Friday, January 2, 2009

Holiday Magic and Traditions - What are your favorite holiday memories?

As the traditional American and Christian holidays come to an end with the celebration of a new year, I find myself reminiscing over my favorite holiday memories.

There has always been something magical to me about the fall; the smells, colors, feel of the change of the seasons that leads into the holidays.

The festive spirit in our family began as we prepared for Halloween.

In our cedar-sided house in the woods in Watertown, NY, we would spend afternoons collecting the mountains of leaves that fell from the surrounding acres of trees. My father grew up in rural Puerto Rico where Halloween isn't celebrated but all was not lost as he threw himself into celebrating it with us!

I remember giggling as we stuffed those crispy colorful leaves into his old BDU's creating leaf-filled, life-sized but lumpy soldiers in his uniforms, complete with laced-up standard issued combat boots and covering the spot above their collars with old helmets and hats, positioning them against trees along our driveway as though a small squad of soldiers were taking an afternoon nap on our lawn, resting before battle.

On the night of Halloween, my traditionally quiet and reserved, uniformed father would join our sleeping soldiers on the lawn and wait for the children in our neighborhood to knock on our door for candy.

As they walked back down the driveway, he would jump up from his tree screaming and jumping towards them as their shrieks of terror would pierce the air! I'm sure we dressed up and went trick-or-treating like the rest of the kids, but what I remember most is the ache of my sides hurting by the end of the night from all the uncontrollable laughter and my father's eyes filled with that shine and glimmer of glee!

When the aromatically alluring smells from the Adobo-seasoned Pernil (Puerto Rican pork roast) and turkey would awaken me like tickling fingers shortly after sunrise on Thanksgiving morning, I would quickly jump out of bed knowing that my parents had already been up for hours beginning to cook our feast. I can now appreciate the labor and skill that it takes to perfectly roast two different kinds of meat in the oven into perfection; I'm still trying to perfect that incredible feat! While my parents worked on the various dishes and tantalizing smells out of the kitchen, my little sister and I watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Pa
rade and decorated our Christmas tree every year.

Our house was eternally full of life during the holidays. Always thankful for the many blessings in our lives, our family was expanded every year as we welcomed the soldiers that couldn't make it home to their own family's for Thanksgiving from my father's platoon, into ours.

As we got older and the Army moved us to new places, we adopted our favorite regional Thanksgiving dishes to our meal. To our traditional Puerto Rican holiday feast of arroz con gandules, pernil, and decadent coquito (coconut and rum version of the American eggnog), we added homemade macaroni and cheese and cornbread dressing from the Soul Food of the South and squash and green bean casseroles from the North...

Thanksgiving was ultimately the catapult of our Christmas holiday.

This year as my boyfriend and I celebrated our second Thanksgiving together, even though I didn't wake up to the smells of my childhood holiday with my family, we curled up together and he watched the
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade for the first time...

When I think about the many places around the world that I've celebrated Christmases, the one place that stands out like a picture post card of the season is Stuttgart, Germany. Stuttgart boasts the largest Weihnachtsmarkt/Christmas Market in Europe - a holiday fantasy land!

The center of town would be transformed into the Weihnachtsmarkt where the air would be filled with the smell of fresh baked soft pretzels the size of our heads that would come with hand churned sweet butter. The bitter cold shielded by the neighboring Black Forest could be quickly erased by glasses (NOT plastic cups) of hot chocolate and hot red wine from the native vineyards. We would shop from the dozens of craftsmen stands selling hand carved ornaments, spun crystal snowflakes and garlands, or go across the street to the large ice skating rink that was built on the town square and just like the picture post cards, it would always magically start to snow as we stumbled across the ice!

I was born and raised in Germany where the spirit of Nikolas has the deepest of roots. Having spent the majority of my childhood in Germany, my earliest memories of "Santa Claus" rather than the bright red suit with white fir trimming, were of traditional folk images with tattered clothes and a patchwork sack filled with candies and coins - not presents. I remember leaving all of our shoes outside of our door the first week of December like all of the children in our neighborhood in the hopes that Nikolas would leave us candy or a coin or two, silently hoping that we wouldn't get a branch root instead indicating he knew we had been naughty that year!

Born into a Catholic family from Puerto Rico, the American tradition of Santa Claus and his magical sleigh of reindeer from the North Pole that landed on roofs and climbed down chimneys to leave presents to good boys and girls around the world, was never really solidified in my mind. I don't think we weren't taught whether or not to believe in Santa, like I mentioned, we never missed the opportunity to rush outside to collect our goodies from our shoes at the start of Advent, but Christmas and Christmas Eve were celebrated differently in our home...

Christmas Eve was celebrated with midnight mass. Christmas day was never about presents or who gave who what. We usually exchanged a small gift or two but prepared for a day of celebration of the world's greatest birthday! Huge family, friends and never-ending food!

What’s known as the Epiphany - January 6th - is culturally our big gift-giving celebration - THREE KINGS DAY! Instead of milk and cookies for Santa, we leave boxes of grass and bowls of water next to our beds for the Wise Men’s camels to drink from their long voyages! Instead of Christmas trees, our gifts were found under the bed, usually unwrapped in the spirit of simplicity… We got our holiday gifts when it was said that Jesus received his. And yet our parents still created magic for us as they urged the boys in my grandmother’s farming neighborhood to ride their horses up and down the street leaving SURE proof along the roads that the Three Kings HAD indeed come to visit us!

As I grew older and started to question whether or not Nikolas and the Three Kings existed to shower us with gifts during the holidays, my parents never backed down from the true meaning of Christmas; the birth of Jesus Christ, the spirit of giving and supporting those less fortunate, and celebrating TRADITIONS.

My mother made sure when we were in grade school that we volunteered with local charities the week of Christmas. We would pick families with children our ages and we would go shopping for the same gifts we had wanted for ourselves all year long. As much as I remember how fun it was to run through the toy store like little elves, the sobering experience was going to the base commissary watching my mother fill shopping carts with basic household supplies and food. Always the conscientious shopper, I still hear her words echoing in my head when I'm going up and down the aisles shopping now, "always have rice, a couple cans of corn, Vienna sausages..." I always knew when things were getting a little tight at home - she would take left over rice and add a can of corn creating a beautiful display of color on the plate and enough food for all of us. Just like my grandmother, mom could come up with a meal from all the major food groups out of nothing in the cabinets until pay day! It was then a family event to wrap up all of our gifts and deliver them to our chosen family recipients, realizing that being Santa was the real holiday magic...

In her determination to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in us as we continue to celebrate in all of the holiday traditions of the places we’ve lived, I've learned that everyone can be Santa Claus, Nikolas, and the Wise Men if we all just have a little faith and BELIEVE!


  1. Dorana, what beautiful memories. You really know how to describe things so I can feel like I'm there.

    My holidays as a child were typical American stuff. We usually had 15 to 20 people at Thanksgiving and/or Christmas dinner, and I remember being so happy at that time of year.

    We celebrated the feast of St. Nicholas by putting our shoes out, too! The only thing I recall about the Epiphany was that we had to keep our decorations up until then, especially the lights, so the three kings could find baby Jesus. Oh, yes, I also loved how baby Jesus would appear in the nativity set on Christmas morning (I used to think Santa put him there, LOL). My sisters and I used to argue over who got the privilege of hanging great-grandmother's ornament. I have it now.

    Now our holidays are so different. My huge family has moved all over the world, the old generation is all gone, and most of us didn't have any kids so we've shrunk! But we still have fun celebrating the day.

  2. Kara - thank you for taking the time to comment on my holiday traditions narrative! LOVE the story about baby Jesus and the nativity! what a GREAT idea! thank you for sharing your holiday memories with me! you've just inspired a new holiday tradition for the family i hope to have one day!

    siempre - dorana