‘Tis the season for family, food, and celebration… so basically all the best things in life. For me, this will be my first ever Christmas away from my family and for that reason I can’t help but to think about what defines my usual Christmas season—from my family’s typical holiday schedule to our non-negotiable traditions. For me, that starts with the Franklin Silver Cornet Band, in which my mother plays, and their annual concert on Black Friday to kick off season with classic and catchy holiday tunes which I continue listening to until Christmas itself. I also always look forward to my high school’s annual Christmas concert, especially when alumni are invited to join the already large choir at the front of the auditorium to sing Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” With a strong and proud Polish heritage from my mother’s side, I crave blessed oplatki, pierogi, and other foods in all shades of brown for our Christmas Eve dinner after mass as well as our unique and customized Christmas stockings. When I’m surrounded by my dad’s side of the family, I can’t help but laugh at everyone’s stories and antics, no matter how many times I’ve heard them. With both sides of my family, I enjoy movies, conversation, laughter, prayer, and the general atmosphere of love that never fails to arise and comfort me.
These reflections and more made me realize how grateful I am for our Christmas rituals and Catholic faith, but also how curious and excited I am to be in Israel this holiday season, particularly to partake in Hanukkah traditions alongside our Jewish brothers and sisters. Furthermore, this made me interested in learning more about others’ favorite holiday traditions, because I realized that since holidays this time of year are very family-oriented, we don’t usually learn too much about what other families and cultures deem as “typical.” Therefore, I have asked other women from across the country to share their favorite aspects of the holiday season. Whether you adopt or simply appreciate their traditions, I hope that this glimpse into others’ holidays fills you with as much joy as it did for me.
Aryssa, Washington DC resident from Kentucky:
I went to college over 700 miles away from home and now live about six hours away, so Christmas is often the only time I really see my family—especially my extended family, aunts, and uncles. Therefore, we really try to be present on Christmas day. I didn’t realize it until recently, but one tradition that really sticks out to me is that my Uncle Charlie plays Santa, in that he passes out the gifts, and we go around and everyone opens one gift at a time while everyone else watches. This makes the day go a bit longer, in the best way, and keeps everyone actively engaged. You get to talk and joke about gifts, talk about where you found things, your thinking behind the gift, et cetera. It’s a really communal experience that makes the gift-giving process feel more intentful than just the giving of more stuff. It’s pretty easy to institute this at your own house, especially if you don’t have super little kids who are eager beavers and get way more gifts than anyone else. I usually volunteer to spend some time that morning, while breakfast is being prepared and digested, organizing the gifts by recipient around the tree in piles that will make it easy to see who is getting what and helps the “Santa” do his job without losing his mind.
Caroline Craig, North Carolina:
Christmas has always been my favorite time of year because it means family time! I’m fortunate enough to live close to 85% of my family so I get to see everyone during this time. Christmas Eve means Christmas Eve dinner with my whole extended family. We open gift and head to church. I’ve always loved the Christmas Eve service and I cry every year because it’s the most wonderful reminder of why we celebrate. On Christmas morning, the party begins with opening gifts with my immediate family. At about noon, my extended family and whoever doesn’t have a place to go for the holiday come over for a whole day of food, family, and games. We play board games and corn hole. But the newest tradition is our food. We now do an oyster roast every year and we love it. My cousin’s husband roasts our oysters and once they’re done, we all stand around a custom made table and shuck our oysters and throw them back. We watch my cousin’s son play with his new toys and it’s just the best day. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day mean the world to me and I can’t wait for this year (even though I’m getting married 4 days before!)
Leah Segal, Pennsylvania:
Living in an interfaith household, my favorite holiday tradition is preparing for both Hanukkah and Christmas. I love celebrating my Jewish faith by attending services, preparing latkes, and lighting the menorah. I still remember the feeling of pure joy when I was finally old enough to light the “helper” shamash candle, which serves as the candle to light all others. Taking part in this tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation of Jewish people is extremely humbling and beautiful. However, being able to share in my mom’s Christmas traditions (decorating the Christmas tree and filling stockings) is such a heartwarming experience. Even though it can be a bit hectic fitting two celebrations into one house, it has made me appreciate traditions different than my own as well as the importance of sharing your faith with those you love.
Frances Floresca, Utah:
Every year I love going to see the lights in Downtown Salt Lake as well as going to a Christmas Eve Candlelight Service. Growing up, I fondly remember performing with the International Children‘s Choir for holiday concerts and being required to put on a music performance in order to open presents. For me, the Christmas season means watching White Christmas and other movies on Netflix whilst sipping on warm and eating popcorn. I also love to go caroling with friends and family. Since I’m from Utah, this means that shoveling a lot of snow has become another holiday pastime, but I really enjoy decorating around the house. My favorite tradition though has to be packing shoeboxes for Operation Christmas Child, and seeing where the boxes go and which children get them!
Natalia Castro, Florida:
Christmas is my favorite time of year for many reasons, but the traditions my family maintains are the primary. In typical Latino style, my family puts more emphasis on Christmas Eve than Christmas Day. Every year our extended family comes together for a late dinner and Christmas Eve party where we stay up until midnight to ring in the holiday together. Once midnight hits, my dad goes outside to “watch the reindeer” and Santa enters to present everyone with their first present of the season. All the kids take turns sitting on Santa’s lap, pledging their good behavior, and telling him what they want. As a kid, this was the most magical experience and the best part of sharing it with the family is watching the next generation light up as Santa enters the room with a big bag of toys and treats. The festivities tend to last hours, but my immediate family always returns home late that night to put on our matching pjs and eat some of the cookies we spent the week baking and decorating.
Christmas Day starts by completing the nativity scene which has had all figures assembled except the baby Jesus since the start of Advent. We say a prayer and place the small figure of baby Jesus into his mother’s arms. After the nativity is set, we eat breakfast, go to Christmas mass, and return to open presents!
When we return, we tap into other elements of our family heritage. Before my mom and her parents immigrated to the United States from Argentina, their family history stretched back to Italy and Spain. So for Christmas Day Dinner we make homemade pasta and seafood. After presents and church, it is an all day, all hands on deck event. My grandparents take the lead on cooking and tell us stories of the generations of Italian and Argentinian family members who have rolled out the pasta in a similar way. Once the pasta is done, it is added to a seafood sauce. Since my family moved to Florida, the seafood is often freshly fished by family and friends, a new tradition that I hope to continue. We are often left with mountains of leftover seafood so the day after Christmas Day, my family makes a huge Paella- a traditional yellow rice and seafood dish from Spain. This gives us another day of stories about “the old country,” good food, and family time.
Elysse Brenner, Oklahoma:
I grew up my whole life in Oklahoma, my family was stationed there with the military and never left. All of our family lives up north. So every Christmas, my parents, 2 siblings, and I pack up the car with luggage and presents and set out to drive 18 hours to Michigan. Once in Michigan, we spend a few days on the farm with my grandparents and 9 cousins on my moms side. Then we set out down to Ohio (5 hours) where we see my nana and 2 cousins on my dads side. Then after a few days there we drive 13 hours home with the car filled to the brim with all our new presents. This has been my family’s tradition since my parents were first married and I cannot imagine it ending any time soon no matter how old the grandkids get. The Christmas time means reconnection and love in my family.
Olya Chepurko, Florida:
When I was a little girl in Ukraine, Christmas came in January. After the passing of the New Year, we would decorate trees with candy and were allowed to have one piece from the tree each day. My favorite memory is going caroling and receiving oranges from our old neighbors (oranges were a rare and expensive fruit during winter months). We did not exchange presents; instead, my mom would go with the church and get presents for orphaned and sick kids who were in the hospital. After moving to America, and being blessed with many opportunities, my sister and I went back to Ukraine after 15 years to follow in my mom’s footsteps and bring presents to the orphanages and the children’s hospital in the city that I was born in. When I have my own children, I hope to pass these traditions down to them.
Erin Staley, North Carolina:
From a young age, my parents instilled in my brother and I the importance of celebrating the true meaning of Christmas. Because our Christmas has always been focused on the birth of Jesus, my brother and I wrote our lists to Santa but with a bit of a twist. We asked for three gifts as the Wise Men brought Jesus three gifts. It has always been a joke that there’s no reason why we should ever get more than Jesus did! In addition, the Christmas season should be about giving instead of receiving. Thus, my brother and I always include a gift for the less fortunate on our Christmas lists. This usually is in the form of an animal for a family overseas through Samaritan’s Purse. (This is also a great gift to give the person on your list who already has everything!) The emphasis that was placed on being thankful and giving back during the Christmas season is a tradition that restores the joy involved in Christmas and is something that I hope to carry on in my own family someday.
Liana Imparato, New Jersey:
Christmas season is a favorite for my family and me. During Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Savior-Deliverer to the world. This is central to my family’s Christmas traditions; we make sure to celebrate alongside those who share in the joy of this history-changing reality. As a fully Italian family, food is another key element to our celebration. We serve a hearty dinner on Christmas Eve (my favorite holiday of the year!) after attending an evening church service, and follow with a night spent together by the fireplace. On Christmas Day, we do the same. The religious meaning behind Christmas is fundamental to my family’s celebration traditions, and we aim to also stay true to our Italian roots as we do it.
Kyasia Benjamin, Georgia:
One of my favorite holiday traditions is helping my aunt and nana cook. From cheesecake, collard greens, ham, turkey, stuffing, chicken, mac and cheese, candied yams, and so much more, it has become my favorite thing about the holidays. We always start a week beforehand preparing everything and end up cooking until the very last minute. The one thing that you learn in my family is that if you help cook, then you get to taste the food before the big day. I’ve been helping cook since I was about 4 and it’s something I look forward to every single year. Last year we got the chance to bring my little nephew in on it, even though he just tried to eat everything more than help. Since I help out every year, I am the only grandchild in my family that knows all of the family recipes.
Georgia Gallagher, Colorado: