Christmas is big in the U.S., both as a religious holiday and as a cultural phenomenon. But not all families celebrate the same way: as with many things, our family backgrounds, cultures, and geographies have resulted in diverse holidays.
For example, my family was white, middle-class, and Protestant, living in the Southwest suburbs with influences from the rural Midwest and South, where my parents and grandparents lived after immigrating from Germany, Russia, and the British Isles. My parents were baby boomers born in the 1950s, and we three kids were all born in the 1980s. And collectively, these backgrounds influenced our approach to the holidays.
When I was a kid, the biggest highlight was the Christmas tree. My parents enjoyed collecting ornaments as souvenirs and each was a treasure bringing magic from some place beyond our walls. There were also stories associated with them, and when we heard our parents comment on a bell they’d received from a college roommate, a relative, or neighbor, it gave us a glimpse of their fuller selves – the ones that had existed before us (and existed, still).
Most of all, I loved the lights. In high school, I was the first one up in the morning due to our early start time, and I would come down the stairs and turn on the tree before I retrieved the newspaper from the driveway and ate my breakfast. It must have been a pain for my parents, who had to remember to turn it off before they went to work, but those quiet moments with me and the tree in the dark house glow warmly in my heart.
Before social media, and even before photo cards, my family sent out giant Christmas letters recounting everything we’d done that year. (Yes, we are those people; I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can do about it. My mom and dad will send out the letter until the postal service stops delivering cards). I’ve kept the tradition alive, sort of. I only send out a handful of photo cards to a circle of childhood friends and family, a small group that usually sends one to me. And every year, I tell myself I’m not going to do it anymore. (Although last year, I skipped it and it didn’t feel right, so we’ll see).
My family is Christian, so Christmas always included a service at church. The church we belonged to for most of my childhood, a Reformed Church, was a minimalist, no-nonsense place without ornamentation, which gave it a solemn, humble kind of holy feeling, especially when all of the candles were lit and we sang Silent Night. Typically, Christmas Eve service centered on selected readings that retold the Christmas story, plus an interpretation and gentle, heart-warming sermon from the pastor. Afterward, people enjoyed hot chocolate or apple cider and some cookies, lingering a few minutes to greet each other or take pictures of families wearing their dressy Christmas clothes. (Believe it or not, some years it has been so cold in Phoenix that we have all run to our cars, desperate to escape the biting wind piercing our not-quite-warm-enough-coats!)
Literacy is very important to my mom, so in our house Santa came early on Christmas Eve to drop off a Christmas book. (This was her way of buying more books, and is hardly a widespread American tradition). I think it got harder for her to find one for each kid as we got older – and it was harder for us to summon genuine enthusiasm for the twelfth or twenty-ninth book about Christmas. But, it gave the evening an interlude, and at least when we were kids it served as a teaser to hold us over until the morning.
Speaking of morning, we could dig through our stockings before my mom and dad got up, but we were not to touch any of the wrapped presents. Thankfully, Santa always left a few treats in our stockings, like chocolate kisses and a magazine (more literacy!), so we had something to keep ourselves occupied. When my parents finally emerged, we would make a production of showing each and every item, saved for posterity on video camera and photos. Sometimes, they were so bleary-eyed that they were genuinely surprised to see what we got!
Finally, once the stockings were done and we had eaten breakfast (which always seemed like a terrible interruption, and usually featured either the sweets that my grandma had brought or something basic like a Pop tart or cereal), we moved into the family room for presents. Someone (usually a kid) would play the part of “the elf” tasked with handing out presents. This could be a little difficult because my family likes to use nicknames instead of real names, and kids weren’t always in on the joke. For example, my aunt writes “To Yoda” on gifts for my mom, because when the original Star Wars movie came out, she had joked that my mom was smart like that character. Inevitably, you’d hear a little confused voice call from the tree, “Who is YODA?” All the adults would laugh, and as the story was explained, the youngest generation saw the grown-ups in a new light.
When everyone had a gift, we would go around in a circle and open them one by one. As we were usually gathered with my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and as several different lines of conversation were flowing simultaneously, and as seemingly every gift required a photo, a single round could take close to an hour. Normally each person would have at least one gift for every other person (with us kids receiving the most), so opening presents usually took the entire day. Come dinner time, we were all still in our pajamas – which, as a kid from a fairly strict, rule and work oriented family, felt extraordinarily fun.
Compared to other families, cooking was not that central to our Christmas. Thanksgiving in November was the feasting holiday; Christmas was a combination of heritage foods, convenience, and baked goods. In my early years, we had butter ball soup (a chicken noodle soup with giant bread dumplings from my Volga German ancestors), but later we put a frozen lasagna in the oven and called it good. There were usually a couple of dishes from the Midwest – like a frozen cranberry walnut salad and one made with raspberry jell-o and sour cream. We also had some biscuits from refrigerated tubes. After I got on a teenage health kick and started protesting that there weren’t any vegetables, we started buying bags of pre-made iceberg salad mix. Christmas dinner is served!
A more significant memory is the spread of treats laid out by my Volga German grandma, which almost always included fudge, pumpkin bread with chocolate chips, and apple kuchen, plus an assortment of homemade cookies. We were normally allowed to eat only at the table and during mealtimes, but on Christmas, we were free to roam the house with a paper plate full of sweets. This small liberty added to the cheeriness and coziness, and conversation and laughter seemed to crescendo as the day went on.
If there’s one thing many Americans love, it is Christmas music, and we had it playing all day long in the background. There are far too many carols and pop songs to count, so I’ll share a few of my family’s favorites:
- Christmas at our House – Barbara Mandrell
- Jesus Was Born Today – Oak Ridge Boys
- Santa Claus is Coming to Town – Jackson 5
- Oh Holy Night – Il Divo
- Take a Walk Through Bethlehem – Trisha Yearwood
- Grown-up Christmas List – Amy Grant
- Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer – Elmo & Patsy
- Mary’s Boy Child – Boney M (music doesn’t start until about 0:50)
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland
Mix and Match
Now, if you don’t see your favorites here, don’t fret. There is more to our Christmas than what I shared, and many families do things a little differently. Some people hang lights outside, and some don’t. Some bake cookies, and some don’t. Some have snowfall, and some don’t. Some – like a babysitter that once gave me a “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” sticker – are angry that the holiday has a commercial side. Some only participate in the secular part of the festivities. Some people don’t do anything at all.
As a case in point: my husband’s family also had different traditions. His mom is from Korea, so they ate jap jae alongside ham or turkey. There were rarely gift exchanges among adults, and while they enjoyed a few sweets like persimmon, winter melon, or rice cake, they definitely didn’t have pastries galore spilling over the kitchen counters.
His dad, on the other hand, was Catholic and from my grandparents’ generation (born in the 1920s), so there was less country and contemporary music, and more Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como. And, being from Maryland, there was seafood – which my family never, ever ate. They also had classic traditions that I had only seen in movies, like an old-fashioned village complete with a train, a candle in the window, and little bells. And, as my husband was an only child and there were few relatives around, he didn’t have to wait to open presents one by one, but actually got to play with them. (One thing was the same, however: we both came from middle class families who budgeted for Christmas, but had the resources to make them happen – something that seems rarer amid growing inequality).
When my husband and I met, we were surprised by how different our traditions were, especially because we had grown up mostly in the same suburb and had even gone to the same high school! But, I think that is the story of Christmas in the US: there are all kinds of ways to celebrate, or not, in our vast, diverse country. Variety is the spice of life, and at Christmas that might mean anything from cinnamon to chili oil. Do you celebrate Christmas? If so, we wish you the merriest holiday – no matter how you do it.