Every family celebrates the holidays a little differently. Some light candles in the window; others wait for Santa bearing gifts. Between the annual gift shopping rush, cookie baking and party preparations, have you ever wondered why your family celebrates its special traditions during the winter holiday season? Or about how your forebears celebrated Christmas, Hannukah or religious feast days? You might be surprised what you can learn about your family history from the rituals and routines you carry on year after year.
The history of seasonal celebrations is full of fascinating discoveries. New Englanders, for example, often light a candle in the window to welcome travelers. This Irish tradition became widespread in the 19th century when a large number of Irish immigrants settled in Boston. In the Southwest, luminarias or farolitos lighting walkways are a Mexican version of this welcoming signal.
My children love when the Belsnickel appears at my mother-in-law’s house each Christmas. In Germany and areas Germans settled, such as Philadelphia, the Belsnickel visited houses to perform for food and drink, bringing a sack of treats for the children.
Mummers, the English version of the Belsnickel, also called on Philadelphia residents. Now Philadelphia holds the Mummers Parade each New Year’s Day. Though my husband has some Pennsylvania German roots, his New England-born and -bred mother who adopted the Belsnickel tradition.
Gift-giving customs, symbols, songs and processions can all hold clues to heritage roots.
While most Australian traditions are English in origin, Christmas cards feature native animals such as koalas. Palm leaves, ferns and flowering plants decorate houses during this summer holiday in the Southern Hemisphere.
On Dec. 26, residents celebrate Jonkonnu, a festival that combines English and African elements and dance movements.
Ukrianians hang spiders and webs on their trees as part of a folkloric tale about a woman who was too poor to decorate her tree so a spider spun webs for decoration during the night. In Russia before the 1917 revolution, an old woman named Baboushka brought children treats. During the Communist era, she was changed to Grandfather Frost.
Slovakian children put polished boots in their windows for St. Nicholas to deliver gifts on Dec. 5. Moravians set up Christmas pyramids decorated with a star and shelves, one reserved for a nativity scene. A propeller on top of the structure turns from the heat of the candles on the shelves.
English children wait for Father Christmas to deliver presents. Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, brought the custom of tree decorating from his native Germany. The first Christmas cards debuted here in the 1840s. Christmas crackers, small popping cardboard tubes with surprises inside, are popular during the holidays.
The Coptic Church celebrates Ganna (Christmas) on Jan. 7. Ganna is named after a popular game similar to field hockey, which legend says the shepherds played upon hearing of Jesus’ birth. Everyone wears white to a church service following a day of fasting.
Young children think of Advent, which begins four Sundays before Christmas, as a calendar with a prize on every day between Dec. 1 and Dec. 25. Originally, Advent was a time to think about the future spiritual events of the season. Advent dates from 490 AD when the Bishop of Tours advocated fasting three days a week for the 40 days before Christmas. Extended families gather together after midnight Mass for reveilton, a banquet on Christmas Eve.
Most sources credit Germans for the tradition of decorating Christmas trees, bringing that custom to America. Elaborate hand-blown glass ornaments also first appeared in Germany. The German city of Lauscha was the manufacturing center for glass ornaments, although production slowed after it became part of postwar East Germany. Children write letters and lists and leave them for Christkindel (southern Germany) or Weinnachtsman (northern Germany). Many towns hold a Christkindelsmarkt, selling handmade gifts and treats during the holidays.
St. Nicholas, patron saint of sailors and fishermen, gives out gifts. Gift giving takes place on Jan. 1, St. Basil’s Day, in honor of one of the four fathers of the Greek Orthodox Church. On Epiphany, known as Greek Cross Day, crucifixes are blessed by dipping them into water.
Las Posadas, a daily procession that re-enacts Joseph’s and Mary’s search for shelter, is traditionally performed in the days before Christmas. Children leave their shoes in the window on Epiphany for gifts from the Magi. In Mexico, the holiday season ends with Candlemas, a religious ceremony on Feb. 2.
A Mexican folktale recounts the story of a poor girl who presented the infant Jesus with a branch from a simple plant. As she laid it beside the manger, it turned red. Joel Roberts Poinsett, a botanist and the first US ambassador to Mexico, brought the plant to this country, where it came to be called a poinsettia.
Italian children leave their shoes or stockings near the fireplace to receive gifts on Epiphany from La Befana. They also receive presents from Father Christmas on Christmas Day. Nativity scenes and Christmas pyramids are part of Christmas displays.
Black Peter disciplines naughty boys and girls on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), while Sinterklass, or St. Nicholas, rewards good children with candy and gifts.
Because the Philippines is the only Asian nation where the majority of people are Christian, Christmas there is celebrated widely. The season begins on Dec. 16 with the Misa de Gallo, or “rooster’s mass.” Most families display parols, or star-shaped lanterns, and sing carols.
At midnight on Christmas Eve in Poland, many go to pasterka, or Shepherd’s Mass. Afterward, the head of the family breaks an oplatek, a thin water made of wheat flour and water with a nativity scene stamped on it. Each family member breaks off a small piece and eats it. Later, they might feast on fish, sauerkraut, potato pancakes and beet soup.
Regions of Austria, Bavaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Northern Italy, Slovakia, and Slovenia have Krampus, their own version of Black Peter. This demonic, horned goat-like creature punishes misbehaving children during the holiday season.
In Scandinavian countries, trees are strung with straw goats. Danes use red-and-white hearts and strings of miniature Danish flags. Finnish children believe that Santa Claus, lives in Korvatunturi, in the northern part of their country.
Swedes honor Santa Lucia on Dec. 13 by selecting a child to dress in a white gown with a red sash. The child wears a wreath on the head with lit candles and delivers traditional food. The tomte, or Christmas gnome, brings gifts on Christmas Day. In Norway, Christmas, or Juledag, is a quiet prelude to Dec. 26, when Norwegians start eating, drinking and celebrating until Jan. 13.
Various regions of the United States also dealt with Christmas in their own unique ways that may be reflected in your family’s heritage. Conservative Puritans in Massachusetts tried to outlaw Christmas in the 17th century, while Southern settlers brought over carols, yule logs and greenery from England. Christmas in New England was a time of religious devotion; the southern colonies welcomed the holiday by making as much noise as possible.
Many of these regional differences grew out of the diversity of people in the area. In Alaska, for instance, Russian descendants still follow the traditions of the Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 7 with a procession carrying wheels trimmed with tinsel to resemble stars.
No holiday is complete without specific foods. My childhood memories revolve around large family parties on Christmas Eve, the tables laden with a potluck supper brought by relatives reflecting their particular ethnic heritage. My cousin always made la tourtiere, a meat pie served by French Canadians after midnight Mass, originally part of reveillon.
A typical English meal featured roast goose or turkey, plum pudding and wassail to drink. Waves of immigrants to America have each added their own items to that traditional holiday menu. Fruitcake, for example, has its origins in Ireland, while gingerbread cookies began in the Netherlands and Germany. Spain is notable for its marzipan and Sweden for its lussekatt buns at the festival of Santa Lucia, while mincemeat is an old English tradition. Feasts also are part of Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, of course. And no one who participates in an Italian Christmas Eve ever forgets the seven courses — with eel as one traditional offering.
During the 1960s, the struggle for civil rights produced a need for a new holiday, one that would allow African Americans to celebrate their cultural origins, history and identity. Kwanzaa, a new tradition created by Maulana Karenga in 1966, filled that need. Now more than 5 million African American families celebrate Kwanzaa, according to Ebony, and the numbers are growing.
From Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, African Americans reflect on African traditions and values, based on harvest festivals held by several African tribes. The word Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase for “first fruits of the harvest,” with an extra a added to signify the seven days of reflection.
Each day of Kwanzaa is an opportunity to focus on a principle that reinforces and strengthens the family. These seven principles, called nguzo saba, are umoja (unity), kujich-agulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumbaa (creativity) and imani (faith). As part of the celebration, families place symbolic objects on a straw mat called a mkeka. These objects include an ear of corn for each child in the family (muhindi), a unity cup (kikombe cha umoja) and a wooden candle holder (kinara) with a center black candle flanked by three red and green candles (misbumaa saba). These colors come from the flag of black nationalism, in which red symbolizes blood, black symbolizes African heritage and green symbolizes land.
Children are given zawadi, handmade gifts that represent the fruit of the parents’ labor and the rewards of seeds sown by the children. As the week winds down, families get together on Dec. 31 for a feast called karamu, a celebration of the year’s accomplishments.
Many religions and cultures include the candle-lighting holiday traditions. For Jews, the lighting of the menorah is a focal point for Hanukkah (also spelled Chanuka or Chanukah, meaning “dedication”), an eight-day celebration that commemorates the victory of the Jews against the Syrian-Greek King Antiochus in 162 BC. The triumph ensured Jews were free to worship.
The lighting of the menorah or candles symbolizes the rededication of their temple. The dates of Hanukkah change each year, but it’s always the 25th day of Kislev according to the Jewish calendar. According to our calendar, Hanukkah is in either November or December.
The primary symbol of Hanukkah is a candleholder called the menorah. One candle is lit on the first night of Hanukkah, and on each successive night another candle is added until the entire menorah is lit. The highest candle, known as the shamash or “servant,” is used to light the other candles. Each candle signifies a virtue such as spirit, courage, justice and hope.
Latkes or potato pancakes, served with applesauce or sour cream, are traditional holiday fare because Maccabee women fed them to the soldiers during battle. Frying them in oil memorializes the miracle of a small amount of oil that lasted eight days during the battle. Another signature Hanukkah treat is sufganiyot, an orange-flavored jelly doughnut traditional in Israel.
During Hanukkah, children and adults sing songs such as “Rock of Ages (Maoz Tzur),” “Who Can Retell?” and “O Hannukkah.” Children also play dreidel, spinning a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter inscribed on each side. Their families give them gelt, or money, which today usually is gold-foil candy coins. Some families give one gift each day; others wait till the last night of Hanukkah.
Heritagefests: The Holidays Meet Family History
Looking for ways to infuse your holiday gatherings with family history? Check out these inspiring ideas from Janet Hovorka, author of Zap the Grandma Gap: Connect with Your Family by Connecting Them to Your Family History (Family Chartmasters).
Q. What’s the easiest way to turn holidays into heritagefests?
A: Food! Those labor-intensive recipes prepared at the holidays are probably from your family history. Make them together. If it’s a tricky recipe, teach it: Make sure your helpers know how much “a pinch” is. If you can’t make it together, at least make sure everyone knows where the recipes come from. Tell stories and pull out a picture of the grandma who was known for that dish.
Q. What about heritage decorations?
A: We’ve decorated Christmas trees with family photo ornaments, cranberries and popcorn, and other old-fashioned decorations. You can weave family history into a table centerpiece with pictures, books, flowers and an heirloom. Some ethnic holidays like Kwanzaa and Hanukkah are already all about tradition and heritage, so it’s not hard to pull in a family history perspective.
Q. How can we interest children?
A: Kids love pictures and anything about an ancestor at the same age they are now. Show them pictures of young ancestors and get out their toys, report cards and books they read, and sing the songs they sang. Pictures make ancestors more real—so do those cool objects.
At our family gatherings, we often set times for family history interviews. The kids are invited to ask questions. When the grandparents talk to the kids, that’s when the good stories come out (not so much with us grown-ups). I just leave my recorder running so I don’t interrupt the conversation. If I have to edit out two hours, that’s fine.
Q: What about older relatives?
A: The trick is connecting your family members’ interests to your history. Family history engulfs everything: culture, languages, art, science, etc. If you have a child interested in fashion or hairstyles, show old pictures of different fashions. Military history buffs will want to know about a Civil War or WWII soldier. A science teacher might be interested in a DNA test.
Q: Any ideas for family history gifts?
A. My kids digitized some of the family letters one year. My sisters sewed a quilt for me with squares my grandma made from the fabric of her mother’s dresses. Last year we went on a trip to an old ancestral hometown. My mom has made several children’s picture books with photos of ancestors as children and teenagers. Think of anything meaningful to your own family.
Written by Sunny Morton, from the December 2013 issue of Family Tree Magazine
Holiday Heritage Activities for Kids
The holiday season is a magical time for children. Keep them busy during this hectic time of year with projects that help them celebrate and learn more about their family heritage:
- Create crafts that help celebrate the season in traditional ways. Make clay candleholders and wax candles for a menorah, weave a Kwanzaa mat or design an Advent calendar.
- Older children can be entrusted to make special holiday recipes. Offer your help in the kitchen and pass on yummy traditions.
- Collect holiday recipes from relatives and compile them to create family cookbooks for gifts.
- Learn holiday-related games such as the dreidel, or perform songs from your family’s countries of origin.
- Read books about the history and tradition of your holidays, such as The Story of Hanukkah by Norma Simon (HarperCollins Juvenile Books), Celebrations (from the Children Just Like Me series) by Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley (DK Publishing), Las Posadas: An Hispanic Christmas Celebration by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith (Holiday House) or Seven Candles for Kwanzaa by Andreas Davis Pinkney (Dial Books for Young Readers).
Holiday Traditions and History Websites
- The History of the Holidays: Overviews of Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas and other holidays from the History Channel.
- Holidays on the Net: Click Choose a Holiday Celebration to learn more about most major holidays, including Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah.
- The Holiday Spot: Covers many holidays throughout the year, including Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hanukkah.
- The Food Timeline: Christmas Foods: Origins and recipes for sugarplums, wassail and other traditional foodss.
- Merry Christmas.com: Features recipes, movies and a kid zone.
- A Victorian Christmas: Christmas holidays in the Victorian period.
- Hanukka? Chanukah? Hanaka?: Why there are so many different spellings of Hanukkah
- Official Kwanzaa Website: Detailed description of Kwanzaa and its principles from its creator.
New Year’s Day
- New Year Traditions: How people around the world ring in in the New Year
- New Year’s Eve: History and news about New Year’s Eve in New York City’s Times Square
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