Holiday Traditions

The Kelly household could use some fresh holiday traditions. I want my kids thinking globally during this holiday season. Happily, I have many friends from other countries and faiths from whom to draw ideas. "In Budapest, people really don't decorate their homes," explained my Hungarian friend Kinga. "They put up the Christmas tree the evening of the 24th right before the coming of Jesus. The children go to Mass with one of the parents. Whoever stays at home sets up the tree, decorates it with szaloncukor (a chocolate candy wrapped in shiny paper), painted walnut shells, real candles, and other homemade decorations. When the children come home, they have a light dinner -- usually fish. After dinner, someone sneaks out and rings a bell marking the coming of Jesus from heaven. The children are then allowed into the room with the decorated tree and all the presents. They say a prayer and then all hell breaks loose with the presents."

My Kenyan friend Edward says kids sing carols door to door for money beginning on December 12. "They take the money they earn to buy candies. In their homes, people decorate by stringing Christmas cards across the room, with the pictures visible and glittery paper between each card. The choice of colors is whatever color you can find, not the traditional American Christmas colors. Anything goes. People who live up in the highlands, as I did, use pines to decorate the home, but coastal people use palms. And on the trees, people use cotton balls as snow."

Filipino children also carol for money or food, explained Patti. "And the parol tradition is huge. The parol is the star of Bethlehem lantern, and they vary from simple to elaborate." The lit colorful lanterns, traditionally made with bamboo and rice paper, are hung outside homes during the holiday season.

"We have a pickle tradition," said Molly, "which comes from Germany. We hide a pickle ornament on the tree, and Christmas morning, the child who finds the ornament gets a special treat."

"Our Polish friends set an empty place setting at their Christmas table for Jesus," said Meg. "And if any unexpected guest arrives, they are to be treated like Jesus. In our home, we do a Jesse tree in the days leading up to Christmas. We take a branch from our maple tree, set it in a pot, and the kids make an ornament that represents the stories from salvation history, from before Christ's birth. Each day a child makes a new ornament for the tree and the story is read: an apple for the story of Adam and Eve, the ark for Noah, the ladder for Jacob's ladder. Then, on Christmas Eve, the Jesse tree is replaced with the Christmas tree."

Clare filled me in on the Austrian tree. "All the ornaments are made from straw to represent the straw in Jesus' manger," she said. "And real candles are lit on the tree, so it makes for an extra-flammable tree," she laughed.

"In Cuba," said Jose, "the big days are Christmas Eve and Epiphany. Gifts are exchanged on Epiphany. Christmas Eve, my family has a black-tie dinner -- tuxes and formal gowns. And we serve black beans and rice, pork, and, of course, cocktails. And then we go to vigil Mass. The joke among our family is that other people at church must think we work at the nearby hotel since we show up in tuxes."

"Decorations here in New Mexico are heavily influenced by the Native Americans and Mexicans," said my sister Cathy. "There are lots of red chili-pepper wreaths on doors, some also with Indian corn and bows made from corn husks. People also use a lot of luminarias here. On Christmas Eve, people line their walkways with the luminarias , which are brown paper bags filled a bit with sand to hold a votive candle. Tradition is that you are lighting the way for the Christ Child. A lot of businesses will put electric luminarias on their roofs for the holiday season. As for other decorations, corn-husk angels are big, statues of Native-American shepherds, tin Lady of Guadalupe pictures, ornaments painted with lizards, bears, butterflies, and hummingbirds. They also decorate with kachina dolls, painted dolls that each represents a different spirit. And dream-catcher ornaments are also hung around the house. Originally, dreamcatchers were used by mothers who would suspend dreamcatchers over their babies' beds so that the dreamcatcher would catch the good dreams."

My friend Pam shared some of her family's Hanukkah traditions. "I typically use gold, silver, and blue to decorate," she said. "I love specialty plates, and I have some gold and white ones that say 'Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel,' which are the first words of a traditional song. I made them out of clay. My main decorations are on the table, as most of our holidays are spent eating. I have around 15 menorahs, and I put some on the table and some on the center island in the kitchen where I usually serve. I have blue-and-white napkins with a Star of David on them; I hate to use paper napkins or plates for this festive holiday. I serve latkes -- potato pancakes -- with applesauce and sour cream, and I have also made a sheet cake cut to look like a dreidel, the spinning-top game used during Hanukkah. Unlike Christmas, Hanukkah is a minor holiday, and we don't use lights or have a tree, but we give the children one gift per night for eight nights as we light each candle on the menorah. Tradition holds that oil from a lamp lasted eight days, hence the eight days of the holiday. I like to have a lot of friends over with their children, and when it is sundown, we turn off the lights and everyone gets to light a candle."

Bernice offered the pagan traditions of winter. "I do not do this in my home, but I have a friend who celebrates the winter solstice on December 21. She decorates with candles and cut evergreens. The evergreen represents the rebirth of life amid the winter whiteness. The candles represent the light coming back -- the days getting longer. She also has a goddess collection -- the maiden, the mother, and the crone. In the winter, she brings out the crone [the old woman], and she puts greenery and candles around the statue."

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