How we celebrate the holidays varies a great deal from family to family. But for most families, the holidays wouldn't be nearly as meaningful without some combination of family, friends and food.
Have you ever thought about your own family's traditions and wondered how it's done in other homes? We heard the holiday celebrations of some of your friends and neighbors, and we think you'll be surprised, impressed and moved by the breadth and scope of traditions represented—we certainly were.
And if your family has holiday traditions you'd like to share, please tell us in the comments section.
The Benson family: As kids grow, celebrations change
"We celebrate Hanukkah and Christmas at our house so December is particularly filled with celebration. We’ve deliberately kept Hanukkah a peaceful celebration, with the beauty of the lit menorah. Each night we say the blessings and on the first night, everyone gets a book.
For Christmas Eve, we have a dinner of Beef Wellington and then each child opens up one gift from a relative, since the Santa presents don’t show up until the morning. There was the year that our youngest was about 4 and we told him repeatedly the night before he couldn’t wake us up until he had turned on the coffee machine. We have a machine that also grinds the beans so it's quite noisy. Well, imagine the shock of being woken up at 1:30 a.m. to the sound of the coffee maker going off! But as our children have gotten older—they're now 25, 23, 16 and 13—anticipation has changed. I actually woke them up last year, I was so excited!
We love the morning ritual of opening the stockings (declared the best part of the presents by all the children) and gifts and then having brunch. The afternoon is filled with trying to find a gym open, or playing with our new “toys” and then enjoying a light dinner and family games. We often have extended family with us for Christmas but we try very hard not to travel; it's glorious to have everyone home and not be rushing to a million other activities.
I’m very sad our oldest son, age 23, won’t be home this year. It’s the first time in a long time we won’t be all together. He has a very demanding job in New York City. So, we’ll spend New Year’s Eve with him in the Big Apple. And my 25-year-old’s boyfriend will be with us so we’ll have to integrate him into the Benson traditions."
The Vasquez family: Continuing a tradition for more than a century
"Our annual Christmas tradition of tamale making began about a century ago in Texas with my husband's mother's family. It then carried on when she married and moved to California. Since then, the family makes about 250 tamales on Christmas Eve day to enjoy and share with relatives and friends throughout the holiday season. Family and friends gather throughout the day on Christmas Eve to form the non-stop assembly line of corn husk cleaners, masa and meat spreaders, wrappers and quality control. The process takes many hours and is always filled with laughter, fun and, of course, margaritas!
The preparation for the tamale fiesta begins several days in advance when my in-laws make the red chili sauce for the tamales and prepare the meat. We usually make a combination of pork, chicken and plain cheese tamales that go into large steamers to cook once they are assembled on Christmas Eve. The remainder of the meal consists of my mother-in-law's wonderful Mexican recipes of salsa, guacamole, rice, refried beans, chili con queso and guisado. In 1991, my mother-in-law was in a Ladies Home Journal article called "The Best Cooks in Town" that featured holiday cooking traditions from around the country. Many of her recipes were published in that article and of course passed down to her children.
Unfortunately, this year we will miss the holiday tamale tradition with our family since we are not traveling back to California. The tradition will carry on without us this Christmas Eve but we will have the many memories of years past to reflect upon."
- Jill Vasquez
The O'Connor family: Family legacies endure through generations
"We have always had a very close extended family on my father's side. He was the youngest of eight children and there are 23 first cousins who, despite the range of our ages (83-53), have been very tight all our lives. Our children are very close also. Every year for a very long time we have had a "Cousins' Party" just before Christmas since we are not all together for Christmas Eve and Day. We had 60 cousins at the party last year, three generations of us. All our parents have passed away now so it is a little bittersweet, but we are so grateful that we still have each other and we always have so much fun together like we have our whole lives. We have this crazy Yankee swap with a $10 limit on gifts in which everyone brings a wrapped gift (funny or not), we all draw numbers, each person picks a gift in order, and each one can open his or hers then claim that of anyone else in the room instead. The person with number 1 gets to pick anything he or she wants at the end. You have to be in the room to really appreciate it—we get hysterical laughing and we even had to ban lottery tickets from the swap a couple of years ago, it got so competitive. Everyone goes away smiling, and of course we eat, too! But more than the swapping of crazy gifts and food, it really is a legacy of togetherness that our parents gave us that is celebrated then.
And after Christmas Eve Mass, we head off to the Feast of the Seven Fishes! This is an Italian tradition; we have eaten fish for Christmas Eve every year of my life. I guess there are several explanations for why it is seven, but most say that it represents the seven Catholic sacraments. Back in the days when my grandmother would cook for everyone, there were very specific fish cooked a special way that were served every year, like fried smelts and eel, and octopus salad and baccala fritters, but now we take some license with that. Several of us cousins and my brother and his family (and anyone else who needs a place/family to be with) always spend the night together and everyone cooks. The fish gets spread across appetizers, a pasta dish, and the main course—there is no meat. This year we are making clams, calamari, baccala (salt cod), crab, shrimp, lobster, and salmon. It is something we look forward to every year, and before we have even finished eating we are talking about what fish to have next year.
I am very fortunate to have grown up in a family that is very close. Our parents all loved each other, even the in-laws. They lived in close proximity to each other and most Sundays would visit my grandmother. Many of our Italian traditions (especially around food) have stayed pretty well intact since my father's parents immigrated at the end of the 1800s. It is something we take comfort in, and it really contributes so much to who we are and how we relate to others. I am so happy to see my children fully embracing these traditions."