Christmas Hostage and Other Totally Normal Family Traditions
We were just finishing Christmas Eve dinner, when my two brothers gave each other the signal. They launched their coordinated attack, plucking me right out of my seat. Before I realized what was going on, they carried me kicking, writhing, and yelling, to a rolling computer chair, to which they quickly—and very securely—tied me up. I was the Christmas hostage of 2001.
They got right to work with decorations, my husband of two years standing idly by. Soon I was decked out like a Christmas tree: ornaments and candy canes dangling from the ropes; garland draped here and there; a hard hat, for some reason; and a wreath around my neck, complete with lights.
They picked up the chair, loaded me into the neighbor’s van, kidnapper style, and the whole family piled in. Since I was the second Christmas hostage, I knew what came next. They would be leaving me on various doorsteps, ringing the doorbell, and running away, leaving me to sheepishly explain why I was disrupting their Christmas Eve festivities. After the first drop, I asked them to at least do me the courtesy of gagging me so I didn’t have to have an awkward doorstep conversation.
They dropped me at several doorsteps, plugging me into the outlet so my neck-wreath was festively illuminated, before they rang the bell and ran. Some people knew me; some were complete strangers. They’d look at me, bewildered, before laughing and calling the rest of their family to see their unexpected visitor. Then my whole family would converge on the doorstep, they’d ungag me, and we’d all have a good laugh.
This fun-filled tradition was short-lived—it mercifully lasted only three years (one for each sister)—but it lives on in Singley family holiday lore.
Growing up, we would always start the Christmas season the day after Thanksgiving by watching A Christmas Story with our uncles and cousins in Sacramento, laughing generously when Flick got his tongue stuck on the flagpole and when Ralphie got the boot from Santa. On our drive back to southern California, we’d always watch the same Andy Williams Christmas Special that we recorded from TV in 1985, the one where Andy takes the NBC kids (think Cosby show, Punky Brewster, and Gimme a Break) on a search for Santa Claus. Here’s one of the best clips, in case you’ve been missing out all these years. (You can find the whole thing on Youtube if you’d like to get in on the tradition.)
Of course, there was a lot of music involved in our Christmas celebrations as well (see The Singing Singleys). We always went to holiday concerts and went caroling as a family (always in four-part harmony).
Our main event for the celebration was Christmas Eve, when we’d have a nice candlelight dinner and then open a present, always pajamas. Sometimes we’d also open sibling gifts on Christmas Eve, so those more humble gifts didn’t get eclipsed by the bigger presents the next morning. Some years these were homemade, other years just cheap toys.
We’d dress up in sheets and robes and hold a musical pageant, with dad wielding our gigantic camcorder, mom alternating between reading the Christmas story from the Bible and accompanying us on the piano, while we kids did the acting. Often we had a real baby to play the leading role, other times we used a doll, stuffed under Mary’s dress. Once we got too old for this role-play to be cute, we’d watch the videos of past pageants.
On Christmas morning, we’d wake up at 4 a.m. and pester our parents until they let us into the living room to pillage our spoils. The four items we could always count on finding in our stockings were a punching balloon, a paddle ball set (the ones with a ball attached with an elastic), a bag of pistachios, and a few packages of Carnation Instant Breakfast, so my parents could collapse on the couch instead of making breakfast.
Halloween was also a lot of fun growing up. My mom inherited her enthusiasm for it from her own parents. As long as mom could convince us to do it, we did a family theme costume. No cheap plastic Scooby Doo or Snoopy masks for us! The year we were all ducks, my mom made us walk in a line behind her down the street for the full effect. Mom also loved reading and reciting Halloween poetry to us, most notably “Little Orphant Annie” with “…the goblins et gits you, ef you don’t watch out!”
Because of some small ancestral claim to Ireland, we always made a big deal out of St. Patrick’s day. You absolutely could not forget to wear green to bed the night before or you’d wake up with a pinch. Our milk would be green for breakfast and we’d eat corned beef and cabbage for dinner, with Celtic soundtrack playing.
April Fool’s Day was another favorite. My mom was good at pulling fun little pranks, like short-sheeting our beds, stuffing our shoes with newspaper, or filling oreos with toothpaste. One memorable year we had friends coming in from out of town on April 1 (the poor souls) so we decided it would be a fun idea to pull a science experiment. We set out some enticing powdered donuts, covered in baking soda. Expecting our guests to want a drink after that surprise, we put out some watered-down vinegar with pink food coloring. Do not try this at home! While the expected effect of our friend foaming at the mouth was funny at the time, his subsequent gastric pain was not.
Because there were so many of us, we had birthday parties with friends every other year, simple affairs with duck duck goose, pin the tail on the donkey, presents, and cake--if you could call it cake. Because it took a while to find out we all had celiac disease, we were always trying new diets to figure out why we were sick. I remember one year blowing out my candles from a slice of watermelon, and another memorable year when my Mom’s cake made of puffed rice and some kind of syrup actually broke a knife when we attempted to cut it. If we were lucky, we’d also get a birthday dinner at an actual sit-down restaurant--always the Sizzler salad bar. We especially liked the baby corn.
We always drove to Sacramento to spend Thanksgiving with my Dad’s family. Grandma and Grandpa would stay up to receive us late at night, ready with toast and homemade hot cocoa. We’d see our cousins the next morning and immediately tie ourselves together for non-stop three-legged races. There we’d go bowling, play a family football game, watch the only movie we’d see in the theater each year, and eat and extravagantly delicious dinner made almost exclusively by my gourmand aunt Charlene. Grandma would usually make the turkey and the raspberry Jello salad.
We loved the fourth of July, partly because it was fun to sing patriotic songs and march around. We usually sang as a family at our church flag ceremony. Then the typical fireworks show that night. In my teenage years, we watched the fireworks out at the small Bishop, CA airport. I’d always play John Philip Sousa in the community band out there on the tarmac, and we always watched for the roller derby guy to skate by in his short white shorts doing tricks up and down the line of cars.
We had weekly traditions too. Dad would wake us up by blasting the Doobie Brothers or Chicago, so we’d wake up and get our chores done. Sundays were game days. We’d play board games and card games and parlor games, sometimes just us, and sometimes with other families. We also ate ice cream sundaes almost every Sunday.
These family traditions are part of our family story and identity. Some just happened and then kept happening, others were deliberate efforts by my parents to build unity and make memories. Together, they make up the weird and wonderful family culture that makes us unique.