Tradition is a powerful way to feel all seasons. Three summers ago, I started a routine claiming Park Point’s Lafayette Community Center bigLake beach as mine to swim in and write on three to five times a week. Regular visits to the same spot with friends or solo have lent specialness to knowing, familiar paths through shadowy tree tunnels and shallow patterns in sand.
Late every May, I make my first ride on the Munger trail. While I might battle patches of ice in unsunned spots left over from mean Minnesota snowstorms, these rides equal infinite hours of more easily worked leg muscles and connection to fresh air and wildness than winter’s icy walks. I’ve been cycling on the same stretch from west Duluth to Carlton now for seventeen years. Muscle memory is real as I climb around bends and under bridges, eagerness pulsing through me, I reach Porcupine Alley (nicknamed by me after spotting several spiny friends in birch branches) and the St Louis River where I bust open bananas, tear into blueberry energy bars, bite off beef jerky- sweaty, sticky, not quite spent.
The holiday season though offers something up that feels different. Indoor ritual holds room for less solitude, steady slowness, and more elbow to elbow activities with family. From birth until my late thirties, I celebrated every Christmas with the Swedish side of my blood. Lignon, Korv, potatoes and herring alongside a dozen plus relatives and tradition that came over with my great grandparents from the Ostergotland region of our Baltic Sea hugging Scandinavian country in the early 1900s was everything I knew. Plus respected and loved- even more so after realizing during post holiday story shares as early as elementary school most of my friends didn’t have anything that even compared in their families.
After decades of the beautiful same, everything about us coming together was held deeply by my cells, stomach, strong bones and beating heart. I knew place, people, our prepared feast like a great blue heron knows estuary, marsh, lagoon. The tradition was mine in ways that made me bigger, bolder, and beholden to the love of large family.
And time shifts paths, recreates even human watersheds. Four years ago, in Texas with my mom away from the extended family for Christmas for financial and creative reasons, we started something new. She visited her local butcher and bought out all the snow crab for us to enjoy like beasts. Part of this meal is sport. We start off refined. Stacking the spindly orange legs beside other delicious foods such as salad and roasted vegetables, stuffing and sweet potatoes, fennel and pomegranate. A day’s preparation has left us ravenous, tired and saucy. This meal waits for us though and we give hours to the celebration.
The first year we had none of the official implements of destruction so used a small hammer and ice picks. It was messy, hilarious, a lot of work! Every bite of meat we savored as we dipped the delectable seafood into butter and herbs. At ten pm, hours after we started crabbing, we finally rolled into dessert, piles of sharp shell in a metal bowl mid table next to sugary next steps.
Now every Christmas eve we look forward to our crab fest. My sister Alison joined us two years ago and has made the messy mid-winter spread her own too. Alison’s initiation was a personality test of sorts that December. As my mom and I moved from limb to limb, cracked and moaned and raved about the flavors in our mouths, we watched my sister unhinge each joint, white knuckle her entire half crab, eyes and mouth so singularly focused it was almost scary- and she didn’t add one ounce to table time conversation. Her countenance said, “Be gone every hard shell from the meat, you are mine!” Alison made a tower of white and peach flesh wine glass tall in the middle of her plate before taking even one bite. Years later, she’s much less methodical, willing to converse and proud to have joined the riff raff.
My mom’s best friend Michael, a brilliant Jewish womxn with a nasally, boisterous voice, crab fested with us the second year and said, “Never again! Too much damn work for so little edible end product.” We laughed and laughed about how while we’ve found something deliciously new and satisfying that works for us, it’s important to recognize others obviously want less strenuous cuisine to Christmas on.
As our New Year ripens, I smile at the memories my immediate family is creating one Christmas crab fest at a time. An all time favorite author of mine Jeanette Winterson writes about the power of tradition this time of year in her most recent book Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days. She says, “The point of ritual is that the sameness of it concentrates the mind. It’s why Jews, even non-observant Jews light the Shabbat candles very Friday. Ritual is a way of altering time. By which I mean a way of pausing the intrusion of busy life.”
Here’s to new, old, Christmas, pagan, Kwanzaa, Jewish, everything in-between rituals lighting up the dark, cold season, inside and out. And thanks to all crabs scurrying in warm places everywhere too.