Discussion: What Holiday Traditions Do You Have in Your Home?

Whether it's the "Seven Fishes" or the "Elf on a Shelf," what traditions have lasted over time in your family's home?

Peggy Barresi
Thank goodness my kids were no longer little when the “Elf on a Shelf” phenomenon hit. When my husband Andrew and I married, we merged two sets of varied and rich cultural Christmas traditions. Then, we added our own. Having to find a hiding place for a stuffed elf every night would have definitely put me over the edge. 

Andrew’s family celebrates Christmas Eve with the Italian seven fish dinner. I’m pretty sure we incorporate more than seven types of seafood, including lobster, based on the yearly food coma that follows. His family also did the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” where each kid found a small treat in his stocking during the 12 days between Christmas and January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany. This feast is also known as Three Kings Day in the Latino world. 

On the night of January 5, children all over Spain and Latin America leave grass out for the Kings’ camels. Each of the Kings, or Three Wise Men, leaves a gift for the children to find in the morning. So, my kids get gifts starting on Christmas Day, extending through the 12 Days of Christmas, and culminating in Three Kings Day on January 6. Seriously. 

Of course, we started our own family traditions as well. When we were first married, Andrew and I began collecting Christmas ornaments. We favor large glass spheres with funky or artistic designs. We’ve written the year of acquisition on each ornament, dating back to 1989. I also made an advent calendar when Leah was a baby. It’s shaped like a tree and every day a new ornament gets hung on it. The girls take their advent duty very seriously, and have devised an odd/even day system where each gets to hang the Christmas Eve ornament in alternating years. The system is too complicated for me, so this is absolutely their tradition. 

One year, we thought we’d try cutting down our own tree. My oldest daughter, Leah, decided this, too, would become a tradition, so every year we make the trek out to a tree farm. This year, with Leah in college and the rest of the family laid up with a cold, poor Andrew went by himself and sent Leah a photo of the tree from his phone for her approval. She was fast asleep in her dorm room and did not respond. God forbid we had bought the tree from the Boy Scouts down by the Lake, though. Traditions are sacred in my family. They are the glue that binds us together each holiday season, the little things to which we look forward with great anticipation. I make fun of Leah’s attachment to our traditions, but the truth is I wouldn’t give them up for anything! 

A tradition I’ve sadly had to leave behind is the Puerto Rican parranda. This is where a group of people with instruments (pots and pans will do in a pinch) get together around midnight and create a very loud serenade/commotion outside an unsuspecting friend’s home until everyone in the house wakes up. The victims invite the group in, offer drinks and food, get dressed, and join them as they go on to the next house. The parranda lasts until dawn, where at the last house, the hosts make a chicken and rice stew for everyone. Whadda ya say, Wakefield neighbors? Should we start a new tradition? 

Laurie Hunt
It can be a lot of fun combining and creating family traditions. 

Santa does not wrap presents at our house; this is how it was for me growing up. Every year we must have a chocolate cream pie – just like my husband had at Christmas. I always take my girls to visit Santa at the Burlington Mall for a photo and each year I go to the Gingerbread Construction Company on Christmas Eve to pick up muffins for Christmas morning. 

My Nativity scene is a collection started by my Grandmother who gave my husband and I Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus for a wedding gift and then added to for birthdays and Christmas. Each year the Baby Jesus is blessed at Mass the week prior to Christmas. Our tree is decorated with ornaments we collect each time we visit Disney – since my husband and I were dating. My children decorate our tree each year and there are spots that have too many ornaments and others that don’t have enough - it makes me smile every time I look at it. We put out cookies for Santa and carrots for his reindeer on Christmas Eve. The wreath I proudly hang is made of cutouts of mine and my daughter’s hands – it is already faded and some of the edges are curled but it means more to me than any store bought wreath ever could. 

This year, for the first time, one of my girls will participate in the Christmas Eve Mass as an Angel. I am so proud of her and hope she’ll continue to participate each year. This year also marks another first - with that foolish felt elf so I wouldn’t call that a tradition but rather a moment of weakness for me at The Paper Store.

It will be fun to see what traditions my children carry on with their own families someday. If I have anything to say about it my future grandchildren will definitively get an “Elf on a Shelf”.  You know what they say about payback… 

Regina Martine
I love Christmas and all the strange little traditions that my husband and I have created around it, from the wooden cows to the stockings filled with chocolate and opened in bed. They aren’t exactly “traditional” traditions, but we love them and Christmas wouldn’t be the same without them. 

First of all, we must have a real tree. I have never had an artificial tree and I never will. My husband grew up with artificial trees (and an artificial fireplace by which to hang their stockings) but I think if you aren’t going to have a real tree with the real piney tree smell, then don’t even bother. Somehow, taking a Christmas tree out of a box every year doesn’t sound very festive to me. Our real tree is topped not by an angel or a star, but by a little wooden cow painted to look like Santa. Santa Cow was a gift from my mother to commemorate my first job after college — I worked at the distribution office for Yasgur Farms dairy— and he has topped our tree every year since. 

My husband and I both grew up going to church on Christmas Eve, but since we have chosen not to raise our kids with formal religious traditions, we won’t be doing that. I do miss my husband’s Christmas Eve tradition where his big, Italian family in New York would all gather at one family member’s house for a post-Mass party with lots of food and drink. This sometimes included the Seven (Nine? Eleven?) Fishes, but no one seems to know where that tradition comes from.

Now that it is just the two of us and our three kids, Christmas Eve is a slightly less raucous affair, and is all about getting ready for Santa. My kids leave cookies and milk for the Big Guy, sprinkle Reindeer Food outside, and read the Polar Express by the tree before they go to bed. In the morning, they will come into our room—usually before the sun is up— and my husband will go downstairs and retrieve all the stockings (and start the coffee brewing) so we can open those in our bed. There is always chocolate in the stockings and the kids are thrilled to be able to eat it first thing in the morning. Then we all go downstairs to see what Santa left under the tree. We have a new puppy this year, so it won’t be a paper-ripping-toys-all-over-the-floor free for all, but I’m sure everyone will find some surprises under the tree. Merry Christmas! 

Tasha Schlake Festel
I love the snot out of Christmas. I always have. Despite the there is no other holiday that even comes close to the fabulousness that is Christmas. It’s all about family, food and fun. It drips with tradition and boosts the economy. It is culture and consumerism at their best. I. Love. It. 

In my house, both now as an adult and as a child growing up, the “reason for the season” – so to speak – is the big man Himself. That’s right; it’s all about Santa Claus. You can keep your Christ in Christmas and all that jazz, but if he wants to be invited in to my house, he better be wearing a fuzzy red suit, have a jolly ho-ho-ho and be laden with presents wrapped in pretty paper with fancy bows. 

I grew up “doing Christmas” on Christmas Eve. As a kid, I loved it because I got all my crap a full 12 hours before any of my sucker traditionalist friends did. And most of those poor bastards had to go to church on the evening of 12/24 while I was tearing open wrapping paper and stuffing myself with cookies and eggnog. Oh, the benefits of  t!

When we had kids of our own, my husband and I had some compromising to do. Luckily, as a fellow atheist, the only compromise was about when to open the loot. We agreed that the kids would open everything on Christmas Eve except for their “big gift” that they would find under the tree on Christmas morning. They get the best of both worlds, if you ask me. And none of the hassle of church. Hallelujah and amen! 

Some other traditions have evolved over the years. When my daughter was 2, I got a  “Christmas House” from Pottery Barn Kids. Every night after dinner, I put two pieces of left-over Halloween candy behind the appropriate door. (Don’t judge me. That stuff has a shelf-life of years!) Despite being a baker, the kids don’t get treats during the week, so a piece of candy per night for the entire month of December totally rocks. When we first got the Christmas House, I was lamenting to my mom that I didn’t know how I’d keep the kids from opening all of the doors on December 1st and eating all of the candy. She looked and me and said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world (which it probably was), “Tash, just put the candy in that day’s door. Leave the rest empty.” Duh. My mom knows everything.

We added two new traditions this year. One I love. One not so much. The good one is the Lego Advent Calendar. Even if your kid is not particularly jazzed about Legos, like my daughter – because, really, “what’s creative about building something using directions” – give this a try. It’s totally fun. Every day there is a new mini-project related to the overall theme of the calendar, either “City” or “Star Wars.” Both kids look forward to this as much as they do the treat from the Christmas House. Well, almost. Recycled Halloween candy is hard to beat.

The other new tradition is that hideous Elf on the Shelf. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you likely know what this little devil is. Now, there are hordes of people who think this invention is the best behavior-modifying mind-control tactic there is for the holiday season. I see the whole premise as more than a bit “big-brother-ish” so we just made it a kind of holiday “Where’s Waldo.” Sounds cute, right? Ha! Then you’re a sucker just like I was! Other than the fact that his physical appearance is just plain disturbing and something else for me to worry about doing every night, he has become a guaranteed source of tears or fighting since Day 2. Who doesn’t need a little more of that during the holiday season?!? Our elf is named Peppermint. I hate him.

I’m sure our traditions will evolve as our family does. Who knows what we’ll add next year, or if Peppermint will survive the summer in his box in the basement. But no matter what, I hope to give my kids a foundation on which to one day build their own family traditions. Whatever your traditions, enjoy them. Embrace them. Make new ones. And most of all, Merry Christmas to you and your families.

Tasha Schlake Festel December 22, 2011 at 06:36 PM
Sara, you say that as if that will be the end of it. Just you wait until you have kids and your very own demon Elf one day. In fact, if you ever have a baby, I'm getting one for you as a shower gift.
Tasha Schlake Festel December 22, 2011 at 06:37 PM
Gina, I hope this adds to your stress and general feelings of inadequacy. ;) XOXO
Laurie Hunt December 22, 2011 at 10:44 PM
Kim, thanks for sharing the link about Finchie - he is awesome!! Tasha, I'll chip in on the Elf for Sara,however, I fear she may never have children... we may have scarred her with our column...
Sara Jacobi December 23, 2011 at 01:11 AM
Haha! My future husband will probably have to bribe me at this point thanks to you ladies!
Regina Martine December 23, 2011 at 01:47 AM
My childbirth stories have already scared one of my former babysitters into vowing to remain childless forever—and I don't think she even KNOWS about the elf. Parenthood is not for the faint of heart.


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