Family Holiday Traditions: Lost and Found

December signals a time for family traditions, new and old, no matter your background.

A Tradition is defined as the transfer of meaningful customs, rituals, or beliefs passed down from generation to generation.

When you think about familiar holiday traditions, you might picture a big family gathered around a dinner table, a huge Christmas tree dressed to the nines, or a snowy morning where people exchange wrapped gifts with smiles on their faces. But for me, it never quite played out that way.

Full disclosure: I never had any real holiday traditions as a child. My mother worked the night shifts in the hospital as a charge nurse, so my father and I didn’t celebrate Christmas unless she was home. During those celebrations however, it felt half-hearted and didn’t measure up to what I saw in those Hallmark movies. So this past month to prepare for this blog post, I asked my parents about their Christmas traditions growing up and what got lost in translation during my childhood.

Back in the Day

Both my parents grew up in the Philippines. When they were kids, the Christmas season was a time when people would go caroling and would be welcomed into their neighbors’ houses for a warm meal and beverage. Christmas Day was like one giant neighborhood block party, going home to home like a traveling potluck. Children would be given money if they blessed the elders of the household (a gesture known as mano po, where one raises the hand of the elder to touch it lightly on their forehead). Paper decorations and lanterns (called parol) strewn the streets, while a simple Christmas tree stood in the corner. Presents, if any, were monetary and only for kids. Hearing my parents talk about their festive memories made me envious and curious as to why these beautiful traditions weren’t passed on to me.

When my parents came to the US for better opportunities, they left their traditions behind. Being newcomers to a foreign country, they assimilated to raise their daughter (yours truly) in the Western way, and that included how to celebrate the holidays.

They saw what TV shows and their American colleagues did for Christmas and tried to emulate this the best way they could. It was nice, but no traditions ever really stuck. If my mom was working on Christmas Eve, we didn’t attend Midnight Mass. Presents were never designated on a specific time or day and eventually the anticipation of opening gifts as a family faded. No big feasts were made because it was just me and my parents. The flow and ease of the holiday party my parents grew up with had been replaced by invitation-only gatherings that we rarely attended. And despite my parents’ efforts, it felt as if there was no heart behind this new way of doing Christmas. The warmth they once experienced in their home country could not find its way overseas. Unfortunately, Christmas started becoming just another day.  

Refurbished Traditions

Now as a parent, I don’t want my kids to experience the holidays like I remembered: a holiday where everyone was going through the motions because “it’s the season”. I want them to have traditions that have meaning, that they could one day pass down to their family when they’re older.

For the past few years, my husband and I have created our own holiday customs that include decorating the Christmas tree with meaningful ornaments, seeing holiday lights with family, and making Christmas cookies for friends.

We also have incorporated some Filipino traditions from my parents. For example, we’ve started mano po money pouches as well as eating their favorite desserts of leche flan, turon (fried banana rolls), and cassava cake. Plus, after having that discussion with my mom and dad, they now try to recreate those feelings of togetherness by opening their home to their friends and neighbors when we’re in town…just like how it was when they were growing up. Yes, safe to say, I finally got my Hallmark moment filled with that Christmas warm and fuzzy feels.

I’m sure as our kids grow, our traditions will change and adapt. What no longer carries value will fade away into the background as new customs are born. That’s okay and it’s bound to happen. As long as those traditions, new and old, carry meaning and bring warmth and joy to our hearts, that’s all that matters.

Happy Holidays!

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