35. A Diversity of Holiday Traditions

35. A Diversity of Holiday Traditions

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Merry Christmas!

A Diversity of Holiday Traditions

We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race.

~Kofi Annan

Eight beautifully wrapped gifts, each labeled “Lisa,” sparkled and glittered where they lay on the red bricks of our living room fireplace. The Hanukkah gifts, sent from New York by Grandma Sylvia, rested just beneath the Christmas stockings and a little bit over from the Christmas tree. My eyes shone as I eagerly anticipated both holidays.

My mom was from a Midwest Protestant family, my dad from a family of New York Jews. With such a merging of diverse cultures and influences, we managed to develop and maintain more than the usual number of family holiday traditions—including multiple gift exchanges, lighting the menorah, visits from Santa, playing dreidel games, singing Christmas carols, preparing many delicious meals, crafting holiday projects, putting up a plethora of decorations, and hosting various family parties and social gatherings.

When I married a man, who’d been raised Catholic, in Panama, by an American father of Polish descent and a bilingual, Spanish-English speaking, Panamanian mother — well, let’s just say that things got even more complicated. Our wedding ceremony, for example, was a mishmash of religions, languages, ethnicities, nationalities and cultures. All this combined to enhance our relationship and we embraced the diversity — much as I imagine both sets of our parents had also done with each other, a generation earlier. In time, we started our family and began to build our own family traditions with our two boys.

Since both of our extended families are geographically scattered, it makes it difficult to say what we “usually” do for the holiday season. Some years, we travel to spend holidays with my husband’s family, and others with mine. Some years, we just stay home on our own. Other years, his family joins us, and others, mine do. Despite the fact that every year is different, we — my husband, our two boys, and myself—have managed to develop quite a number of our own family holiday traditions.

When we do stay home, things are pretty “standard.”

Each year, to commemorate the eight nights of Hanukkah, we light the candles on our menorah. We play dreidel games, eat beloved gelt (chocolate coins) and make delicious latkes. Grandma Sylvia is now gone, but I always give each of my precious boys eight gifts.

Each year, to celebrate Christmas, we hang stockings for Santa and decorate a Christmas tree. We make chocolate chip pancakes or waffles for breakfast on Christmas morning, and then enjoy exchanging gifts. The boys play with their new goodies, we lounge around in our pajamas most of the day and eventually cook a big dinner — usually a turkey, sweet potatoes, and vegetables — along with Mom’s mouth-watering corn-pudding dish and chocolate silk pie, both recipes passed down from the Midwestern side of my family.

A couple of years ago, when Thanksgiving and the first night of Hanukkah coincided on “Thanksgivukkah” we found ourselves cooking latkes, shopping for Christmas gifts online, and putting together a Thanksgiving feast — all on the same day. It was a bit confusing, but it was also good, meaningful, family fun. My husband flipped the latkes while musing, “How did a Catholic boy from Panama end up making latkes on Thanksgiving Day?”

When we travel for the holidays, things get even more interesting. Last year, we visited my husband’s extended family in Panama, eating platanos and arroz con pollo while enjoying traditional neighborhood fireworks displays at midnight on Christmas Eve as we called out, “Feliz Navidad!” to the crowds and partied in the streets. Afterward, in the very wee hours of the morning, we exchanged gifts before we went to sleep, exhausted but happy.

Also, not having wanted to abandon any of our “standard” home-holiday activities because of travel plans, we opted to celebrate “Pawlakmas” before we flew to Panama. This new holiday, involving the usual number of pancakes, presents and pajamas — fell right in the middle of Hanukkah and just a few days before Christmas.

Perhaps the best way to explain our family’s holiday traditions is simply to say that we embrace a spirit of adventure, along with the richness of our family’s cultural diversity and absolute certainty of our underlying love for each other. So wherever we happen to be, with whomever else we are fortunate enough to be with — we are always able to experience and treasure the warmth of the holiday season.

~Lisa Pawlak

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