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; our country has a lot of variety. Mine was white, middle-class, and Protestant, living in the Southwest suburbs with a mix of influences from the rural Midwest and South, where my parents and grandparents had lived after coming to the U.S. from places like Germany, Russia, and England. On top of this, my parents were baby boomers born in the 1950s, and we three kids were all born in the 1980s. I don’t know that we were typical for our group, but these backgrounds certainly informed 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 containing a bit of magic from some place beyond our walls. There were also stories associated with various ornaments, and when we heard our parents comment on a bell they’d received from an old college roommate or one of their relatives or neighbors, it gave us a glimpse of their fuller selves – the ones that had existed before us.
Most of all, I loved the lights. When I got older, and I was the first one up in the morning due to our early high school start time, 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 then remember to turn it off before they went to work, but those quiet moments with me and the tree still glow warmly in my heart.
Before social media, and even before photo cards, my family sent out the giant Christmas letter recounting each and every thing we’d done that year. Yes, we are those people – and I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can do about it. My mom and dad will send the letter out until the U.S. postal service stops delivering cards. I’ve kept the tradition alive, sort of. I only send out a handful of photo cards or a short note (no letter!) to a circle of very close 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. 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 a lot of ornamentation, which gave it a 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, lingering a few minutes to greet each other or take pictures of families wearing their dressy Christmas clothes.
Literacy is very important to my mom, so in our house Santa came early on Christmas Eve to drop off a Christmas book. (This is definitely not a widespread tradition!) I think it got harder to find one for each of us three kids as we got older – and it was harder to summon genuine enthusiasm for the twelfth or thirteenth book about Christmas. But, it did give the evening a kind of interlude between church and bedtime, and at least when we were kids it served as a teaser to hold us over until the morning.
Speaking of morning, it was an unspoken rule that we could dig through our stockings before my mom and dad got up, but we were not to touch any of the wrapped presents. As they were exhausted from staying up late and setting everything out, they always slept longer than we wanted them to, and it was very hard to wait. Thankfully, Santa always left a few treats in our stockings, like Hershey kisses and a magazine (more literacy!), so we had something to keep us occupied. When my parents finally emerged, we would make a production of showing each and every item, saved for posterity on the video camera and in posed photos.
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, 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 – things 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 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 much more significant memory is the incredible 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 usually 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 are angry that the holiday has a commercial side, and some only participate in the secular part of the festivities. Some people don’t do anything at all.
My husband’s family had many different traditions. His mom is from Korea, so they usually ate jap jae (stir fried noodles), there were rarely gift exchanges among adults, and while they enjoyed a few sweets, they definitely didn’t have breads and cakes and cookies spilling over the kitchen counters. His dad was from Maryland and from my grandparents’ generation (born in the 1920s), so there was a lot less country and contemporary music, and lots more Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Perry Como. And, being from the Atlantic coast, there was a lot more seafood – which my family never, ever ate. They also had nice traditions that I had only seen in movies, like having an old-fashioned village scene, complete with a train, underneath the tree. 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, and it certainly didn’t take all day. He usually spent Christmas playing with his toys – something I could only dream of as I waited for my turn in another giant round of gift opening.
When my husband and I first met, we were surprised by how different our traditions were, especially because we had grown up mostly in the same suburb of Phoenix and had even gone to the same high school. But, I think that is the story of Christmas in America: 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.