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Winter Holiday Traditions Of One High WASP Family


Somewhat surprisingly, the winter holiday traditions of my High WASP family were not strictly related to wealth. At least not to its consumption. Nor did they resemble Downton Abbey, except in the candlesticks and changing for meals. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so we’ll slow down, and take a reasonably well-organized stroll through High WASP culture.

High WASP Childhood Thanksgivings And Christmases

Let’s first give money its due.

☆ Abundance, And The Beauty Of Good Design

Mom always set holiday tables with silver candelabra, at least as I remember. Tripartite, twisted, and not a little wobbly. Also Grandma Nina’s table linens. It was important that we know the source.

I imagine we shared with any non-poor-and-of-Christian-origin family the Christmas morning gasp at piles of presents under the tree. High WASPs are not so much about abundance, but hand-wrapping, with ribbon, in tasteful paper. Lights were white, ornaments shiny, tree, real. Signs of wealth were subtle, but there. Imagine four blonde children in matching nightgowns, slippers and quilted bathrobes. Precision haircuts. We were tended to.

I always think of rich little children wearing fur tippets, but none were required for California. I did wear a red velvet coat and white gloves to San Francisco.

The tending was in itself an artifact of privilege. As, I suppose, was the overall level of sparkle. You’ll notice when I talk about this stuff, how conditional becomes my voice.

☆ A Broader View

Wealth brought us the world.

  • Travel. We went places for Christmas. Swimming in Hawaii,  Jamaica, Mexico. Skiing in Idaho and the Sierras. Or to our beach house, where purple tables and persimmon countertops laid bare my mother’s Artsy leanings.
  • Objects. Our decorations came from multiple generations and several different countries. Grandmama’s Latin American travel with her Austro-Hungarian oil executive second husband yielded all kinds of weird stuff. To say nothing of the many alcohol-themed ornaments saved from her days as a gay socialite in Springfield, Massachusetts.

My father inherited paintings of his ancestors, but nothing so frivolous as ornaments.

How Do You Move Beyond Money To Make A Family Holiday?

If you listened to my family, you might hypothesize that the High WASPs of yesteryear never celebrated anything. My mother rarely told holiday stories, my father, never. No family recipes, no talk of the “old country,” no anecdotes of Thanksgiving and Christmas past. Maybe it’s because those holidays weren’t fun in old High WASP families. Fun required summertime, an escape from the nanny or time alone in a hayloft.

Perhaps as a result, my mother invented our winter holidays, out of the brown California hills.

1. She cooked

My mom cooked, the first woman in three generations of her family to do without servants. Turkey, and homemade giblet gravy. Worcestershire sauce was the secret ingredient. She baked apple pie. Our most memorable kitchen was in, wait for it, a 30-room mansion built at the turn of the 20th century by one of Levi Strauss’s nephews. Imagine glass-fronted cabinets, a walk-in pantry, and a, what do I call it, a pre-kitchen? The place where the servants must have staged the meals as they fed the scions of one of America’s great emerging fortunes? We kids still gagged at lima beans, no matter where prepared.

2. She said things to validate that we were a family

My mother used her school acting experience to reinforce and validate our family. She performed for us. For example, in all our tall-ceilinged houses, my mother always said, and, most importantly, always remarked upon how she always said, “This is the most beautiful tree we’ve ever had.”

3. But nobody ever said anything about the money for the longest time

When my father’s mother died, in 1967 or thereabouts, we inherited a very old dining table. We felt, although we were not told overtly, that it was valuable. Somehow we had to be better at this table, our posture, straighter. But nobody ever said, “This cost a lot of money guys, be careful!” Such was always our way.

We spent New Year’s Eve, 1977 at the Jamaica Inn in Ochos Rios. My parents slept in a private villa, we kids had rooms. My father joked, “This is costing as much as the economy of a small nation!” And I was as shocked as though he had launched into a graphic description of last night’s sex. That should be sufficient characterization of our financial silence.

The Real Tradition Was Delayed Gratification

In fact, no matter how often we exclaimed over the tree, slurped up gravy, or danced outside in the glamorous Jamaican night, our hardest, deepest most in the bone tradition lay elsewhere.

High WASPs revere delayed gratification.

So, holidays, we waited. We waited for Thanksgiving dinner, hungry, cracking nuts in the shell with those metal nutcrackers that look like lobster picks. We waited to be let go from the dinner table. When, we wondered, might we ask, “May I please be excused?”

We waited for our presents at Christmas. Like this.

  1. Wake up.
  2. Gawp at tree. Feel joy.
  3. Make sure everyone in the family is awake.
  4. Gather in the living room in jammies.
  5. Open stocking presents, of which there will be 6-7.
  6. Stop.
  7. Go make your bed, get dressed, wait for and then eat breakfast. Mom will have set the table.
  8. Regroup in the living room.
  9. Open tree presents in a somewhat excruciating process that involves a child finding and distributing one present to each person, everyone waiting to open until all had something, then all simultaneously opening and exclaiming. Rinse and repeat for all presents.
  10. Move on to food of some sort, and playing with loot. Most often, we’d regroup on the sofa with books.

Looking back, as one does – and one must use the term “one” a lot in High WASP culture – we see the combination of delayed gratification and final abundance as a powerful drug. This explains, perhaps, my persistent involvement with luxury and indulgence, and parallel lifelong intent to fulfill contracts.

It certainly explains our enduring rule – Nothing But White Lights Unless You’re Aiming For Irony. High WASP holidays, surfing over sentiment with irony and beauty, delaying gratification as best as ever we can.


BTW, you all know I’m not supposed to tell about this stuff, right? But you asked. And I’m a talker.

55 Responses

  1. It may amuse (or outrage) you to learn how similar festivities were for the English lower middle class!

    The only bit I would have to change would be that my grandmother was not the first generation to cook for herself – or perhaps she was the first generation not to have started off before marriage in service and cooking for someone else. I wonder whether it was in service that the lower middle class learned their strict rules for upward mobility?

  2. My family stayed at Jamaca Inn in the 60’s!…but Mother used kitchen bouquet in her gravy.

  3. I love #9 in your Christmas traditions. That was one of ours too, and I agree-it was indeed excruciating. I swore I’d never do that to my own children and I haven’t. As a result, our Christmases, when they were little, were a bit more boisterous and (to me) joyful. In any case, as usual, great post and Happy Thanksgiving.

    1. Confession – I’ve forced my own kids down the same waiting path;). But we do good stocking presents to balance.

  4. ” … Precision haircuts. We were tended to.” I love your writing, Lisa!

    I’m surprised at all the similarities between your childhood holidays and mine. My family was Irish Catholic, 10 kids, 3-bedroom, 1-bathroom house in Detroit, little money. And there certainly were not servants in the background. But we had food traditions, always the same holiday meals. My father, who never cooked, made the Thanksgiving pumpkin pies.

    Our Christmas mornings were just like yours, with only two exceptions. First, between opening stockings and eating breakfast came a very long Christmas mass (in those days, no eating before church). And presents were opened one at a time, with everyone watching and exclaiming over each present. It took a long time.

    I have never really been religious, but I loved those Christmas masses. There was a wonderful choir, and there were always two huge Christmas trees on either side of the altar, with blue lights. It was magical.

    We also had a great time buying presents for parents and siblings at Woolworths, dodging in and out of the aisles so that a certain sibling would not see his/her intended present. I once bought my mother a saucer, because I knew she loved pretty china. I didn’t realize that a saucer wasn’t a plate and needed a teacup. My mother loved that saucer and kept it for years.

    1. @Marie, Thank you. And I remember the first time I attended a Christmas I thought, “Hey! Singing and lights! Not half bad!” Your mom keeping the saucer is one of those stories to remember always.

  5. Lisa this is THE MOST WONDERFUL post. I’m sure I’m not the first one telling you this, but. You MUST write your memoirs. You must put this unusual and fascinating childhood in writing, if only to pass down to your own children. (And for our very enjoyment, obviously).

    1. @Marie-Ève, Thank you! The thing is, it didn’t seem unusual at the time! And it was fascinating in the way all children’s lives are fascinating to them. We just didn’t know we were different…

  6. Lisa, I so enjoyed reading this and can relate to so much of it. My mother used to color coordinate the wrapping paper each year. Yes, red and green, maybe some white, silver or gold but only 2 or 3 patterns were allowed, and 1 or 2 ribbon colors. Until my parents’ divorce, Christmas mornings were almost as ritualized as yours.

  7. I really must be sheltered, I thought this was how Christmas Day was for everyone.
    I’m the first to have to cook, loathe it, it holds no interest for me whatsoever.
    The Jamaica Inn – must see if mum still has pics, what a co incidence

    And yes to the red velvet coat, I wore mine with a white fur muff and matching bonnet – no wonder I have embraced sweats and trainers!

  8. #9, except one person at a time, so my mother could see your reaction. She’d earned that, shopping and wrapping and hiding and planning.

    And my father cooked (and still cooks) breakfast. You placed your order on the note pad on the kitchen table on Christmas Eve, before he read The Night Before Christmas to all of us. Until we were wayyyyy tooooooo old.

  9. I think of myself as “low” WASP (though I do have three Ivy League degrees and a summer house on the New England coast, so maybe I should re-consider that). But I have the “delayed gratification” gene and I have always been the one who could stretch decorating the Christmas tree to go on for 3-4 hours, Christmas Day itself to be really a whole day,… and as a child I made my Christmas candy last until Valentine’s Day. So I think “delayed gratification” (and “white lights unless you’re deliberately being ironic”) may indeed be the core of this culture. Or, at least, the core of what I share with you!

  10. I traveled over Christmas for the first time three years ago, meeting up with my brother for a long weekend in Singapore. A tropical weather Christmas defies all of my “white Christmas” memories, but it was wonderful to be able to spend the holiday with my brother.

    You mention “dressing for dinner” in passing. A family tradition, although now that my parents are gone, I am hopelessly outnumbered in hoping to preserve the sense of occasion.

  11. Our Christmas mornings when I was a child (and with our own children) were almost exactly the same as yours. The Stocking gifts, the Christmas breakfast, and then the opening of gifts one at a time. I love the one at a time gift opening. I will go so far as to say that I think this is the only proper way to open gifts! So yes, we still do this.

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I can only dream of wonderful holiday trips!

  12. Ooh, golly I don’t like this ‘one at a time’ present opening thing! My in-laws do this and I find it awkward because they get three or four times more presents from each other that I do from them (fair enough, I get presents from my family too). So I’m left sitting there with my small pile while they go on and on…

    Also, I don’t like opening my husband’s presents with an audience ‘cos I feel like I have to ‘perform’ our relationship. We tend to save one special gift to open at home with just the two of us.

    1. Eleanor Jane, one important part of the one at a time procedure is that everyone gets a fairly equal number of gifts! Otherwise, it is unseemly!

    1. @RoseG, For years, we went to the movies on New Year’s Eve, early, with another couple who also hated NYE parties. We’d have an early dinner afterward, and all be home by 9.

  13. We share some Christmas traditions like the silver candle holder, family linens, mom cooking and the long time waiting for the presents after the stockings and breakfast in our matching Christmas outfits that Mother sewedout of the remnants of fabric…that matched her newly made Xmas dress!
    I love that no matter what economic class one comes from memories are forged on the holidays…some good, some not so good.
    We usually had at least one tipsy adult in our midst!

    Whether memories involve travel or luxurious gifts or a hot meal in a church basement and a hamper donated by caring citizens who are extending a helping hand to a needy family they are our stories…
    Wishing you joy this Thanksgiving holiday.

    1. @hostessofthehumblebungalow, Yes, the universality of holidays and families is beautiful. We never did any helping of the disadvantaged as part of our traditions – we should have. My parents contributed and donated, quite strongly, but we kids were not involved.

  14. Great post. My husband was raised in the high-wasp tradition. I am Florida Cracker. The merging of the two was not without its challenges.

  15. I always smile when I hear about “high” Wasps. Makes me think of my relatives and ancestors after the 3rd Scotch.

    1. @Babette, Ha! Or, yah know, a midday sherry, pre-dinner tumbler of gin, one’s fair share of a bottle of wine, and post-prandial bourbon. A culture of super-powered livers.

  16. My parents were Irish immigrants so many of the details of a Boston Christmas were unusual and amusing to them. It was thet one time of the year when they were lighthearted and all the usual concerns about money were forgotten. Christmas mornings were a storm of wrapping paper and excitement. After a breakfast of chocolate and scones, it was off to Mass. My husband’s upbringing was WASPy and a bit dour. I know my mother-in-law hates what she considers my family’s “display” but really, it’s more an expression of love and generosity than simple consumerism. To each their own.

    1. @Rose, I couldn’t agree more. As long as the family is happy and no one is harmed, how on earth is there anything to judge?

  17. I love this post and it brings up lots of memories, both good and bad.
    What I remember most about Christmas’s past, as a firm tradition was Christmas Eve dinner in an English restaurant that no longer exists in LA. We had one huge table, with all my cousins, very dressed up, and a multi course traditional English Christmas dinner.
    We did also have the one gift at a time tradition which everyone but my mother found irritating.

  18. Adored this. You opened the kimono but have had the grace to be lovely, entertaining, intimate and insightful about an experience that is all your own. I read very word and loved it. I loved it ~ but maybe because I only use white lights on my tree too (but maybe because I’m half Swedish).
    I hope your Thanksgiving is lovely. Enjoy!

  19. Thank you! I was one who asked :)
    You write with such poetry, you paint such an evocative picture that goes beyond the obvious.
    Christmas in county Austraila? No waiting, or even breakfast that I remember as a kid! Hot weather and always new bathers (swimming costume) and a towel under the tree. Often an hours drive in the heat, sticking to the vinyl seats to our grandmothers.
    I so enjoy these essays.
    Thank you

  20. I deeply enjoyed this reminiscence and I really hope you tell us more about that grandmaman. As far as dressing for dinner, my teenage rebellion officially began when I refused to dress for Christmas dinner, 1967.

  21. I am incredibly nosy and I especially love hearing about money, so this was particularly enjoyable to read. Thanks for sharing!

  22. Your Christmas day tradition mirrors mine so closely! I remember standing with our faces against the glass panes of the French Doors going to our living room, waiting until the appointed hour when we could roust my parents. But that was a normal weekend or vacation routine, and I remember the pride I felt as eldest to watch the clock, push the button on the coffee percolation, and then lead the solemn procession to my parents bedroom, balancing cups of steaming coffee.

    The only other difference was that, once I was 9 or 10 or so, we were dropped off at the movie theater for the afternoon, with enough money to see the feature twice before being reclaimed. I am sure this was as much a treat for our parents as it was for us.

  23. We delayed gratification in exactly the same way Christmas morning. I was stunned–stunned!–the first time I spent Christmas morning opening gifts with my husband’s family, everyone tearing into everything at once, a chaotic binge of ripping and tossing, with no ribbons slipped off and rolled up, packages delicately opened along the seam, tape carefully slit so that maybe you could re-use the paper.

    Yesterday, we had one of the rare Thanksgivings at our home (husband’s sister has 4 kids, and we have none, so their house is the default), and as we were getting things to the table, I told my mom to taste my gravy, as I knew it was missing something but wasn’t sure what. She added Worcestershire sauce.

  24. Sounds incredibly similar to my family’s Christmas. I wouldn’t considered myself high WASP as my family settled in Virginia. However we always ended the late night Christmas Eve service beginning with candle light caroling followed by service. Before bed (even now all the children are in their 20s), my grandfather reads us the Night Before Christmas.

    We too opened stocking presents first and then our “pajamas”. My mom purchased everyone pajamas from LL Bean every year (the only pjs she’d buy for the year) and we’d change into those as opposed to clothes. Then we’d open presents, only one person can open a present at a time (which is lovely but with extended family in attendance, it takes forever). And we dine on my great grandmother’s wedding china.

    Holiday traditions are my favorite! Thank you so much for sharing :D

  25. I have to agree with Tabitha – I thought this was how Christmas was for everyone. I was in my 30s before I discovered otherwise. If someone had told me that my Mom wrote this I would have believed it.

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