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How we blend religious and cultural traditions to make the holidays special

The About US team and our readers share their holiday traditions. (Washington Post Staff/Washington Post)

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The holiday season is a chance for many of us to celebrate our different religious and cultural traditions, at roughly the same time — the end of one year and the beginning of another. During the past several weeks, we have asked our readers and our colleagues to share with us the rituals that make their celebrations dear to them. It is notable how people from one group have embraced another group’s traditions, resulting in a fusion of cultural practices that recognizes the country’s increasing diversity.

The About US team is pleased to share several of the stories we’ve gathered about holiday traditions. We also would like to take this time to thank you for reading us during the past year. We will not publish next Friday, Dec. 28, but will be back on Jan. 4, when we will look at the important stories in 2018 about identity and diversity.

Happy holidays!

“My sister and I were born and brought up in the United States. Growing up, we must have looked like very adorable, strange lunatics to our Indian parents as we came home with drawings and stories about an overweight bearded man, who will break into our small New Jersey home and eat our Parle-G biscuits. But they played along. As Hindu immigrants, they realized that this country celebrated Christmas the way India celebrates Diwali, the festival of lights. Banks and government offices would close. Schools and workplaces took holiday. And there was a similar sense of merriment — just with snow instead of mithai, or Indian sweets. Here in America, we had a small plastic tree and strings of twinkle lights. In 1984, dad bought a toy Santa that, when switched on, would play “Jingle Bells” so obnoxiously loud it made my sister and I cry. (Fact: We have not changed the battery in that Santa toy since it was purchased. Every year we find toy Santa spooking around in the garage and place him under the tree. He’s like a ghost we now respect.) We learned carols and made Swiss Miss after shoveling our driveway. We watched “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Miracle on 34th Street” and cried on mall Santa’s lap — now memorialized in dusty photo albums.

Years later, when we moved into a bigger home, my family bought a large plastic tree from Sears that read “Made in Thailand” on the box. My sister and I would take a break from assembling the tree to eat poha (a spicy flattened rice dish stained with turmeric and mustard oil) for lunch and then decorate the bare tree with painted pine cones from school art class or Burger King kids’ meal toy ornaments.

Not all Indian families did this — we knew that. Some years we would drive to family friends or relatives’ homes on Christmas to find an undecorated house, save for a Ganesha statue, some flowers and everyone’s shoes neatly piled by the door. We’d eat a lovely meal — biryani, chicken curry, mango pulp and fried poori bread — and as my family and I would head to the door, we’d wish everyone a Merry Christmas only to get a slight twitch from our hosts.

One year home from college, I asked my parents why we continued to celebrate Christmas. Hindus assembling a plastic tree from Thailand was probably the most quintessential portrait of America I could think of, but how did we manage to keep doing this after my sister and I grew up? “If you think about it, Christmas is a holiday about giving back to others, being with family and making traditions,” my mom said. “So what’s wrong with celebrating that?” My dad reminded me that in the United States, everything shuts down to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, which also mean that it was the one time of year where we all had time off — why not make the most of that?

True, my family and I have no personal connection to Jesus and his birthday, but if this country gives us a couple weeks off to relax with my family — what’s the harm if some Hindus create some quirky traditions?"

Shefali S. Kulkarni, operations editor

“My mom loves the holiday season, and growing up, she usually hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas at our house. We typically ate traditional “American” platters — the gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, vegetables and ham — even though we spent the holidays with my dad’s side of the family, which is Vietnamese. But about 10 years ago, my godparents started hosting Christmas. Now, everyone gets their turkey fix on Thanksgiving, but we’re treated to a Vietnamese feast — bánh xèo, bò kho, summer rolls with a skillet for fresh shrimp, beef and chicken in the middle of the table, and japchae for me, the vegetarian — in my Aunt Lanh and Bác Hòa’s basement on Christmas. I am a true mash-up, and I love that our holiday traditions are, too.”

Ashley Nguyen, student, University of Washington, former Post staffer

“I’m Jewish, so my primary holiday to celebrate this season is Hanukkah, but I have a Christmas tradition with friends, too. It’s American-Jewish tradition to eat Chinese food and go to the movies on Christmas Day. But we start a day early! Every year on Christmas Eve, a handful of friends and I meet at the same local Chinese restaurant (I make reservations weeks in advance), eat our fill and then go to the movies. Afterward, we go to a local Mexican/Salvadoran restaurant that has Spanish-language karaoke and a champagne toast at midnight. We sing along with the crowd and usually eat again. The restaurant has a festive Christmas mood and we’ve always felt welcome. On Christmas Day, some of us get up early to volunteer with the D.C. Jewish Community Center and then I start the cycle again, but this time with Thai food and usually a movie with my parents.”

Emily Guskin, polling analyst

“I still remember standing there with my candle in a room full of smiling faces waiting for the host to read out my principle of Kwanzaa, purpose. Each year, one of my mother’s closest friends would throw a Kwanzaa party at her home. There would be plenty of food, board games, chatter and piano playing, but the lighting of the candles was my favorite part. My name is the fifth principle of Kwanzaa and around 8 years old, it felt like everyone there was celebrating me. The host would read out the name of the principle — there are seven — with much bravado, its meaning, a challenge to the attendees to incorporate its message into the new year, and I’d step forward to add my red, black or green candle on the Kwanzaa Kinara. I’m pretty sure I liked the idea of my five minutes of fame, but the older I get, the holidays always remind me of those parties and the feeling of being part of something special with historical roots.”

Nia Decaille, audience editor

“To tell my own holiday tradition, you have to know I grew up in South Florida, which is really a natural extension of the Caribbean. My mother’s family is of Cuban American and Honduran descent, and each year we’ve made a tradition of ordering lechon with rice and beans, plantains and yuca from Sedano’s, a local Latin American grocery chain. The ordering has to be done a few weeks in advance, as those Cuban families who do not have the skills or the inclination to roast an entire pig in their backyards flock to get their orders in time for Nochebuena. The counter beyond Sedano’s is a frantic kind of place, where stout women behind the counter fire out the numbers of waiting customers in rapid Spanish. Elderly men with croaking voices wait at the cafe, drinking Cuban coffee and arguing about John F. Kennedy. I usually wait slumped over a grocery cart, letting myself get hungrier among the smell grilling medianoche sandwiches as I wait for up to an hour for my number to get called. My mother and I pile the lechon — don’t forget the Cuban bread! — into the truck of her SUV. My uncle usually hosts Nochebuena at his home, but some years it’s at ours. My grandmother and all our extended relatives come over and stay late into the night, and I’ll play with my youngest cousins. At midnight, everyone in our family gets to open one present ahead of Christmas morning.”

Rachel Hatzipanagos, multiplatform editor

“Every year since I was born, I have spent New Year’s Eve with my large extended family in Costa Rica. We pack our 40 or so relatives into my grandmother’s small house in San Jose for a party, listening to the countdown on the local radio station. When the clock strikes midnight, we exchange hugs and kisses with everyone in the room. My grandma always weeps. All the while, we’re each stuffing our faces with 12 grapes, one for every month of the year. Then, for my favorite of all holiday traditions, we sprint out to the front of the house and take turns running around the block with suitcases. The farther we run with our suitcases, my family always says, the farther we’ll travel in the new year. We all do it — from my toddler cousins to my eldest aunts in their high heels. Our neighbors always cheer us on, shouting “Feliz Año Nuevo!” and sometimes join in, as fireworks shoot off in all directions. Then, we eat a massive dinner and dance and sing karaoke until past 4 a.m.”

Samantha Schmidt, staff writer

“It is a tradition for my family to watch the Banco Popular musical special every year on Nochebuena (Christmas Eve). It is my family’s way of connecting our lives in Washington to Puerto Rico during the holidays. My grandmother in Puerto Rico would send the videocassette or DVD to us each winter; later my father would purchase it online so we could play it for all the Puerto Ricans we knew from our church community. Watching those specials, which were more like feature-length music videos, was like being in a classroom learning about my family and heritage.

My parents lived vicariously through the dramatized scenes, reconnecting to their traditions. I learned which songs my abuelo used to serenade. I learned who the greats of Puerto Rican artistry were. I became obsessed with the lyrics of Borinquens' saddest bolero. To this day, if I hear Marc Anthony’s version of “Preciosa” (featured in one of the late 2000s specials), I am liable to stop what I’m doing and belt out, “Yo te quiero, Puerto Rico,” along with him. I lived those specials. My parents even tried to re-create the “parranda” the traditional lively caroling, using a boombox and a few instruments we bought in a souvenir shop in San Juan. Imagine, a group of small brown kids knocking on your door, dressed head to toe in winter gear singing, “Dame me la mano Paloma!” (Roughly translated: Give me your hand [wing], dove.) They are strange but fun songs.

Those specials romanticized Puerto Rico for me and presented a rosy portrait that I naively thought was every boricua’s experience. But when I went to the island to cover Hurricane Maria, I learned that so much of the reality of life on the U.S. territory wasn’t the stuff of song and dance. The poverty is frightening. The government is dysfunctional. The island’s relationship with the United States is fraught with turmoil. Despite all that, what transcends the specials is that the people of Puerto Rico have survived tragedy because they cherish their culture, abide by their shared values and, in the face of adversity, still find reasons to celebrate.”

Arelis Hernandez, Washington Post staff writer

“Although most hotels prohibit guests from burning candles, I grew up lighting menorahs in hotel rooms that my mom had decorated for Chanukah. As an adult I still light multiple menorahs with my family, including the electric one on our windowsill. Chanukah is eight nights, and on a Sunday my aunt usually hosts a family party with lots of latkes, soup, cookies and singing.”

Andrea Stagg, lawyer, New York City

“I happily join in almost any religious tradition when I’m invited, but for the most part I celebrate the Christian holidays. This December has been different, however: This year I delayed putting up my tree, and during Chanukah I put decorations in my front window and each night lit a menorah that could be seen from the street. The departure from my usual holiday routine was prompted by learning that a friend’s young son was so traumatized by the murders at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that he couldn’t tolerate his family’s Chanukah decorations being visible from the street. There wasn’t any way to reassure him, really, but when I suggested encouraging our non-Jewish neighbors to light menorahs in our windows, his mom liked the idea. So I posted the suggestion on our small suburban community’s Facebook page.

I was astonished at the response: Eventually over 400 emoji and more than 100 comments were posted, most from Jewish neighbors expressing appreciation, some sharing stories of others who are also afraid this year. Non-Jewish neighbors expressed solidarity and asked where to find and how to light a menorah. On the second night of Chanukah, the story made our local news, as did the Jewish Student Association menorah lighting at Capital University (where I teach religion), this year attended by more community members than usual. For my own gesture of solidarity with my young neighbor, I borrowed a menorah offered by a friend, picked up the candles and some Chanukah window decorations, and constructed an ersatz high-top table from which the menorah could be seen through my front window. Each evening, I sang the prayers, lit the candles, and sat and watched as they burned down. I thought about my young friend and his family, my Jewish neighbors and students, and the many Jewish friends with whom I’ve celebrated Chanukah and other holidays over the years.

On Saturday, at a friend’s annual party, I ate latkes and watched as one end of the room grew bright from a table full of menorahs, lit by children of all backgrounds from the neighborhood. I don’t know what we’ll do next December. The tradition I would like to start is this: that Christians and other non-Jewish people find more substantive ways all throughout the year to oppose bigotry, that we stand in solidarity against religious violence consistently and with all the power of our numbers and political influence. That we make sure my young friend has no reason to be afraid.”

— Sally Stamper, assistant professor of religion, Capital University, Columbus, Ohio.