Unusual Winter-Holiday Traditions
Last month, The Atlantic asked readers to share their strangest, silliest holiday traditions. The Family section commissioned illustrations for a handful of the responses; we’ve rounded up some of the other weird and wonderful submissions here.
When our children were young, they helped my wife make an “angel” to go on top of the tree. It ended up resembling a chicken more than an angel. So every year, once we’ve completed decorating the tree, we have a Christmas-chicken-placing ceremony where we play a song from the Muppets chickens while placing the chicken on top of the tree. Our kids are now in their early 20s and we still look forward to this tradition.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Every holiday season my family gathers together to make hundreds of pierogi—traditional Polish dumplings. My great-grandmother used to make them without any kind of recipe, but before she passed away my grandma (whom I call Mimi) spent time with her in the kitchen and was able to get a recipe down. Now it’s become a Pisarczyk-family tradition and everyone from my dad’s side of the family comes together on this one day. There aren’t many times when we are all able to be in the same house together, but the hours we’ve spent rolling out dough, making balls of potato and cheese filling, and eating “noodles” made from the leftover dough strips are some of my favorite memories. We don’t all celebrate Christmas together, but everyone eats the pierogi on Christmas Eve, which gives us a sense of full-family celebration even if we aren’t all sitting around the same table.
Beginning last year, my family decided to set certain standards for our get-together at Christmas. We exchanged socks. It was great fun looking at ads and stores to find socks that were unusual or just brightly colored. A few of us cheated and bought slippers.
We also started the tradition of having a theme for each Christmas and dressing accordingly. Last year it was Gilligan’s Island. So me, the mother and oldest, went as Gilligan, an easy costume. This year the theme is The Princess Bride, and I’ll be going as the wife of Miracle Max. My daughter will go as the albino, my granddaughter will go as Buttercup, and the others will be choosing other characters from the movie to represent. The possibilities for future choices are endless.
De Pere, Wis.
Our family Christmas traditions have been uniquely different and various from the time our daughter was 4 years old until she was 18. We have done everything from working in soup kitchens in San Francisco feeding the homeless and poor to working in Mexico and Central American countries for charitable causes. We wanted our daughter to grow up knowing real-world conditions outside her comfort zone in the U.S. We never exchanged material Christmas gifts and preferred real-life experiences, which we felt were more valuable and rewarding.
Bainbridge Island, Wash.
Several years ago, my wife and I felt we needed a better way to celebrate or mark the winter season of change. We had become so tired of the materialistic push that feels like such a part of that time. We now celebrate “Turning” during the 12 days from the solstice until the new year. Each year, we decide on a theme and 12 elements of that theme. Then each day we draw from the 12 and discuss ideas related to that element of the theme. The year Barack Obama was elected we chose 12 things we hoped for his presidency. One year we drew angel cards. One year we drew from the list of “Advice From … ” for our focus for the day. This is our 25th year together, and we are talking about using our relationship as the focus, and more specifically identifying things we can do for 10 minutes a day that will enrich our relationship. Each day, we come together and light a candle for that day’s focus and remind ourselves of the days that have come before. Then we both talk about what that day’s issue means to each of us. Then we each write a poem following the simplest form of a cinquain, a five-line stanza. And we read those poems to each other. Those 12 poems are the gifts we give each other each year.
Ruth Langstraat and Roxanne WhiteLight
New Year’s Eve is a holiday I closely associate with my dad. My mom would typically be asleep before 10:30 p.m., so the evening was spent eating snacks and watching movies with Dad. Every year, whoever was the oldest and had the darkest hair was to go outside at 11:57 and enter at midnight with a lump of coal in hand to bring prosperity to the household. As my dad went gray at the age of 25, this duty fell to me and my dark-brown curls.
Growing up, I knew the drill; once it was 11:55 I was to put on my coat, mittens, and boots to face the dark northern–British Columbia winter. Once outside, I would find the “coal” in the mailbox (a small rock wrapped in black hockey tape). I knew it was time to knock on the door when I heard the far-off fireworks signifying the arrival of the new year. Dad would then open the door and accept my offering of coal before it was time for bed.
Prince George, British Columbia, Canada
My husband is British, so we’ve adopted the custom of eating “snap dragons” on New Year’s Eve at midnight. You need fresh almonds, some cheap brandy, and a wooden bowl (which we line with foil. Why? It will become obvious soon). You put the almonds in the bowl, warm the brandy, and at midnight, turn out the lights, set the brandy on fire with a match, and pour it over the almonds. This creates a gorgeous blue flame. Take turns grasping the flaming almonds in your fingers and tossing them into your mouth. We live in Maine and, if weather permits, we walk the nearby causeway to an island and do this in the snow by the sea, in pitch black, using Sterno to heat the brandy. Magical.
When I was growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, there was one holiday card that featured an illustration of an apple with a metal spring “worm” that popped out when you opened the card. The card was sent anonymously from one family member to another (it was a very large extended family, too), with no return address, so the sender always knew who would get the card next, but no one ever knew from whom it came! We’d wait for the mail delivery each December to see if this year we were “it.”
New York, N.Y.
My family hosts hay rides for our neighbors in the middle of the city. Yep. At the beginning of December, we borrow our family member’s trailer, buy some hale bales (I guess? My stepdad does this part. He might steal them honestly), stuff them in the trailer, and then schedule at least four hay rides before Christmas. People come over to my parents’ house, eat soup, and heat up apple cider with Tuaca (it’s the greatest booze you’ve never heard of). Then we stuff everyone into the trailer with blankets and Santa hats, and our designated driver drives us around the neighborhood to look at Christmas lights. We all have songbooks that are waterlogged packets of printer paper no one thinks to replace, and we sing sloppy carols to lots of victims, er, passersby. People got to expecting our caravan of crazy every year; we singlehandedly started a tradition in our city. Now other people tow trailers, rent brew bikes, and even reserve horse and carriages to roam our neighborhood—which has led to more amazing Christmas lights than ever. It’s a snowball effect (pun intended).
It’s a very simple tradition, but we’ve been doing it for more than 30 years now. Every New Year’s Day, we head to the bookstore—Amazon doesn’t count—to buy a new book to start off the new year. That’s it. I used to drive my mother crazy by picking Calvin and Hobbes or Garfield books or books about baseball. She would have preferred me to choose Twain or Dickens or some other great literature. In the end, she was happy that I was reading anything, and eventually I came around to more sophisticated tomes. Our tradition gives you something both tangible (turning the pages) and intangible (the excitement of a new story) to look forward to in the new year. Now that I’m grown and married, I’ve kept up the tradition with my own family, even as it gets harder to find local bookstores open on New Year’s Day.
Every year, my very-German grandmother from the upstate New York town of Remsen brings a small Peppermint Pig to Christmas dinner. As a family, we place the pig in a small velvet bag and take turns, youngest to oldest, hitting the pig with a small metal hammer until the pieces are broken up enough to eat.
I had always assumed it was at least a somewhat well-known German tradition until my girlfriend and I were talking about it, which ultimately led us to googling the tradition and stumbling onto this New York Times article, which I sent to my grandmother, asking why she never told us more about the history of the pig. Since then, we’ve had a number of conversations via phone and FaceTime about how difficult it has become through generations to separate American and German identities, and what the value is of maintaining one over the other.
My mixed-Asian family of nine (an Indian grandfather, a Filipina grandmother, their two daughters, one of the daughters’ white husband, and four grandchildren) was never able to decide on a cuisine for Christmas. So one year we admitted defeat and ordered a truly ridiculous feast of Chinese takeout, lit a fire in the fireplace, and burned the takeout boxes while we opened presents. It’s been a tradition ever since.