Over the past few weeks, we’ve had our fair share of Christmas articles here at New Thinking, from Jaime Andrews advising us how to survive our relatives to Mark Chandley’s two-part series on the trauma of the holidays.
It’s interesting to put the festive season through a lens of new thought, given that so much centers on tradition and “the old ways.” Yet one of my favorite things about Christmas is how everyone makes it their own, creating their own individual takes on old customs—something Jeevan Randhawa beautifully captured. I’m not talking about religious Christmas, as much as cultural. While of course religious Christmas remains part of many people’s celebrations, the season has transcended its Christian origins to become a time for people of all backgrounds and belief systems to get cozy and a little bit fat with their loved ones. Who doesn’t want to wrap themselves in a big soft sweater and chow down on some favorite foods? As humans, this shared love is the closest thing to a universal belief system we’ve got.
While it’s nice to do some things “traditionally,” I’d argue that, as Jeevan said in his article, drawing from different cultures allows you to get the “best of both worlds” (or all worlds, for that matter.) As a nation of immigrants, America is ground zero for finding any and all cultural traditions tossed together in a fabulous melting pot. (I believe we prefer “mixed salad” these days since we don’t like to erase these different traditions but allow them to live equally in their nice big salad bowl of joy.) The more variety, the better. Who wants to have twelve versions of the same Christmas pudding? (She says, unsure if she’s used the term correctly, but hoping The Great British Bake Off hasn’t led her astray.)
Holiday traditions are as shaped by your family as they are by your neighbors. Growing up in New York’s vastly Jewish and Italian neighborhoods, I’m equally fluent in latke recipes as I am with plates of tri-colore mini cakes and other Italian sweets. And as anyone who knows me can attest, I will always blast “Dominick the Donkey” as one of my all-time favorite Christmas tunes. This was constantly on the radio when I was a kid, but I soon realized once moving away from the tri-state area that this song about an Italian Christmas donkey was only regionally beloved—both my brother-in-law and my husband assumed me and my sister had made it up until we insisted on playing it for them.
Naturally, as the daughter of an East German immigrant and a New Jersey native, we had our own hybridized German-American Christmas traditions. Germany comes correct with the Christmas spirit in the traditionally religious sense: candles, carols, stille, heilige Nachten, it’s all in place. Plus, we make unbelievably delicious glühwein—or mulled wine, served hot and spiced with cloves and cinnamon, which my Dad would make and tote along in a Thermos to share with parents while we kids went sledding. For serene, peaceful quietude, the German traditions are pretty lovely.
As a raucous, capitalistic counterpoint, in comes big fat American Christmas, with our morbidly obese and holly jolly Santa Claus and presents, presents, presents. I was always lucky enough to have the best of both: while Christmas Day would be spent with Nana, my American grandma, enjoying our spoils and opening even more gifts, Christmas Eve was the main event spotlighting our family’s German traditions. We’d go to candlelight church service, and when we’d return home, Santa would have left all the presents under the tree, which was fully illuminated with splendid and unspeakably hazardous live candles.
Yes—you heard correctly: we regularly put real fire-bearing candles on flammable evergreen trees. Yes, we also always had a fire extinguisher on hand, special protocols about placement, lighting, and snuffing candles out, and also could only get a very special tree with very spaced-out, spiky branches. And yes, we had a number of emergency situations surrounding the tree, including one time my mother got third-degree burns when wax spilled on her hand as she threw a dish towel on a burning bough. But boy, did it look stunning!
Needless to say, our American neighbors thought my parents were fully insane, though they’d wholly enjoy the spectacle during visits. But the candles were a special part of our celebration that connected to my Dad’s memories of his childhood Christmases. I still have candle holders I put on my tree, though I don’t light them—I prefer a fluffier tree that won’t really support it… and a pokey little puppy I think, might get too curious and catch on fire.
Our family’s traditions have continued to evolve, with each of us creating our own as we age. Before he passed, my Dad maintained his candle-lit tree tradition, but started also adding white lights, so that he could turn them on in between vigilantly-watched candle sessions. I’ve carried on my namesake—Muller—in making mulled wine every year for friends whenever I find a cold enough evening. (For a good, easy glühwein: boil the hell out of a handful of cloves and 3-4 cinnamon sticks in some water until they’re super aromatic and you’ve created a strong infusion. Add in an inexpensive red wine and sugar to taste. Stir and allow it to heat up just to a nice warm temperature for drinking, but without letting the booze evaporate. Et voilà!)
Additionally, having married into a Puerto Rican family means I now celebrate Three Kings on January 6 with my husband and his family every year. Having an excuse to get another round of presents and keep the tree up past New Year’s? Don’t mind if I do!
We also have our own iconoclastic family traditions: my stepdad makes margaritas every Christmas Eve and french toast every Christmas morning, complete with pitchers of mimosas. Plus, I’ve gotten us all hooked on watching Die Hard every Christmas, too, to celebrate when our Lord and Savior John McClane delivered Nakatomi Plaza from evil… sort of. Die Hard is one of the best Christmas movies of all time, and we can fight about it, but if you disagree, you are wrong.
In the end, whatever you do during the holidays—if you’re religious, atheist, a Grinch, or a Hallmark movie binger—I wish you a joyful, relaxing celebration that you’ve thoroughly made your own. Surround yourself with loved ones and good food, and if you don’t have traditions you like, borrow someone else’s or make up a new one. There’s no wrong way to celebrate and make it merry.