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Quirky family traditions add spice to season

FOR THOSE of you who are really on top of your Christmas tunes, I lifted this line right out of a Raffi song: "Christmas time's a'comin' and I know I'm going home." And while "Deck the Halls" and "Jingle Bells" also are parts of my Christmas repertoire, it is the quirky, not-so-universal traditions, those unique to my family, that provide this holiday with its comfort and joy.

Raffi is just one of the endless cycle of cassette tapes my mom plays - yes, she still plays it, along with "We Sing Christmas" - as we decorate cookies and the tree. But it is on Christmas Day that the true musical event occurs at my house - and is always recorded on video for posterity. The "Twelve Days of Christmas," you must understand, is much more than just a song. It's a very long song. And, it can be acted out, oh-so-cutely, by yours truly.

The tradition began before my family even had its own camcorder, when we first had to borrow one from our neighbors next door. Then, in my Christmas dress, wobbling on one foot with arms outstretched to form the partridge's perch, I would begin to sing. On rare occasions, everything went smoothly. But there are 12 days, after all, to be remembered in order, complete with lords' leaps and ladies' dances. And my little brother always was hovering nearby, ready to stir up trouble. If I made a mistake, or my brother so much as entered the camcorder's view, I would start all over. Even if I was on the eleventh day.

Unfortunately, sometimes the pressure of this momentous event got to me. I would wind up under the dining room table, sobbing, and there would be no complete song that year. But of course, this too was caught on tape. Since my family is not exceptionally diligent about videotaping events, glimpses of my childhood pretty much add up to a few birthday parties and eight or 10 renditions of this Christmas tune. A repeat performance is requested every year, but singing and dancing are not exactly what I do best - to put it gently - so I decline. My 10-year-old brother also lacks interest, meaning that this is one tradition that we have laid to rest for now. But I'll never pass up the chance to capture my own kids as precariously balanced pear trees.

Plenty of our traditions live on, many of them simple, but some almost as traumatic at times as my singing. Purely positive memories include setting up my dad's old train on tracks around our tree. Once we have coupled the cars together, we push the power button and off the train goes. By the time it rounds the bend of the track, however, it is far from the power source and its progress slows to an excruciating crawl.

It puffs along like The Little Engine That Could about to reach the mountaintop - although this track is perfectly flat. Amidst our cheers of encouragement, the round trip occasionally is a success. Of course, there is also much enjoyment to be found in placing wooden people, deer and trees on the tracks, and in making the engine "toot-toot" incessantly.

Playing with the train may be fun, but nothing beats the food. With our traditional turkey dinner we have one dish that has, for some reason, become my favorite - meaning I'm always delegated the job of making it. It's descriptively named "Broccoli Yum Yum," and somewhat miraculously, the combination of broccoli, cheese, eggs, mayonnaise and cream of mushroom soup is delicious.

It may sound neither elaborate nor enticing, but never underestimate the power of cream of mushroom soup - my first year roommate wrote her U.Va. admissions essay about that very product. My family will be the first to tell you that I'm extraordinarily attached to this fantastic dish, which will always be the highlight of my Christmas meal.

A seemingly innocent tradition is reading the book "The Night Before Christmas" before we go to bed on Christmas Eve. Usually everything goes fine, but one year there was a fiasco over who got to read the story. Before the picture book was ripped to pieces - there was a tad bit of sibling rivalry in my childhood - a compromise was reached. We counted the number of pages and split the reading down the middle. When the story is over, we set out milk and cookies for Santa, a carrot for Rudolf, and go to bed.

But this is the one danger of traditions: You can't forget to do them. The one year we forgot to leave snacks for Santa, I remembered about an hour after going to bed. So I went downstairs to let my parents know, and much to my surprise, our gifts were already laid out around the tree. That, coupled with the fact that we always have a fire burning in our fireplace on Christmas Eve, unfortunately convinced me that Santa is only an invention.

My family's traditions, whether amusing, touching or just plain odd, are what makes the season what it is. They are what I will build upon and cherish in my future, and they're what make me so glad to be goin' home.

(Jennifer Schaum is a Cavalier Daily opinion editor.)


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