Families’ Weird Holiday Traditions, Illustrated
The silliest, most unique winter holiday rituals submitted by The Atlantic’s readers.
Part of the allure of the holidays is all the traditions: A turkey-and-mashed-potatoes feast on Thanksgiving, wrapped presents nestled under the bedazzled tree for Christmas, the lighting of the menorah during Hanukkah. It’s these iconic moments that Norman Rockwell captured in his popular illustrations of families’ snowy holiday revelry.
But, then again, how Americans actually celebrate the holidays doesn’t always resemble a picture-perfect Rockwell painting. Families conjure up their own traditions to attach to the holidays, from the heartwarming to the gross to the downright silly. So, this year, we had readers send in stories and photos of their families’ unique and quirky holiday traditions. And in a modern twist on the Rockwell prints of yesteryear, we had Dan Bransfield, an artist in San Francisco, illustrate eight of our favorites based on the photos the families sent.
‘Throwing Pop Away’
When I was little, 15 to 30 family members would gather at my grandparents’ house on Christmas Day. Everyone got presents from at least one person in each of the families (my mom is one of five, and sometimes even more extended family would show up with gifts for the 15 grandchildren).
This produced a lot of torn wrapping paper, ribbons, packing material, product packaging, and Sears toy catalogs used to weigh down gifts so the kids couldn't guess what was in them. All this went in a giant trash can, but it would still be overflowing. So, my grandfather would always climb into the trash can to push everything down so the rest of it could fit. Then we would drape ribbons and stick bows on him while he was in there. We called it “Throwing Pop Away.”
Even when he got older and sick from cancer, we still filled a smaller cardboard box with some of the wrapping paper, and he would climb in.
Now that he’s gone, several family members have kept the tradition going.
Wearing Doilies on Our Heads
My great-grandmother, Nana Evelyn, was born in 1912. When she was 4 or 5 years old, her prim-and-proper, traditional “Irish matriarch” of a mother hosted a big Thanksgiving dinner for friends and family in their little home in North Jersey. My great-great-grandmother had prepared small bowls of fresh fruit as a first course, and under each bowl she placed one of those little white-lace doilies to complete each perfect, proper placement. That night, her guest of honor was a man my family knows only as Judge Hubert. (My Grandpa Doug, Nana Evelyn’s middle son, claims Judge Hubert was the guy who invented those chains that secure pens to the counter at the bank. I don’t know how fact-checkable that is.) Judge Hubert politely finished his fruit, then quietly leaned over to 4-year-old Nana Evelyn and said, “Look—this is what you’re supposed to do with these,” before fastening the doily to the top of his head with a toothpick. To my great-great-grandmother’s horror, Nana Evelyn roared with laughter and followed Judge Hubert’s lead. Before she knew it, everyone in the room had a doily on their head.
Now, more than 100 years later, my family still wears doilies on our heads every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. It’s a small, silly tradition, but one that has lasted for generations!
A Purposefully Unappetizing Christmas Breakfast
My wife’s grandfather said that Christmas was too good, and so there should be at least one thing you don’t look forward to. So he cooked a Christmas breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, and orange juice, put it in a blender, and served it to his kids as a smoothie. My father-in-law heard this story about his father-in-law and thought it was hilarious, so he made it a tradition with my wife and her sisters. But instead of doing the same thing every year, certain family members come up with an idea with which to surprise everyone else. There is always a theme to it: It could be food from The Grinch (Who pudding, rare Who roast beast, triple-decker toadstool sandwiches with arsenic sauce, and of course banana with a greasy black peel) or Elf (spaghetti, crumbled Pop-Tarts, and maple syrup) or poop (cat box filled with Cocoa Krispies topped with plops of undercooked pumpkin-pie filling, refried beans served in diapers, etc.) or oatmeal (oatmeal bread, oatmeal muffins, oatmeal cookies, oatmeal soup—busy day for the bathroom after that one). Last year, my son and my brother-in-law teamed up to create a science lab: dissected frog legs, lychee fruit “eyeballs” floating in a big jar with dry ice smoking out the top, brains made of Jell-O, and bowls of worms. We laugh a lot, and I always think, I bet nobody else in the world is eating the same thing we are right now ...
Celebrating New Year’s Eve With Video Games and Cheap Pizza
My husband and I have been together since high school. When we were 16, in 2010, we started the tradition of playing SSX Tricky on a PlayStation 2 and eating frozen pizza while our parents were out on New Year’s Eve. (That game came out in 2001 and was already dated when we started the tradition!) We always meant to watch the ball drop, but we would get caught up with playing or making out and would forget to go hunting for the right channel until the last minute. Now we’re in our mid-20s, but we still just play video games and intentionally “forget” to turn on the TV until the last minute. We get invited to New Year’s Eve parties, but there is something really special about starting every year with just the guy I fell in love with at 16, some cheap pizza, and a quiet home.
Alyssa Mars Hakanson
A Speedo-Clad George Michael Made of Marzipan
Since 2007, my youngest daughter has baked a gingerbread house and/or a Yule log cake, which her best friend, a sculptor, has decorated with marzipan figures, always including George Michael. The first included a Speedo-clad George in a melted sugar pool outside the gingerbread house—a tribute to “Club Tropicana.” (Since we live in Houston, our holiday tends to include a tropical theme.) Beginning in 2009, the year Michael Jackson died, George began to straddle the log at the head of a marzipan procession of tributes to cultural figures who have left us during that year, starting with a silver glove, but now including lovingly molded figures ranging from Amy Winehouse to Nelson Mandela. Christmas 2016 was a somewhat somber affair for many reasons, culminating with George’s shocking death on Christmas Day. But George still rode the log that year—with a gorgeous set of angel wings—and the tiniest Speedo yet. George rode again last year, and God willing will continue to do so as long as writers write, singers sing, and bakers bake—and the marzipan doesn’t run out.
Feeding the Cows Hay on Christmas Eve
We follow an old-world, European tradition of giving our cows hay on Christmas Eve.
The origin of the tradition is that because cows protected and kept Baby Jesus warm when he was born in a stable, we need to honor them by feeding them the best hay that we have. If you have spent time with cows, you know that they are very protective of their babies. A mother cow will talk to her calf in a low, soft voice. That is what the verse “the cattle were lowing” refers to.
We feed the cows their hay, tell the Christmas story, and sing carols. If you have never had the chance to experience it, cows chewing hay is one of the most relaxing sounds I know.
After we are done, we open presents; growing up on a dairy farm, this wasn’t unusual, because early morning milking makes Christmas-gift opening complicated. After presents, we have homemade egg noodles with butter, garlic, and anchovies.
Camping Out Beneath the Christmas Tree
In my family, we have a tradition of camping out and having a slumber party under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve every year. It involves the kids in the family and not usually the parents. We all get decked out in our most festive pajamas and bring down sleeping bags or mattresses and plenty of bedding and then make a camp under the tree. We’re not sure how this started, but it’s possible that we wanted to be closer to the tree and the presents on Christmas morning and probably didn’t want the festivities to end. Now my siblings and I are adults, but we share this sleepover tradition with our nieces and nephews.
A Superstitious New Year’s With Coal and Whiskey
I come from a Scottish background that marries superstition with religion: not good bedfellows. Before the new year, all debts to family or friends must be paid. The house must be thoroughly cleaned with no dirty laundry. That’s the precursor. There’s not much time for partying with the duties that must be completed before midnight—plus a bowlful of peas must be consumed to ensure there is money in the new year. A soldering iron is used to drop bits of solder into cold water, and it will form globs that are then translated to the man or woman you will marry or the luck you will have that year. By 11:30, we are exhausted and perhaps feeling the painful effects of all those peas.
And then it’s on to mission impossible: the first footer. The first footer is the person who will take the first step over your threshold on New Year’s morning. This is quite specific. It must be a man, and he needs to be tall and very dark-haired and brown-eyed. He must carry a slice of bread, a flask of whiskey, a measure of milk, and a lump of coal—and then he must bless all the rooms in the house. All to ensure heat, food, and whiskey for whatever occasion it’s needed. I married a handsome but blue-eyed, red-haired man who by custom carries the worst possible luck as a first footer. Red hair is highest on the scale of bad luck, and of course most Scots are of that coloring. One year my husband could not leave the house in the event he would be the first one back in. We waited three days before we coerced a work colleague to gather the necessities and enter our house. I now collect the items and leave them outside on New Year’s Eve so that my son can enter with blessings and thus free me for the year. Do I believe this works? No. I have had some very bad years. But can I release myself from the superstition? Absolutely not. It’s time for me to look for a lump of coal already. Not easy to find in this century.