Wednesday, December 5, 2012

gothidays: ethnic family traditions

I am finally getting to the posts about how I celebrate the holidays as a part of dear Professor Z's Gothidays 2012 posts (Scott wanted me to post his guest post first and the Airship Pirate Days review was waaaay overdue.)

My holiday experience is filled with traditions.  Some are religious in nature, some are ethnic traditions passed down from generation to generation in my family, and some are ones that my mom made up to help us enjoy the holidays, and my dad is too much of a child at heart to let go of.  But the important thing about all of these traditions is that they're based around family.

I don't exactly have the best relationship with all of my family members, so sometimes these traditions just create problems.  But we stubbornly stick with them and try at it again each and every year.  Without further ado:

The Ethnic Traditions

The actual Christmas celebrations begin on December 6- St. Nicholas Day.  It's a German tradition where children put their shoes out and St. Nicholas (i.e. Santa) comes and fills them up with candy.  I'm 25 and St. Nick still leaves something for me at my parents' house.  But he visits my roommates at my apartment and always leaves a treat!  Both of my parents are of German descent.

On Christmas Day we break a Christmas wafer, called oplatki in Polish, and kalÄ—daitis in Lithuanian, and pass it around the table, each breaking off a piece before handing it to the next person.  This is an Eastern European tradition that can mean different things.  But generally we do it to show family unity- usually just after remembering the loved ones who are no longer with us.  My dad's side of the family is Lithuanian.

We also celebrate a German tradition that I think is supposed to take place on Christmas morning- finding the pickle ornament in the tree.  The first kid who finds it wins an extra present.  Instead of celebrating it on Christmas morning, my family usually celebrates it the evening of December 26, and my dad has turned it into a ridiculous competition of sorts.  He puts all of us kids (who are, by the way, legal adults now- we're just all unmarried and childless) into the family room.  He then goes into the living room with Mom, where they hide the ornament in the tree.  Then Dad has us go one at a time into the room with the Christmas tree to find the ornament. We each have three minutes to find the ornament.  If you do find it, your time is recorded and the next person goes.  Whoever finds it in the least amount of time wins the grand prize!  The grand prize?  Always a jar of roasted peanuts.  I haven't won in probably a decade.  Dad blames it on my denial to race into the room and run up to the tree like my older sisters and little sister do.

The end of the Christmas season is January 7, when we celebrate Serbian Orthodox Christmas (from my mom's side of the family).  Since none of us are religiously Christian Orthodox my mom and some of us daughters will sometimes go to mass at the nearest Serbian Orthodox church about half an hour away.  Last year I went to my first Serbian Orthodox mass with Mom.  It was nearly two hours of standing on our feet, blessing ourselves so much so that my arms ached by the end, and watching one of the four priests yelling at the choir more than once for coming in at the wrong part of the service.  My mom and I were elbowing each other and snickering so much that one of the ushers kept glaring at us.  

What we never miss, however, is the big celebration that we give as much attention as our Roman Catholic Christmas dinner.  Mom cooks an entire leg of lamb, stuffed with rosemary and garlic and spices.  She makes palachinke, a traditional Serbian crepe-life dessert, filled with cottage cheese or apple butter.  They're delicious!  She also bakes coins into bread, which the children of the family break apart.  Whoever has the greatest amount of money in their bread piece will be the most prosperous in the year to come, or so superstitious Serbs say.  It's a delicious meal and usually more enjoyable than the Western World's Christmas because everything has calmed down by then- no crazy gift-buying or gift giving, no more parties, and on January 7 it's usually a white Christmas to boot (or so it seems to me.)  We've also put hay under the table before to symbolize the Christ child in the manger, but that seems to make a bigger mess than we want to deal with.

I love my ethnic family traditions.  They always give me something nice to look forward to. 


  1. They sound like lovely traditions - even the elbowing and snickering at the Orthodox mass! :D

  2. I love the mix of traditions! LOVE IT! So many of them resonate within my Polish-Russian traditional heart! Like the wafer. Hey, do you also hang beaded spiders in your tree? In Poland and Germany spiders in the tree on Christmas morning is supposed to be good luck for the coming year! Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. All of those traditions sound lovely!
    I am German and I have never heard of the pickled ornament tradition...Weird.

    We celebrate on the 24th, in the evening. We are officially roman catholics but none of us is religious so we usually skip the evening service in church. When we were still children my mum went to church with us in order to give my father the time he needed to bring all the presents into the living room. He still pretends to be helping the Christkind while we have to wait outside of the living room until he rings a bell "to show us the Christkind has left" and we are allowed to enter.

  4. My family does a lot of these things too, especially St. Nicholas day and the oplatki (although I had no idea how to spell that, ha). My mom's parents are German and Polish. We've always had one of those pickle ornaments but we never had to look for it . . . I just thought it was another weird ornament that my mom had, she has a potato one too.
    We usually break the wafer before dinner on Christmas Eve and after dinner we put a small Christ-child on a pillow ornament in the tree. I'm not sure if that is Polish or German though.

    Anyways, it's nice to see somebody else who does some of these things!

  5. These sound like lovely traditions. I love the pickle ornament!