The Christmas Gang

 

There is an ancient British tradition called Ganging, from the Anglo-Saxon word gangen, meaning ‘to go.’ For fifteen hundred years, in what evolved from a solemn prayer ritual, village folk would gather to go ‘beat the boundary.’ They walked all around the parish to impress upon the youngsters’ memories the place they called home.

 

Their elders dunked them in dividing streams, knocked their heads against bordering trees, and made them climb over the roofs of houses built across the line so they would never forget.

Our family has a gentler holiday tradition, a celebration as much as a reminder. Our Christmas tree is nothing like those featured in House Beautiful. It’s topped with a Star of David, as we also celebrate Hanukkah.

The oldest ornament, a cellulose umbrella, decorated my great grandmother’s tree. We carefully hang Grandma Rhea’s handmade ornaments, dioramas inside blown eggs dressed in velvet. My children’s contributions are made of Popsicle sticks, glitter, and clothespins. The marshmallow snowman has grown sticky and yellow, with a tiny bite taken on the sly from its backside, but it makes me smile, and bookmarks an era.

I hang up the key to the house where I grew up, and recall my childhood, running barefoot through the back alleys of Detroit. The little Polish dancer wears the same costume my dashing husband wore performing with his dance group Polanie. The glass pen celebrates the year my first book was published. A tiny guitar marks the year my husband broke his leg and, instead of sulking on the couch, taught himself to play guitar. It hangs near Eli’s tiny oboe, and Bea’s violin and clarinet. A small glass bottle contains ash from Mt. St. Helens, collected from my pants cuff in 1980, when I was caught bird watching in Eastern Washington during the eruption.

Each Christmas, we carefully remove our ornaments from their tissue paper cocoons. As we hang them on the tree, we retell the stories. It’s like a crazy quilt, where scraps of colorful memories are pieced together and, voila! E pluribus unum! From the contributions of individuals we have compiled a portrait of one family, and from the many generations we have pieced together one history.

Ganging, or beating the boundary, is a tradition that teaches children their limits and sets rigid boundaries. Instead of knocking our children’s heads against a tree, let’s invite them to help create an empowering communal story among the branches of the family tree, free of boundaries and limitations, celebrating their lives, so full of possibility.

All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck

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43 Comments

    1. Dear Nia,
      Thank you so much for the visit, and the very kind words. My son, who is living in Malatya, says that in Turkey New Year’s is a very celebrated event. I wish you the very best New Year ever!
      Love,
      Naomi

  1. I love how you have kept up all your traditions and decorations.
    When I was small, we did as well, but once my father passed away many years ago, things changed little by little, though still stayed pretty solid. When my mom passed away four years ago, we don’t celebrate Wigilia because it just won’t be the same.
    Happy Hanukkah and Happy New Year to you and yours. 🙂

    1. Dear Tess,
      I was so curious that I looked up Wigilia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wigilia) and learned about some fascinating Polish customs. My friend Dorota is Polish and was telling me a little about their Christmas Eve. I am so sorry about your mom, but you have some sweet memories to share with your grandchildren about your traditions and I happen to know that you are an EXCELLENT storyteller.
      Best wishes for the New Year–am looking forward to reading more of your adventures in China!
      Warmly,
      Naomi

      1. You’ve done my heart good today, Naomi. Thanks so much on all counts. My grandchildren remember my mom, even the younger one, then three, remembers visiting her in the hospice and we have lots of pictures around. ❤ ❤ ❤

  2. I no longer have a tree; the ornaments have experienced diaspora. I have another tradition of memory-keeping, though, with a new project coming out on my blog beginning Christmas Eve. Please stop by!

  3. Beautiful message. I love your tree ornaments! One thing I have enjoyed with my own family is coming up with some of our own small traditions that work well for us and the kids have come to love. Happy Holidays! 🙂

  4. Yep, your version of ganging is much more loving! Enjoy the holiday celebrations with your family and may you create many, many more such precious memories.

  5. you unwrap the true meaning of Christmas and since my husband is Jewish we also are lighting the candles that ignite the spirit of reclamation and the flame of re-dedication. Chag Sameach Naomi 🙂

  6. I love the idea of the old British tradition. How times have changed. 🙂 Your Christmas tree decorations are diverse and very meaningful. Thanks for the link to your Mt. St. Helens post. Wishing you and your lovely family a wonderful celebration. xx

  7. Great post Naomi – love the exposition on ‘beating the bounds’. I think some rural towns and parishes keep up the tradition – without half-killing the kids of course 🙂 Our family Christmases didn’t nod to family history at all though, I don’t think the Irish are sentimental in that sense.

  8. wonderful – thanks for the history and the personal sure – and still laughing…”Instead of knocking our children’s heads against a tree…” ha happy holidays to you

  9. So neat! We stopped decorating for Christmas a few years back—mainly because of my psychotic cat. When we moved here, we gave away our tree and most of our decorations. But I kept my oldest ornaments and have them in a safe place.

    1. Dear Cathryn,
      Thank you for the visit, and your warm response. I hope that your injuries from your fall are healing, and that you had a Merry Christmas. Best wishes for the New Year!
      Warmly,
      Naomi

  10. When I lived in Brighton and went to a High Anglican Church full of eccentrics, we used to go beating the bounds. Imagine it, walking around a parish boundary in a city, beating the pavements with sticks. We certainly got noticed, especially the vicar (or father, as he was called) in his cassock and cloak!

      1. I think that because most people haven’t heard of the custom, it made them extra intrigued by what we were doing. I know that several passers by asked us about it and, the vicar, being so extrovert and friendly, was very glad to tell them!

  11. I love your analogy of family as a patchwork quilt of history and individual memories. And i much prefer your beautiful tradition to the old British Ganging! 🙂 Season’s greetings dear Naomi, with much love, laughter and peace!

    1. Dear Madhu,
      Than you so much! Thank goodness time has softened the tradition. Sarah Potter says that her vicar still takes them around, but they beat the ground and not children with sticks.
      For you, dear friend, I wish you a Happy New Year filled with color and light and new adventures, resulting in amazing pictures and stories to share. I am sure that is one wish that will come true!

  12. This is a beautiful post. I have treasured trinkets too which I put on my tree each Christmas. They remind me of people, places and happy times. This year the tree did not appear as my husband had been in hospital and I have hardly been at home. I’ve missed the annual ritual ofdecorating it but was thrilled to see that my daughter, who now has 2 beautiful babies, has started to gather her own memories in tree ornaments- and so the circle of life goes on. Happy New Year to you.

  13. I love your holiday traditions! It’s amazing that you have ornaments from your great grandmother. How precious they must be!

  14. Naomi, what a marvelous tradition. I love that your ornaments are touchstones for telling stories and sharing memories. Although I lived in Britain for several years, I didn’t know the tradition of ganging. Thanks for filling in that gap in my knowledge base. Wishing you and yours a fabulous New Year! All the best, Terri

  15. I like the Star of David atop the tree. And the ornamental treasures that speak of lifetimes past and present. I will have to check out your birdwatching expedition interrupted by an eruption.

    1. Dear Patti,
      I wouldn’t be at all surprised if most people had trees with ornaments full of stories and histories. I remember my mother showing me the ornaments that were on her tree when she was little, and telling me all about this one and that one.
      Thanks so much for the visit and for your thoughtful response.

  16. “Instead of knocking our children’s heads against a tree, let’s invite them to help create an empowering communal story among the branches of the family tree, free of boundaries and limitations, celebrating their lives, so full of possibility.” An inspiring Holiday family tradition. Wish I read this sooner so I could have started something similar. I do still have a little tree which may turn out an all around year tree. It will have the decors of the current season or holidays starting with heart shape paper cut outs and have my son write little messages on it for Valentine’s Day. Beautiful home made ornaments and even more beautiful are the past stories and memories associated with each one. Thanks for sharing the joys and blessings of your wonderful family.

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