It’s been said that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

The same, I think, can be said for traditions. It would be lovely if you’ve established a few over the years, and that your life is richer for the experience. But if you’re lamenting the fact that you don’t have enough of them in your life, well then, there’s no time like the present.

They are powerful things, traditions. The right ones, the ones that lend a positive force to your life, can actually kindle images of the special people and events that have made your life particularly sweet or poignant. Because the human mind is so fantastically wired, repeating the simplest of acts can kindle images of these beloved people and treasured times.

Especially traditions centered around the holidays. It could be the making of your Great Aunt’s turkey dressing recipe, or the first night’s lighting of the beautiful menorah passed down through the family, or the hanging of an ornament on the Christmas tree. Each act will inevitably trigger a cascade of comforting memories. For me, an essential tradition each December is the making of my grandmother’s Scottish shortbread. It just wouldn’t feel like Christmas without it. Even though I can certainly do with less mess in my life.

Indeed, at a time of year when we are all teetering on the edge of chaos there is many a household that will forgo making and sharing whatever recipes define that family. And that’s a shame. You see, if I had one wish for the holidays, it would be to travel back in time to sit at one more family dinner surrounded by my loud, lively, and oh-so-loving relatives now gone. And with that impossibility as my goal, the very least I can do is make the food that had meaning to us then and share it with those who mean the world to me now.

So I still make my Christmas shortbread by hand, even though a food processor would make the task much easier. And of course, it always lands me back in the family kitchen on Paloma Avenue where I feel the warmth of Grandma Skinner’s hands guiding me through the process. And then I share it with my expectant relatives who are also invested in its significance.

Remember, food and wine over the next few weeks should be designed to pull friends together, so keep it manageable. My mother lived by a simple rule when it came to hosting: The meal is never more important than the people eating it.

She also believed in not fretting the small stuff. We’re entering into that time when good intentions are sort of hard to follow through on. Wishing we could capture the holiday spirit is one thing. But realistically speaking, when opportunities come along, most of us are approaching total meltdown. So try to remember that the magic, hope, and joy of the season is all around us. We just need to slow down. Take a breath. Listen. Then set some time aside to break bread with the folks you really care about, at a time of year when we’re all buoyed with the feeling that anything is possible.

Making traditions

With that in mind, instead of frantically revising your to-do list to accommodate one more event this season, do not second guess the value of any of the following:

• Family time around the table.

• A midnight cup of cocoa with your home-from-college youngster.

• The boxes of homemade fudge (or pickles! or peanut brittle!) you are mailing to your string of relatives living far from home.

• Cooking with your kids and grandkids.

• Simple gatherings with good friends.

• Sharing a Thermos of hot soup with your best friend at the top of a nearby peak.

• Stringing popcorn and cranberries with kids — any kids.

• Making soup and inviting friends over, or...

• Making hot cocoa and inviting friends over, or...

• Making hot buttered rums and inviting friends over (recipe follows).

• Showing up on your friends’ doorsteps and giving them something little-but-festive, such as a jar of Easy Chocolate Truffle Sauce (recipe follows), or a hug.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at or find additional recipes and food tips on her blog at