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A Christmas Talent Show, Chanukah with Christian Relatives and Other Holiday Traditions

Last December, in anticipation of Chanukah, my daughter spent days laying out candles for our menorah: grouping them by color, making different patterns, deciding and re-deciding how to color-coordinate them in the menorah. When we lit the candles that first night, Remy watched with increasing concern, and then burst into tears at the sight of the candles melting. "We're making them disappear!" she panicked, crying for her lost candles. As luck would have it, I had colored wax on hand, and we spent the rest of the evening rolling our own candles. This year I'm excited to continue our young tradition.

Jack Harris and his family share the Sugar Plum Tree.

 Often, that's how family traditions begin – they arise organically from our desire to make meaning with family and friends. The traditions you'll find here are like that. Some have carried on for decades. Others are newer and still evolving. Either way, they are slices of time made sacred, annual reenactments of beloved memories, nourishment for body, spirit, and heart.

Mince Pies

We're a transplanted family from Manchester, England, to Seattle. I'm from India and my husband is British. Our favorite family tradition around Christmas is making and eating mince pies, a common tradition in the UK! I must admit that as a non-Catholic/Christian Indian, I didn't have any traditions that revolved around "the holidays," as they're known in the U.S., so my traditions have come from my husband. The mince pies are made with a pâte sucrée (sweet pastry) and a ready-made filling of apple, raisins, and spices. Our 5-year-old's job is to brush the mince pies with milk and sprinkle them with sugar, which involves sneaking the odd bit of sugar into her mouth. Our 3-year-old's only involvement thus far has been eating the pies! We make between six to eight batches each Christmas and send them to friends and enjoy them as a family.

– Bhairavi Shah

Thankful Chain

We do a thankful chain every year. We start at Thanksgiving and every night (or whenever we feel like it), we each take a strip of construction paper and write on it something we're thankful for. Then we staple them onto the growing paper chain that stretches around the living room. On or around New Year, we read them aloud. I've kept all the strips from years past. It's fun to see how we've changed and remained the same over time. One year, Peter wrote the same thing every time. In the oldest bag, which is from 1999 or so, Kathryn wrote, "I am thankful for teddy bears."

– Alan Durning

Bubbe and the Crashing Christmas Trees

In 1947, when my Jewish father told his Jewish mother he was marrying a nonJewish woman, my grandmother said: "I'm going to kill myself." Fortunately, she didn't follow through. Her survival provided our family with its most enduring Christmas tradition. Every year, mom and the kids would come home with a massive tree, far too big to fit comfortably in the living room. We would have to anchor the beast with rope, bricks and cinder blocks. The rope would often stretch across the living room and wrap around table legs and chairs. Quite often, my Bubbe (Yiddish for "grandmother,") would trip on the rope, causing the tree to crash to the floor. Hours of reconstructive engineering would follow. We all felt bad about her tripping, but years later, the grandkids began to wonder if the crashing Christmas trees had less to do with a lack of vision, and more to do with a religious opinion ...

Regardless, we all remember Bubbe and her marvelous personality when the Christmas tree goes up and when it comes down, which makes for a lovely holiday memory.

– Josh Kahan

Gingerbread Houses

I'm lucky that my sweetheart and I share the Christmas gene. I used to think I was hardcore, but she's an absolute Christmas maniac. She also has a serious sweet tooth, so she's in charge of getting candy for the gingerbread houses. We bake our own gingerbread – construction grade – and cement it together with frosting that looks like spackle. Then we lay out about 500 different kinds of candy on the table and go to work. My daughters invite their friends, and our neighbors usually join in too. Architecture varies from traditional North Pole estates to gothic monstrosities a la Edward Scissorhands. We play tacky Christmas music on the stereo and drink too much eggnog. In the end, our house looks like a level five tornado hit a candy factory. We wouldn't think of going through the holidays without it.

– Jeff Lee

Sugar Plum Tree

In the winter of 1973, we lived on a woodsy, 52-acre farm in rural Missouri. My father began "The Sugar Plum Tree" party that has been a tradition in our family ever since. He created this holiday treasure hunt by decorating a tree hidden deep in the woods with small hanging presents, candy canes, and tinsel. The adults (all our neighbors came) gave the kids clues as to the tree's location, typically offering up several false starts. This only added to the excitement and anticipation of spotting the elusive Sugar Plum Tree. Once we found it, we'd race to the magical tree in eager anticipation of presents and candy, with the adults trailing slowly behind, warm drinks in hand. Now that my brother and I have children, we do it again, in the woods outside Bellingham where my parents now live. Trailing behind with warm drinks in hand, we watch our sons venture wide-eyed into the dark in search of the Sugar Plum Tree. In recent years, we've taken to adding hand-made ornaments with battery LED lights to intensify the magic.

– Jack Harris


April Rauch started the family tradition of celebrating Kwanzaa after adopting Ophelia.

While Kwanzaa was established as a celebration of African-American culture in the 1960s, we first discovered the holiday after the adoption of our first child, Ophelia. Kwanzaa is the perfect answer to my and Andrew's atheist and agnostic resistance to the commercialized holiday season. Kwanzaa runs from Dec. 26 through Jan. 1st and celebrates a different principle for each of those seven days: unity, self-determination, collective work & responsibility, family, purpose, creativity, and faith. We light a kinara (similar to a menorah) each evening and discuss the daily principle. Kwanzaa gives our family the opportunity to reflect on all we are grateful for and to collaborate on meaningful resolutions for the New Year to come for both ourselves and our community. We have a boisterous annual Kwanzaa celebration with our adoption group friends, and it strengthens our children's camaraderie and pride in their beautiful heritage.

– April Rauch

Chanukah When Your Relatives are Christian

Having experienced the elaborate rituals of her Christian cousins, our older daughter Sophie decided to incorporate elements she admired into our own family rituals. We have a feast the first night of Chanukah (with friends, but no presents). Festive foods include traditional dishes such as latkes. The next morning, we have some interesting fare Sophie discovered in the land of the gentiles such as "dog balls" (an over-the-top syrupy dough ball, ironically similar to sutganyot, a doughnut-like treat popular for Chanukah in Israel). The menorah is dressed up on a high table and gifts are spread all around. Sophie and our younger daughter, Chloe, converge on the centerpiece, and the wrapping paper flies. Of course, we leave enough small gifts to celebrate the other eight days of Chanukah, which commemorate a supposed miracle of stubborn oil. That glorious first morning, however, I like to think we are celebrating the possibly more historically accurate defeat, albeit temporary, of a bunch of bullies. This somehow feels very relevant to our family's ethos as well as appropriate to Seattle and the zeitgeist of Capitol Hill, where we live.

– Eugene Lipitz

Talent Show

We've kept up a tradition of putting on a talent show as part of our Christmas festivities, a custom that started up when I was a kid in the 1960s and my mom and grandmother helped me and my siblings put on puppet shows and even dress up as a pantomime horse that danced to "Baby Elephant Walk." The tradition waned when we went to college and on to jobs and new families, but we revived it a decade ago with more puppet shows, musical performances, and the like. My dad even learned to juggle, do magic tricks, and play the keyboard to honor this tradition. It's an event that promotes a lot of laughter, allows all ages to participate equally, and sometimes reveals aspects of family members that may have lain dormant for quite a while.

– Christina Wilsdon

19th Century Christmas and Cookies

For the last six to seven years we have had our highly-anticipated "Point Defiance" day on the first Saturday in December, where we step back in time as we enter the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, and celebrate 19th century Christmas in the midst of re-enactors, songs, dances, and old-fashioned games.

But our absolute favorite holiday tradition is the Cookie Party! Each family brings their best creation, and we sample and vote for winners in quirky categories that change every year. Past categories have included: "Elvis Would Swoon," "Ultimate Decadence," and "Earthmuffin Extraordinaire." Rick and I started the tradition as a way to get together with our neighbors when we first moved to Seattle. We have not missed a single year of hosting since its inception 20 years ago, except for the year I was eight and a half months pregnant!

– Elizabeth Tsamakis-Keil

Laura Hirschfield lives and writes in Seattle.

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