Beyond Your Years with Luis Martinez

Keeping Holiday Traditions Alive

What are your holiday memories and traditions?  This time of year is rich with family remembrances and commemorations which have been built layer by layer over the years and even decades, dating back to the early to middle 20th Century, and longer!

Several dimensions intersect when observing holiday traditions. One dimension may be nationality, another one is religion or geography or just family circumstances. For example, Christmas is celebrated different ways in Cuba, Greece, French-speaking Canada and the US.  I remember my childhood in Havana. My parents would buy a live Christmas tree, decorate it and then we would travel almost the length of Cuba, 8 hours by car, to celebrate Christmas at my grandmother’s house.  Christmas Eve was the main event, with a huge feast and many people around a huge table at my grandma’s. My grandfather would go to market and purchase a whole roasted pig which required two men to bring it to my grandmother’s house; it would be the centerpiece of a feast that would last all day until the adults would hurry to the Misa del Gallo (Mass of the Rooster), at midnight. The next morning, Christmas Day, was pretty much like the day after Thanksgiving in the US. What about Santa Claus and Christmas gifts? Well, those came later on Epiphany (January 6) when The Three Kings (sorry, Santa) would magically visit all our homes and leave gifts for the children. Oh, I remember it well – I used to leave some grass and water for the Kings’ camels.

My friend Laura explains Greek family traditions. For them Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is a must. Fasting is traditional in the Greek Orthodox Church before Christmas. Lamb is always part of the holiday feast, as is spanakopita, and dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) which were traditionally stuffed with lamb. Laura’s favorite sweets are theeples (Greek version of a flaky fried dough in a pinwheel shape, dipped in light honey syrup and sprinkled with walnuts), kourambiethes (very buttery cookie covered with powdered sugar and a whole clove at the top) and melomacarono.  January 1st, St. Vasili’s Day is a big event. It was especially important to Laura’s family; it was her Yiayia’s (grandmother’s) Name Day (bigger than birthdays in the Greek culture).  They would gather and enjoy Vasilopita, New Year’s bread, baked with a coin inside. Whoever got the coin in their slice had good luck for the year. As age is revered, so Vasilopita is sliced for each individual starting with the eldest male, then eldest female. The Christmas season continued until the Epiphany on January 6.  Decorations stayed up until then, with Mass followed by more food!

Jean-François is my friend from French-speaking Canada where they are generally Roman Catholic by heritage, so Christmas is their most important holiday. Most people in Québec are off work from Christmas to New Year’s Day. Families generally have a traditional dinner on Christmas Eve, many go to Midnight Mass (a good time for Santa to drop presents) and open presents either right after mass or in the morning. The events vary from one family to another, largely depending on when people are able to get together or if there are children. The traditional Christmas meal includes a roasted turkey and tourtières, a meat pie made with pork, veal or beef or even venison. Desert will typically include “une bûche de Noël” (yule log) and sugar pies.

Joshua and his wife observe Hanukah, which this year (Hebrew year 5776), begins the night of Saturday, December 24 and continues through Sunday, January 1, 2017. Chanukah is the Jewish eight-day, wintertime “festival of lights,” celebrated with a nightly menorah lighting, special prayers and foods. Chanukah means “dedication,” and is thus named because it celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple. My friend Joshua’s children engage their imagination in crafts, decorating their home with blue and white figurines of the Star of David, paper chains and dreidels. They will enjoy crispy potato latkes with their deep fried turkey.

At home, we feel blessed that our three adult children internalized our family traditions; some may seem trite, some have depth, but all come together as the glue that creates excitement and anticipation around holidays and special events. What traditions are you preserving? What new ones do you hope to initiate? How do you feel when your children insist on observing your traditions?

Luis Martinez is a guest blogger for St. John’s. He is an active senior that likes to observe and write about how people work at their careers, guide their businesses, strengthen their families, stay physically fit and mentally sharp, and race their sports cars. Luis habla español. Follow Luis on Twitter @BeyondYourYears, or email

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