Gingerbread and nerf guns and spaghetti, oh my!

A few weeks back I had a little holiday rant of sorts.  Truth is, this time of year is hard for me, filled as it is with ghosts of Christmases past.

great-grandma and young girl at christmas

Grace with my grandma, who's no longer here to share Christmases with us.

4 generations of girls at christmas

The photo quality is poor, but I treasure this 4-generation shot taken more than 10 Christmases ago.

I grew up in a big tangled web of family, and holidays were busy, noisy, and fun.  It’s not like that so much now. Many of those family members who made those first holidays are gone.  I live hours away from the extended family I have left. Because I need to share the holiday with my kids’ dad, I can’t really get to where my larger family is.

For some time now, my holidays have been pretty quiet and small.

quiet family christmas dinner

A very nice time together at Christmas last year, but a much smaller and quieter one than those I grew up with.

Except for one part:  The Gingerbread Party, which is coming up soon.

A tradition is born…

Like the best traditions, it happened by chance.  Jeanne, Lisa, and I were teaching in the same school, and we have kids roughly the same age.  We decided it would be really fun to make gingerbread houses over Christmas break with all the kids.  We invited Jeanne’s sister Donna (and son Donny) to join us.

Us moms researched how to make gingerbread houses and homemade egg nog, and settled on the kits you can buy at the grocery store and the stuff you buy in the carton.  (Just so you know what kind of moms we are.  Not Martha wannabes.)

We piled into Jeanne’s big old Portland house with her horrible kitchen (a bad reno in the 70s with bright green and fake wood and Holly Hobbie shelf paper) and made my Grandma’s spaghetti sauce and drank wine and helped the kids glue together the gingerbread-like slabs of brown stuff that came in those boxes from the grocery store.  They ate too much candy and we ate too much spaghetti, and when a piece of roof slid off the house of our most perfectionistic child and we all held our breath and gesticulated wildly with our eyes in a futile effort to not draw her attention to it, the chaos that ensued was the kind of you-had-to-be-there moment that still cracks us all up.

And so we decided it needed to become an annual event.  Both Lisa and I wanted our children to have some tradition to share with other kids that they weren’t going to get from their families of origin.  I loved playing Pong and 31 and Yahtzee with my cousins, swilling pop and eating cookies and laughing until we snorted the pop through our noses. And we wanted our kids to have some of that.  (C’mon, you know snorted pop is a bonding agent…)

We wanted, when they are all grown up, for our kids to have in their lives a circle of adults who’ve watched them grow.  Our dream is that when all the kids are older, they’ll moan and groan and laugh about the gingerbread party and be really glad we did it. 

We decided that if we didn’t quite have the family we wanted, we’d make some.  Sort of.  And that it would be better than nothing and more than good enough.  And it has been.

The location has rotated, but it doesn’t much matter where we have it.  Last year, the party was at my house because we knew it would be my last year there.  This year, it’s at our house again because we haven’t had any kind of official housewarming.  (I’m guessing Jeanne will be host next year, because she’s finally getting that awful kitchen renovated!) While our tradition is morphing as time goes on (as they all do), there are some things I know for sure we’ll have:

Gingerbread houses that reveal so much about each of our children.

graham cracker gingerbread house with path and pond

Ella's house with a gumdrop-lined path and a pond for skating. (The houses became way more cool and creative when we ditched the packaged kits for graham crackers.)

tall gingerbread house

Will's urban renewal house--made out of leftovers from the other kids' houses.

5 story gingerbread house

Last year Grace was determined to have the biggest house (she did).

 Lots of food and laughter.

pot with ingredients for making spaghetti sauce

We usually have my great-grandma's spaghetti, a staple of my childhood Christmases. She came here from Croatia when she was a teenager, and we called it Slav spaghetti. It includes bacon, cinnamon, and ginger. Sounds weird, I know, but it's yummy and nothing else smells more like home to me.

table full of kids behaving badly

They're not really cousins, but they sure behave like family. Well, my family, anyway.

A nerf gun war.

(We have boys, OK?  And girls who’ve got good aim!)

man holding nerf gun

You can't take the boy out of the man if there are Nerf guns around.

girl pointing nerf gun at camera

As my mom likes to say, the nut doesn't fall far from the tree.


Not like the year Grace was obsessed with Taylor Swift and we heard the Romeo and Juliet song 83 times.  But there will be music.

A craft.

We’ve had to do a craft ever since the year Lisa brought perlers.  This year we’re going to try decorating sugar cookies, which isn’t really a craft, but…it will satisfy those who find it so wrong that we can’t eat the houses.  (If you want to get started with your own perlers, check this out.)

Christmas ornament made out of perler beads

salamander ornament made out of perler beads

Who says a gecko isn't Christmasy?

An evolving tradition

Another feature of the best traditions:  It evolves over time.  This year, we’re branching out a bit, which seems fitting in this year of doing things differently and fixing them up. Our gingerbread party sure isn’t broken, but we’re tinkering with it. What’s new?

We’re expanding our circle.

As Cane wrote earlier this week, we’re on a quest to find our people, and we’re inviting some folks we think would fit right in with our “family.”  Neither actually lives in Gresham, but they are geographically close enough.

We’re expanding our focus.

We aren’t sure if our holiday gala should only be about food, candy, wine, and foam bullets–so we’re planning to put together a food basket for Sno-Cap, a local organization that provides food for families in our city.  Snow-Cap gives out over 1000 food boxes each month, and 47% of the people who eat from them are children.

Why expansion is a good thing

For me, expanding our focus is helping me deal with those holiday blues.  I’ll admit it:  Looking through old photos to find some for this post made me cry.  I miss the grandparents (and others) I’ve lost.  I miss the babies my children once were.  I’m sad that this year I can’t physically get to others I love who are still alive.

But as I looked at those photos, I realized that when some of those were taken, I didn’t fully appreciate what I had.  How fortunate are we that we’ve met new people in the last year that we like and care enough about to ask them to join in our fun?  How fortunate are we that we can feed ourselves and our children, when at least 1000 families in our community can’t?  (I know you know those are rhetorical questions.)

I know that I will always miss those people and things from the past that will remain forever in the past.  But I hope I can keep my eyes focused on what I’ve got right in front of me, here and now.

grandpa and grand-daughter building a gingerbread house

My favorite photo from last year: Luci and her grandpa working on her house.

 How about you?

What are your favorite traditions?  Do you get the holiday blues?  And what do you do about them?

Drop us a line in the comment box.  We’d love to hear from you.