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2023 Dec

Celebrating Holiday Traditions

Discover ideas for creating your family’s own holiday traditions!

Holiday traditions vary from family to family. From favorite recipes to unique celebrations, our traditions connect us to previous generations and perhaps far-away countries. When I grew up, one Christmas tradition in my house was making Scotch shortbread cookies. Using a Scottish recipe from her grandmother, my mom made these simple, golden cookies every December.

Sometimes my little brother, Tom, and I got to help with kneading the dough. Our favorite part was when Mom said we could “spank the baby,” which meant slapping the dough while we kneaded it. Then Mom would shape six-inch circles of dough and pop them in the oven. I can still remember the buttery, sweet smell of shortbread wafting through the house. The large cookies were meant to be broken in pieces, and everyone loved them. We gave shortbread to favorite teachers, the mailman, and lucky friends.

Celebrating the holidays with your family is a magical time of the year. For a few days you can press the pause button and let the rest of your life fade into the background as you focus on the present moment and enjoy spending quality time together. Perhaps you and your family celebrate favorite holiday traditions. If you don’t, it’s the perfect time to start!

One idea is to research how people around the world celebrate the holidays and incorporate some of their customs in your own family’s traditions. Here are a few ways other cultures celebrate the holiday season.

Feliz Navidad: Posada Processions in Mexico

On Dia de los Reyes, Children Recive Presents from the Three Kings

In Mexico, children often perform the Posada processions or Posadas from December 16th to Christmas Eve. Posada is Spanish for inn or lodging. There are nine Posadas, which celebrate the part of the Christmas story where Joseph and Mary looked for somewhere to stay. For the Posadas, the outside of houses are decorated with evergreens, moss, and paper lanterns.

For each Posada, children are given candles and a board with painted clay figures of Mary riding on a donkey and Joseph. They visit the houses of friends and neighbors and sing a song at each home. The song they sing is about Joseph and Mary asking for a room in the house. But the children are told that there is no room in the house and that they must go away. Eventually they are told there is room and are welcomed in. When the children go into the house, they say prayers of thanks, and then they have a party with food, games, and fireworks.

Each night a different house holds the Posada party. At the final Posada, on Christmas Eve, a manger and figures of shepherds are put on the boards. When the Posada house has been found, a baby Jesus is put into the manger, and then families go to a midnight church service. After church there are more fireworks to celebrate the start of Christmas.

One game that is often played at Posada parties is piñata. A piñata is filled with sweets and hung from the ceiling or tree branch. Children are blind-folded and take turns hitting the piñata with a stick until it splits open and the sweets pour out. Then the children rush to pick up as many sweets as they can.

Nativity scenes, known as the nacimiento, are very popular in Mexico. The figures are often made of clay and traditionally passed down through families. Besides the normal figures of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the Shepherds and Three Kings, there are often lots of other figures of different people, including women making tortillas, people selling food, and different animals and birds, like flamingos. The figures can be bought from markets in cities all over Mexico. The baby Jesus is normally added to the scene during the evening of Christmas Eve. The Three Kings are added at Epiphany.

In some states in Mexico, children expect Santa Claus to come on December 24th. In the south of Mexico, children expect presents on January 6th at Epiphany, which is known as el Dia de los Reyes. On el Dia de los Reyes, the presents are left by the Three Kings (or Magi). If you’ve had a visit from Santa on Christmas Eve, you might also get some candy on el Dia de los Reyes! It’s traditional to eat a special cake called Rosca de Reyes (Three Kings Cake) on Epiphany. A figure of Baby Jesus is hidden inside the cake. Whoever has the baby Jesus in their piece of cake is the Godparent of Jesus for that year. Feliz Navidad!

Time-Honored Jewish Tradition: Happy Hanukkah

Celebrating Hanukkah with a Menorah Lighting

Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights, and it commemorates the rededication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. This happened in the 160s BCE/BC (before Jesus was born). Hanukkah, the Jewish word for dedication, lasts for eight days and starts on the 25th of Kislev, the month in the Jewish calendar that occurs at about the same time as December. Because the Jewish calendar is lunar (it uses the moon for its dates), Kislev can happen from late November to late December. This year Hanukkah begins the evening of Thursday, December 7, and ends the evening of Friday, December 15.

During Hanukkah, on each of the eight nights, a candle is lit in a special menorah (candelabra) called a hanukkiyah. There is a special ninth candle called the shammash or servant candle, which is used to light the other candles. The shammash is often in the center of the other candles and has a higher position. On the first night one candle is lit, on the second night, two are lit until all are lit on the eighth and final night of the festival. Traditionally they are lit from left to right. A special blessing, thanking God, is said before or after lighting the candles and a special Jewish hymn is often sung. The menorah is put in the front window of houses so people passing can see the lights and remember the story of Hanukkah. Most Jewish families and households have a special menorah and celebrate Hanukkah.

Hanukkah is also a time for giving and receiving presents, and gifts are often given on each night. Lots of games are played during the time of Hanukkah. The most popular is dreidel (Yiddish) or sivivon (Hebrew). A dreidel is a four-sided top with a Hebrew letter on each side. The four letters are the first letter of the phrase Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, which means “A great miracle happened there.” Players put a coin, nut, or chocolate coin in a pot, and the top is spun.

Depending on which letter faces up when the top stops spinning, a player might win nothing, win the pot, win half the pot, or put another item into the pot and the next person has a spin!

Food fried in oil is traditionally eaten during Hanukkah. Favorites are latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (deep fried doughnuts filled with jam/jelly and sprinkled with sugar). Happy Hanukkah!

Kwanzaa Brings Families Together

The Holiday celebrates Creativity, Faith & More

Kwanzaa is a seven-day festival that celebrates African and African-American culture and history. Kwanzaa takes place from December 26 to January 1. The name Kwanzaa comes from the phrase matunda ya kwanza which means “first fruits” in the Swahili language, an Eastern African language spoken in countries including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. Kwanzaa is mostly celebrated in the U.S.

During Kwanzaa a special candleholder called a kinara is used. A kinara holds seven candles, three red ones on the left, three green ones on the right with a black candle in the center. Each night during Kwanzaa a candle is lit. The black, center candle is lit first, and then alternatively red and green candles are lit on subsequent nights, starting with the ones on the outside and moving to the center. This is quite similar to the lighting of the menorah in the Jewish celebration.
The seven days and candles in Kwanzaa represent the seven principles of Kwannzaa (Nguzo Saba):

  • Unity - Unity of the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Self-Determination - Being responsible for your own conduct and behavior.
  • Collective work and responsibility - Working to help each other and in the community.
  • Cooperative economics - Working to build shops and businesses.
  • Purpose - Remembering and restoring African and African American cultures, customs, and history.
  • Creativity - Using creativity and your imagination to make communities better.
  • Faith - Believing in people, families, leaders, teachers, and the righteousness of the African-American struggle.

There are also seven symbols used in Kwanzaa. The seven items are often set on a Kwanzaa table in the house:

  • a woven mat made of fabric, raffia, or paper symbolizing experiences and foundations.
  • a unity cup representing family and community. It is filled with water, fruit juice, or wine. A little is poured out to remember the ancestors, and then each person takes a sip.
  • fruit and vegetables from the harvest, which are shared.
  • the candleholder representing the days and principles of Kwanzaa.
  • the seven candles, which are placed in the kinara. Black, red and green are the colors of the African flag.
  • ears of corn, one for each child in the family. If there are no children in the family, then one ear is used to represent the children in the community, as well as the future and the Native Americans.
  • gifts given to children during Kwanzaa are normally educational, such as a book, DVD, or game. There may also be a gift reminding them of their African heritage.

The Kwanzaa festival was created by Dr. Maulana Karenga in 1966. Dr. Karenga wanted a way bring African Americans together and remember their Black culture. Harvest or “first fruit” festivals are celebrated all over Africa. These were celebrations when people would come together and celebrate and give thanks for the good things in their lives and communities. From these festivals he created Kwanzaa. Happy Kwanzaa!

For more information about international holiday celebrations, Christmas traditions, as well as Christmas activities and games, visit Thanks to James Cooper, the creator of Why Christmas, for giving us permission to reprint this material.

Give Your Child a Healthy Start to the School Year

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Help ensure your child enters the new school year healthy and without delay with these tips from the Virginia Department of Health.