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.
- Wake up.
- Gawp at tree. Feel joy.
- Make sure everyone in the family is awake.
- Gather in the living room in jammies.
- Open stocking presents, of which there will be 6-7.
- Go make your bed, get dressed, wait for and then eat breakfast. Mom will have set the table.
- Regroup in the living room.
- 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.
- 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.