apartment.

    But that is where the similarity ends.

    “Our” family tradition has been to celebrate the winter holiday according to a different country’s culture each year. The first year of our marriage, we studied Ukraine, and topped our (construction paper-based) Christmas tree with a clock for Father Time. The two years that my brother-in-law served on his mission to Japan, we celebrated “Japanese” Christmas (which – no lie – consists of purchasing KFC for Christmas dinner and throwing rice into a corner. Sweet!) We’ve also done Diwali, celebrated a low-key Amish Christmas, and tried to eat the foods they would have had in Israel at the time of Jesus’ birth (one of my favorites, as I could eat hummus, olives, and grape leaves all day).

    This year, we’re taking a slight…. derailment. I’ve decided what I want more than anything else is to have a Harry Potter Christmas. So, I’ve started making my plum pudding, we’ve ordered exploding Christmas crackers, and I’m dyeing my hair pink to look like Tonks for a jovial Hogwarts-themed year. I’ve even managed to track down a recipe for Butterbeer. I’ve invited our neighbors, and am looking forward to celebrating with my friends.

    The cultural celebration is generally separate from the gift exchange. We previously had exchanged gifts on Jan. 6th, which is the Feast of the Epiphany (visit of the 3 Wise Men) in Catholic tradition. But then our son was born on Jan 5th, which changed everything. Now “Santa’ comes on Dec. 25th. He fills our stockings and gives my husband, son, and I each an ornament and a book. We do our gift exchange with one another on Jan 1st, similar to the Ukrainian tradition of celebrating the new year.

    There are then 12 days between my birthday and my son’s – which are our own 12 Days of Christmas!

  2. 2.

    Oh boy. That sounds right up my alley… we might have to steal a few traditions from you folks.

    The closest we have to an unusual christmas tradition is how we address our christmas presents. We’d write on the package the name of the person that the gift was for, and then write that they were from tooth fairy, the family pet, or some boy we had a crush on(just as examples).

    This year my husband got a gift from the Governor of California, Ron Paul, and the Illuminati.

  3. 3.


    I’m glad you reposted this since I missed it last time.

    You know, I often find myself frozen, wondering whether I would really love to be closer to your family or slowly slip further away into the darkness.

  4. 4.

    The Zelophehad family is so cool! We don’t do anything like that crazy or funny. I want to come to Christmas at y’all’s house!

  5. 5.

    Have you read Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler? Your post made me think of it. They always had appetizers for their Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners.

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