I have a fondness for familyisms. These are the quirky things — the habits, the humour, the turns of phrase — that make families unique.
Familyisms are the inside joke. They’re the glue that bonds a cohort of related people who may not otherwise get along all the time or, as adults, see each other often. My growing-up familyisms regularly turn up in my fiction in ways that delight my siblings, who figure they have an insider’s view of anything I write (and they often do).
My own kids, now adults, contributed to my growing collection of familyisms. Some examples are universal, the way a toddler trying to say “spaghetti” makes us laugh, and then we all start staying it that way. To this day, it’s not windy, it’s wind-ing (which makes sense if you’re three). Others of our collected familyisms, like the Christmas snakes, come with more of a story.
I’d forgotten about the Christmas snakes until I decided to transfer our Christmas ornaments to a more stable cardboard box than the disintegrating carton I’d been using for decades. There, tucked under the bottom flap, was a mouldering s-shape sporting the faintest of stripes, looking like a desiccated worm.
It was a Christmas snake. And it took me right back.
That year my kids would have been four, five and nine. It was an early, cold winter, and one dark afternoon we were in the glow of a warm kitchen, making things. I had mixed up a batch of baker’s clay. We were making shapes — snowmen, candy canes — which we would bake and then paint with bright acrylic paints to hang on the tree.
Annika, the youngest, was rolling long shapes and lining them up carefully on the baking sheet.
“What are those?” I asked her.
“Christmas Snakes, Mum,” she said, rolling a new one.
“What are Christmas Snakes?”
“You know — like the song.”
She looked up when I didn’t say anything and caught me staring at her quizzically.
“—So be Good for Christmas Snakes. Dad sings it.”
“Of course he does,” I said.
Her father was always changing words to fit his own unique lexicon, and with his personal brand of humour. In fact, he might have been the one responsible for wind-ing. It was often hard to tell.
We all began singing Santa Claus is Coming to Town with the new lyrics, then. I convinced Annika to curve her snakes into s-shapes, so they’d hang better on the tree. Her brothers got into the spirit of it, and we all made Christmas Snakes that year — in fact, our tree was festooned with them. Painted up with stripes and polka dots, they looked pretty festive, too.
I’d forgotten about the Year of the Snakes, and so I was grateful for that stowaway in the bottom of the box. I hope that my kids will make Christmas Snakes with their kids some day. But most likely they’ll be busy building new familyisms — which is how it should be.
Basic Baker’s Clay
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup salt
1 1/2 cups water
Mix the flour, salt and water. Knead dough until smooth. Roll out dough and cut into desired shapes. Bake at 350 degrees F for 1 hour. Once cool, these shapes can be painted. For ornaments, you may want to poke a hole to pass a thread through for hanging (snakes, properly arranged, hang themselves).
This feature will run every Friday in the Nelson Star until Christmas