How do we celebrate ALL holidays this season?

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My family of three is still very young, but we’re trying to beat our own path as best we can. We’ve recently (gently) let go of our religious upbringings, and we’re trying to see things through a broader scope.

With the holidays coming up, I’d like celebrate with a more open mind. How do other offbeat families out there learn about and incorporate other cultures into their holiday festivities to form their own traditions? — Erica

We love holidays — we’ve talked about celebrating Christmas while being pagan, observing Easter without religion, and talking about Native American history at Thanksgiving. How does your family celebrate as many holidays as possible?

Comments on How do we celebrate ALL holidays this season?

  1. Wow, surprised no one else has commented yet. I came from a religiously blended family – my mom’s side of the family was Jewish, my Dad’s were Christian. We got to celebrate both holidays (score!) so I grew up lighting the menorah and playing dreidel at home and decorating the Christmas tree and making cookies at Grandma’s. I really loved it, and I was never “confused”. My husband and I are in a similar boat (I identify as a secular Jew, he as a lapsed Catholic) and I hope that our son will have similarly eclectic experience. I’m hoping to look to the Unitarian church for guidance.

  2. Well, what does celebrating holidays mean to you? Is it about getting together and doing fun stuff as a family? About eating a whole heck of a lot? About participating in religious customs (even if it’s not religious belief)? There are strands of all of these things in every holiday.

    Maybe you start easy and do stuff around “traditional food” – turkey on Thanksgiving, latkes on Hanukah, 7 fishes on Christmas (that’s Christmas, right? Jew here). There’s always kids books that center around the food part, and then, as your little one gets bigger, you can figure out how to expand the ideas to more cultural stuff as well.

    Food is both really yummy and is good cultural currency. It’s an easy way in to lots of different holidays, and the cooking is something that you all can do together. Win, win, win!

  3. Much love to all the other half-breed Jews out there! Like commenter Jill, I grew up with both Hanukka and Christmas, and let me tell you, there is nothing more majestic than a fully lit menorah in front of a sparkly Christmas tree. I’ve been dating my Norse Pagan boyfriend for over a year now, and this year we’re exploring more Pagan holidays. We’ll be having Yule instead of Christmas, and we’ll probably have a nice winter altar instead of a tree.

  4. For me, I don’t know that I would feel natural celebrating a holiday that I hadn’t grown up with, and my partner hadn’t either. Like, only having grown up celebrating Christmas, I would feel very ill-at-ease trying Hanukkah or Kwanzaa on for size, since they are so outside of my cultural experience (not that that is what you are doing).

    In my case, when I stopped being religious, I just kept the things about holidays that I liked, and left out the parts I didn’t. For instance, when it comes to Christmas, I love the family togetherness, decorating the tree, the songs, and basically everything but the religious symbolism, since that doesn’t hold much meaning for me.

    So my little family of 2 doesn’t do a lot of talking about “the reason for the season,” we don’t go to church, we don’t put out nativity sets, but I personally saw no reason to shed all the things I *loved* about Christmas.

    When we have kids, we will probably keep it more or less the same, but have conversations about how different people celebrate/believe different things and that’s ok!

    Sorry that was long, hope it’s a helpful perspective.

      • I think you mean “If you’re not an African American,” since the term People Of Color typically means anyone who’s not white. Based on what you’re saying, it seems like you’d find it just as disingenuous for, say, a Korean American to try out Kwanzaa as it would for a white American.

        That said, I get really worried when we start drawing lines around who’s allowed to be interested in other cultures. I totally understand the concerns with cultural appropriation (I’ve written about the issue several times), but I don’t think learning about other cultures’ holiday traditions in the context of your own holiday traditions always constitutes appropriation. I see appropriation as taking something out of context (ie, using a religious holiday as an aesthetic choice or costume). But learning about other cultures is awesome — and can even lead to people converting to different religions.

        Sometimes with conversations about cultural appropriation, I worry that the extreme right and the extreme left start to merge… it starts to feel like the moral of the story for both hateful xenophobics and sensitive progressives becomes “stay away from other cultures.” I really hope that we can find a place where people from ANY cultural background can feel empowered to learn about and honor ALL cultures, without being afraid that they’re being “disingenuous” for expressing that interest.

  5. I know that you’ve recently let go of your religious ties, but I thought I’d share my experience growing up in a very Catholic household, where the holidays took up the entire month of December. There were three major traditions that my mother incorporated, some of which have cultural ties, that I’d like to share. December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, was the first thing we did as a family. We got our stockings from “Santa Claus” on St. Nicholas Day; St. Nicholas being the Greek/Turkish man whom Santa Claus was based off of. We usually ended up skipping school and going to see a Christmas themed movie as a family. The next holiday was St. Lucy Day, which is December 13th. This is traditionally a Scandinavian holiday that my mother was exposed to out in the Midwest where there is a large Scandinavian population. The oldest girl in the house dresses like St. Lucy, which entails a white robe, red sash, and an evergreen wreath with candles on it, and she serves breakfast to the entire family. On Christmas, to drive home the fact that this was originally a Christian holiday, we would have a birthday cake for Jesus and we each got three gifts (symbolic of the three gifts from the wise men) from “Baby Jesus”. I’m not Catholic myself, but I’d like to incorporate some of these traditions with my kids because they were so much fun for me growing up. I feel like this general idea – looking at different holidays and creating your own interpretations as family traditions – could be helpful for you.

    • these are really cute! I love the idea of celebrating the WHOLE month, even if it’s not a saint’s day or whatever. i’ll look into these holidays! thank you!

  6. This link to Bob and Nancy’s Waldorf Books has a number of resources for celebrating festivals with your family:

    Because Waldorf education has its roots in a Christian, predominantly Catholic, European background, most of these books celebrate Christian/Catholic festivals, although many of the celebrations described in these books are not actually particularly religious. Waldorf has a very strong understanding and respect for nature and the seasons, so most of these books include things like “Fall Apple Festival” as well as Michaelmas.

    Also, as described by the above poster, you can take the pieces of a celebration that appeal to you and leave the rest. So, even if you don’t pray to the saints, if you like the idea of having your children leave their shoes outside their bedroom door the night before St. Nick’s Day (Dec 6) and leaving little treats for them to find inside their shoes, why not? As long as you are not actually disrespecting the traditions you are borrowing from. (I.e., if you liked a certain Bible reading because you thought it was beautiful or pertinent aside from the actual religious context, reading that aloud would be ok; but reciting the Eucharist Prayer, the holiest part of the Mass, would be disrespectful).

    All that said — the book “Festivals Together” towards the end of the list I linked to does present a more universal approach to the holidays, with a focus on the festivals of many religions, including Buddhist and Hindu.

    • In addition there is nothing wrong with telling children about customs in other cultures and teaching them. Maybe pick a different culture around the world every year or one each month of the year and follow their customs of the season. Great way for kids to learn about the world and our differences and similarities!

      • love these ideas! i just ordered Raising Freethinkers: A Practical Guide for Parenting Beyond Belief so i’ve been thinking a lot about how to teach my daughter ABOUT other religions/holidays/etc. without her being indoctrined into one particular group. celebrating the season and nature is what i’m trying to do so i love the apple festival thoughts. will look into waldorf!

  7. What are your ethnic and cultural backgrounds. There are a lot of specifically German or Celtic or Scandinavian, etc winter holiday traditions and many of them pre-date Christianity. While they were still religious to the people who created them, now they are simply “cultural” and could be a nice way to incorporate traditions that are specific to your family identity with out a theistic angle.

  8. I grew up in a Jewish home and celebrated Hanukkah at home but Christmas at my maternal grandmothers because my mother converted to Judaism. Christmas was mostly secular, food and gift giving and we knew it was a family time and had little to do with religion.

    I recently got married and my husband converted to Judaism before we started dating. He has children from a previous relationship and does Christmas with his mother and children. This year we are traveling to Chicago where his mother and daughter live and we are doing “Jewish Christmas” ie Chinese food and a movie as well as sharing gifts. Its our way of melting everything together and setting a precedent when we have children together because we don’t want any confusion.

  9. I was lucky to grow up in a home where we celebrated holiday traditions from many cultures. While the predominant celebration was Christmas, we had a calendar with different activities for each day leading up to Christmas. So we left shoes out for St Nicholas, played dreidel and had latkes for Hanukkah, lit the kinara for kwanzaa… a lot of work for parents, but so fun for us kids, plus a great learning opportunity!

    • i love it! baby is only 13 months this year so this year is just a practice run. haha i’d love to have a different story for each celebration we have. and of course, there’s so many different traditional foods!

  10. What’s meaningful to you? I don’t think there’s really any point in adopting the trappings of a holiday if it doesn’t feel meaningful to you, spiritually or culturally or in some way. I mean, as a Jew, if someone started lighting a hanukkiah because they thought it was pretty without having any connection to the story or history or tradition, I would be a little weirded out.

  11. I grew up as a Unitarian Universalist, and both my family and my spouse’s celebrated a secular version of Christmas when we were growing up, so that’s what we do now. We did go to church on Christmas eve, which was usually sort of a mashup Christian/pagan deal.

    Besides Christmas stuff, we will celebrate Solstice with my parents with a simple candle lighting ceremony.

    • My partner and I are pagan, and I think this approach is great! We celebrate a sort of secular/looking-at-the-pagan-roots-of-things Christmas in addition to celebrating the Winter Solstice. A lot of things associated with Christmas as a Christian holiday are rooted in various pagan religions, like the whole tree thing (and since there are hundreds of years of Christmas celebration incorporating these things, I in no way want to invalidate that connection – just sayin’ they aren’t at all Christian only practices).

      Although our Solstice celebrations are specific (to our religion and to our tradition within that religion), the Solstice is has been celebrated cross-culturally by many peoples over the thousands of years of history we have clearer record of, and likely before then as well. Recognizing the shortest/darkest day and the shift of the seasons (and any of the meanings you can read-in to that, such as the rebirth of the light or the beginning of a new year) is a great way to broaden your celebration!

  12. Coming at this from a bit of the opposite direction, my family are atheist and always were, although since my grandparents are Christian I suppose my parents faced your dilemma at some point. Anyway, my parents and sister and I always celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday, so to speak.

    I think the important thing is to establish traditions that feel right for your family and stick with them – that is what kids will remember about the holidays and value for bringing your family closer together. For example, we had the tradition that the kids in the family get to choose and open one present on Christmas Eve after dinner, with stockings and the rest of the presents on Christmas morning before breakfast. This had been the tradition in my dad’s family, too. Over time, it evolved into me picking out a present for my sister to open and her picking out one for me, a twist that made it even more our own. I am really looking forward to passing this on to my son this year in his first Christmas!

    Personally, I’d probably steer clear of the holidays as a learning opportunity – most kids get a lot of this at school – and focus instead on the holidays as a time of family togetherness and tradition. This will also make it easier to incorporate still religious grandparents into the mix as they can enjoy taking part in the ongoing traditions, even with the religious elements you grew up with stripped out.

  13. I was raised Jewish (secular) and we were never allowed to have a Christmas tree–this year I just bought my first one (silver with a star of david on top).

    In my opinion [Christians/the Christian institution/creators of Christmas] are very good at marketing. Christmas is an amazing holiday as far as the customs and traditions and aesthetics, and I always felt so left out as a kid because it’s obviously the “dominating” holiday in our culture (US). My advice would be do what feels right for now, and in the future if your child expresses desires to celebrate/try out another holiday, to give it a try.

  14. I think there are do many wonderful traditions to participate in during the Holiday Season! For our family we like to celebrate pretty much the entire month of December starting with St. Nicholas on Dec 6, then we do a Winter Solstice celebration, Christmas Eve with my German in laws, a Christmas Day Bon fire with my family, and then Serbian Christmas in January. When I say celebrate I don’t mean we get tones of gifts- I mean we gather, eat, laugh,sing and just generally be together. We top off the month of December by volunteering and donating toys to other families. Being together, eating tones of great food & being grateful for our little light in the darkness of winter- that is how we celebrate the holidays!

  15. I don’t know about different religions but my family had a great tradition of celebrating a different country’s christmas every year. As my mother is very christian if the country in question didnt celebrate christmas (i.e. eastern countries mostly) we had to pick another one. I dont know what my tradition will be with my own family. We are currently living with my grandmother and things are VERY traditionally american and all i know is that’s definitely not me.

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