Someone asked me, “What do you miss most about your pre-nomadic life?”
There are easy and obvious answers: my friends, my family, having a stable home, going to my favorite restaurants. But the unique answer, and the one that kept me rooted in Massachusetts for so long, are my traditions.
Traditions are how I mark the seasons: I look forward to the one time a year when I can enjoy a certain place or activity. These aren’t “bucket list” events that I do once and then check off; given how few trips around the sun we each get, I don’t want to miss any of these annual opportunities.
And yet I am missing them — at least for now. I’ve put these long-lived traditions on pause in the hopes they’ll still be there, waiting for me, if and when I get back.
I used to perform in a lot of community theater: from 2001 to 2008, I appeared in 28 productions — that’s four a year! Musicals were my favorite, but I also enjoyed Agatha Christie murder mysteries, British farces, and Gilbert & Sullivan operas. I even appeared as an extra in films, both Hollywood and independent, as well as some local commercials.
This passion was born in high school, where my mentor Dave introduced me to the after-school program. Ten years later, he and I were teachers together, advising another school’s theater elective. I loved seeing the dedication and enthusiasm of the students, having been one myself.
That’s why I enjoy the annual Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild, a competitive festival in which dozens of local high schools perform 40-minute plays. The event is open to the public, and tickets are only $10 a day, which comes out to $1.25 per performance. While the preliminary rounds are of variable quality, the semi-final rounds demonstrate astonishing performances and set designs for such young actors. While the venue changes every year, each auditorium is always filled with an electric energy and earnest support from each school for their actors and their competitors. It reminds me what got me into theater in the first place.
I matriculated at a college that had no musical theater; there was music, and there was theater. I opted for the former, joining the men’s glee club, where I eventually became its secretary and then president.
While the glee club was open to all, membership in its a cappella subset was by audition only. I auditioned all four years and never got in. (Years later, I would often get the only non-singing role in the community musicals I auditioned for.)
But that was okay, because even though I didn’t get to sing a cappella, I still got to listen to it. Now I do so at the Harmony Sweepstakes, an annual opportunity to hear a cappella outside the collegiate environment, featuring bands of one or many genders, a few singers or a few dozen. While the judges tend to favor the barbershop quartets, for me it’s about the journey, not the destination. Hearing both original and cover songs performed a cappella always leaves a smile on my face and eager to get to the groups’ merch tables in the lobby to go home with some new recordings to listen to.
Jaffrey, New Hampshire, is home to the world’s most-climbed mountain. Mount Monadnock offers several routes to the granite peak, where a clear day presents views of four New England states. It’s this view, along with the promise of our own packed lunches, that keep us going.
Every year, my friend Johanna and I recruit friends to join us on our annual ascension. Although it’s not a particularly tall mountain, it nonetheless has some challenging segments; making it to the top proves to ourselves that, although we are getting older every year, there are some things we can still do.
Cinco de Mayo
Every year, I take Cinco de Mayo off from work. I take myself out for breakfast or ice cream, go for a bike ride or a hike, visit the local sauna for a dip in the hot tub, see the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and whatever else I want to treat myself to.
The day culminates in a Cinco de Mayo party, in which my friends and I shoot pool, go bowling, and eat pizza. It’s this gathering that makes May 5th my favorite day of the year Those who are most important to me, whether I see them every week or just this one time a year, show up. Depending on what day of the year Cinco de Mayo falls on, sometimes it’s just a dozen folks; but in 2016, when my dad had passed away just two months earlier, my friends knew, without saying a word, to show up in droves, reminding me how much love and support I have in my life.
I don’t mean to be macabre, but I think the only times in my life I’ll ever have that many loved ones in one room are Cinco de Mayo and my funeral. I’m very glad to be present for at least one of those occasions.
Have I mentioned ice cream? I love ice cream. So much so that I don’t keep it in the house, lest it disappear with rapidity. But just as important as the food is the experience: I love ice cream stands where you go up to a window to place an order with a high school kid working a summer job who will hand you a cone in the hopes you’ll tip them toward their college fund.
My three favorite places to get ice cream are Cherry Hill in Lunenburg, Massachusetts; the Kellerhaus in Laconia, New Hampshire; and the Scooper Bowl in Boston, Massachusetts. The latter is a fundraiser for the Jimmy Fund, where you pay a fee to enter an all-you-can-eat ice cream buffet. A dozen different ice cream brands offer single-serving cups of their three favorite flavors, making for 36 different kinds of ice cream. It’s decadent and indulgent and nauseating and I love it.
Another annual charity event, the Bike-A-Thon raises money for Bikes Not Bombs, a non-profit that uses bicycles as a vehicle for social change. This non-competitive ride offers multiple routes, with costumed cyclists stopping at rest stops that have a party-like atmosphere. The finish line includes a vegetarian buffet, musical bands, potato sack slides, and more. It’s a great kickoff to my cycling season.
Fourth of July
I love fireworks as much as an adult as I did as a kid. It’s not just seeing them, but hearing and feeling them that excites me. Standing on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, watching the fireworks launch from between the Longfellow and Mass Ave. bridges, I can feel their explosions resonate through me, leaving me in awe. Add in the wonderful music of the Boston Pops, and it’s as patriotic an event as I can imagine.
I share a hometown with John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed. He spent most of his life growing apple orchards in the Ohio River Valley Area, but it’s nonetheless a point of civic pride for his hometown to have an orchard of its own.
When that orchard went up for sale in 2000, the city was concerned it would be purchased by a developer who would value profit over heritage, plowing the orchards under and building condominiums. So the city itself held a fundraiser and bought the orchard. It now operates as the non-profit Sholan Farms.
Once Sholan Farms opens for the season, I go there almost every weekend, picking apples from the trees. Any other fruit I’ll buy from the grocery store year-round, but with apples, I limit myself to those that I handpick — not because I’m a snob, but because having apples only four months a year makes me appreciate them and my hometown all the more.
When paired with nearby Sholan Farms, a trip to the Davis Megamaze makes for a quintessential autumn weekend in New England. This local farm grows a new corn maze every year, and it’s structured in a way that the old “run your hand along the outer wall” trick doesn’t work. With themes ranging from dinosaurs to James Bond to UFOs and puzzles and riddles hidden throughout, the maze is a silly way to get lost with friends for a few hours.
For me, Thanksgiving means inviting loved ones into your home, sharing food you each made, and basking in the glow of each other’s company afterward.
In a restaurant, you are surrounded by strangers, eating mass-produced and impersonal food (with rarely a satisfying vegetarian entrée), and then being rushed out to make room for the next reservation.
That’s how the family I was born into prefers to celebrate the event. So to ensure I still have a holiday worth celebrating, I host my own Thanksgiving with the family I’ve chosen. My Friendsgiving always includes a Celebration Roast with gravy, my famous sweet potato casserole, and too many pies and desserts, followed by board games, movies, or whatever else that year’s crowd is up for. Friends show up early to help set the table and stay late to wash dishes. It’s an intimate affair that reminds me how fortunate I am to have a strong, loving community.
Oh, Keith Lockhart. How do I love thee? Every December, he conducts the Boston Pops orchestra in a variety of Christmas and Hanukkah songs — not just the traditional “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” sing-alongs, but classical and unusual pieces as well. Every year, I hear a piece I’ve never heard before, whether it’s an unearthed symphony or the Pops’ original rendition of “Twelve Days of Christmas”. And let’s not forget that “Sleigh Ride” was a Boston Pops original, too!
As much as I love the music, I confess that it’s the inevitable arrival of Santa Claus that puts the biggest grin on my face. No matter your age, how can you not delight in that elf’s cherubic cheeks and jovial laugh?
New Year’s Eve
Early in the millennium, I realized I’d spent three of the last six New Year’s Eves home, alone and asleep, recovering from surgery. It was a lousy tradition — so I set out to create a new one.
But my options felt limited: I don’t drink alcohol, I’m not a fan of huge parties, I don’t want to be on the road after midnight, and I didn’t always have someone to celebrate with.
Fortunately, there was one activity that accommodated all those limitations: contra dancing. This New England alternative to square dancing pairs you with a different partner every dance, so there’s no need to show up with someone. There’s no smoke, alcohol, or fragrances. There’s live music and allergy-free snacks. And the Concord Scout House, one of the country’s premiere contra dance venues, hosts an annual New Year’s Eve dance that runs 8 PM to 1 AM, with rooms available afterward across the street at the Concord Colonial Inn.
Whether I’m making new friends or seeing familiar faces, the dance floor has always been a lively place filled with generous people with whom to ring in the New Year. It’s a safe space in which to bid adieu to one year and welcome another.
While the pandemic has certainly complicated my travels, in some ways, it’s made for a good year to be away from home: the METG, Harmony Sweepstakes, Scooper Bowl, and Bike-a-Thon have all been cancelled or postponed. For the sake of the hosting organizations and all those who benefit from them, I wish that wasn’t the case — but I can selfishly appreciate that at least I’m not missing anything.
And for those events that I am missing, I can take advantage of the break from tradition. I didn’t get to climb Mount Monadnock or celebrate Cinco de Mayo with my friends; instead, I combined those activities to spend the fifth of May hiking to Mount Rushmore.
Change is inherently neither good nor bad; it needn’t be either feared or embraced. But expanding one’s horizons and going outside one’s comfort zone is the good kind of change. For me to explore beyond Massachusetts meant forsaking, at least temporarily, the routines I’d developed and loved over the last twenty years. In the short term, that’s a tradeoff worth making.
What are your favorite annual traditions that you would miss the most? Let me know in the comments!