Making “untradition” the tradition of Christmas

Turkey or ham for dinner in the USA. Pinekjøtt or lutefisk in Norway. Gathering of families usually at the home of the grandmother and grandfather. Yes, we are stuck on tradition, truly stuck if you look forward to eating fruitcake or maybe lutefisk each year for Christmas.

I remember a few traditions about Christmases growing up. My favorite things were the cookies-maybe making them-and the flannel pajamas I would always get from my grandmother. I don’t remember so many super wildly expensive gifts, or anything I was crazy to get, but I remember my dad’s gift, the same every year until we lost him.

I was a kid in a family where the tree was always piled with presents. We knew Santa was coming to our house, and dinner was a given. It wasn’t the same for my father growing up.

We didn’t always celebrate Christmas at home. Some Christmases we drove across the midwest to visit my Sicilian grandparents in Nebraska, which was colder than Illinois. Some years we were lucky enough to escape to Florida for Christmas for about 12 days. I remember seeing the ocean for the first time in my life in Florida over Christmas one year.

A Florida vacation in winter was a dream for me. People ask, “How can you have Christmas without snow?” I learned pretty early in life how you can do that. Christmas lights in palm trees can only mean something good. Even if it’s not Christmas. On our trips to Florida, we would open gifts at home, and more Christmas presents in Florida, as if traveling to Florida wasn’t enough to get for Christmas.

The funny thing about tradition is that the Christmases I remember most are the ones that weren’t based on tradition. Or at least my traditions.

I remember a Christmas when my girlfriends bet that my boyfriend wouldn’t have a present for me. We were young enough that I hope he never made that mistake again. Not that I cared, but it was embarrassing that my girlfriends had such a low opinion of him. The relationship didn’t last much longer after Christmas.

I remember a Christmas in Baltimore exchanging baking secrets with a woman from Australia. I was in graduate school that year, trying to finish my project so that I could graduate in the early spring. She couldn’t go home. We made a mess in the kitchens of the respective homes we were house sitting that year, while the owners fled to some warmer destinations.

There was a Christmas in Nashville where my friends decorated my tree with creative ornaments from scraps of paper and paint. It was a group of scientists busy at work at another kind of lab bench. The tree was the most creative I ever had.

I remember a Christmas when the lights went out at my brother’s place. Something about forgetting to pay the electric bill. I guess that happens when you are a surgery resident before paying bills was made so easy on the internet. We prepared dinner in a small kitchen with limited options for cookware (and light; the stove was gas). Like camp cooking. But my mom is a genius at making superb meals out of nothing almost.

There was the Christmas my car was stolen along with all my presents. I looked for my clothes on homeless people and in local pawn shops for weeks after that. I was sure I understood the meaning of Christmas that year.

I remember having dinners at friends’ in Norway. You were expected to dress up for Christmas over there. I was invited to one home for Christmas where the men were even wearing tuxedos. The meal was always the same-pinnekjøtt with kålrabistappe. You had to get past the aroma of the dried lamb before it was cooked, but the meal all together was delicious. Yet, it never tasted quite the same in all the homes I was invited to all the years I lived there.

One Christmas my brother showed up in Norway. We make a turkey on Christmas day usually (we used to). I told him they sell the best tasting turkey ever in Norway. He didn’t believe me. But sure enough when he ate the turkey, he agreed. A group of Vikings kidnapped him later that week for a couple of days.

I remember a Christmas on another island near Bergen. At some friends, who were also expats from the USA, making merry and eating a turkey at almost midnight. I was pretty hungry by then, but it was a delicious tasting turkey made with some kind of creole spice mix marinade. They are special people because another year I had Christmas with them on another island, Tasmania, where they are now living.

Nothing is traditional about Christmas in California for me having grown up in the Midwest. It’s always an improvisation. You can do that because the weather is so moderate. My family, or at least some members of the family, travel to California for Christmas or around Christmas. So I end up staying here.

This year my Christmas story has something to do with riding the metro rail in Los Angeles. I think it did last year too. I took the metro rail up to the Hollywood farmers’ market to get some fruit and vegetables for the holiday. And to see Christmas in another part of Los Angeles.

It’s an interesting ride, not through the most luxurious parts of LA. You can’t believe how different people live across the city. It didn’t feel especially Christmas-y with the smell of pot everywhere.

Or on the ride back when a fight broke out between two women and one pulled out a knife.

People go a little crazy around the holidays. It’s tough sometimes to be together, and it’s tough to be alone.

I like the idea of escaping it altogether. Taking on a diversion. Like my friends who are going to Italy this year. It’s a great time to be in Europe. Fewer tourists and a wonderful holiday atmosphere-julestemning in Norwegian. I miss that about living in Europe, even if it does mean the aromas are different.

But after the incident on the metro rail, I’m glad that I can just walk along the beach, take photos and watch dolphins jumping, on the way to my brother’s place for Christmas.

Merry Christmas and happy new year!

Ever had an untraditional Christmas? What did you do?

©Janice Marie Nigro/

Looking for a scientific editor or writer? Contact Janice Nigro at Janice Nigro Ink. I have published in Cell, Science, and Nature, and articles I have edited have appeared in Cancer Research, PLoSONE, the Journal of Surgical Oncology, and Oncotarget.


4 thoughts on “Making “untradition” the tradition of Christmas

Add yours

  1. I feel like many of my Christmas traditions as a child have fallen by the wayside. I am now “the grandmother” and host tradition for my little grandkids. I enjoyed Thanksgiving at my daughter’s house. However, when asked by one of my granddaughters if we could still have Christmas at my house, I knew that was her tradition and said, “Of course!” I would never willingly disappoint a little grandchild! She led out in a reenactment of the Christmas story and played the angel who appeared to the shepherds in the countryside. She then became a wiseman and the three younger ones became Joseph, Mary and another wiseman. It was very creative and very touching.

    1. What a great feeling for you to have your granddaughter ask for Christmas at your home. We are so lucky to have good memories from our childhood and to be able to make that happen for the youngest in our lives. I am just imagining the dialogue the kids came up with (especially now that I’ve met them!). I don’t do anything I did as a kid any longer either at Christmas. We’re all over the place, and it’s lucky if any of us are together. We use FaceTime a lot…Happy New Year Jill!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: