December 2014

Holiday Traditions

Author: Rebecca Edwards

Did you know that in December and January, people around the world celebrate over a dozen different recognized holidays? For example, in addition to Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, there are the Christian-based holidays Saint Nicholas Day and Three Kings Day, Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mexico), St. Lucia Day (Sweden), Boxing Day (Australia, Canada and England), and Omisoka (Japanese New Year).

Across the globe, there are some wacky ways to celebrate. Christmas alone has its fair share of jubilant antics. Let’s start with Italy where La Befana, this creepy witch-nosed, broomstick-wielding old Italian lady gives gifts to sweet, innocent children. In Caracas, Venezuela feet get involved in the holiday hoopla as hundreds of people roller skate to early morning Christmas mass and tug on tags hanging from windows that are connected by strings to the toes of sleeping children. (As a mother, I would just pray someone would not wipe out while tugging on my kids’ toes.) In Germany (I bet you can’t say, “Frohe Weihnachten”—German for “Merry Christmas”—10 times fast), you’ve got the highly-flammable lighting of the Christmas tree, which includes real candles. The tradition of hiding a Christmas pickle in a tree has been adopted by Americans because, well, we love pickles. (According to, Americans consume more than 2.5 billion pounds of pickles each year.) In the Ukraine, they seem to hold on to the Halloween spirit a bit longer than the rest of us and decorate their trees with spider webs for good luck.

While we could go on about some even zanier, international, time-honored holiday behavior (google “El Caganer”), there are some new eccentric traditions. Think about the Elf on a Shelf. Sure, we’ve all laughed at this Pinocchio-looking imp online. From Ken and Barbie stick-em ups, to posing with mini bottles, to being arranged in some compromising and precarious positions, the Elf on the Shelf is a relatively newfangled and comical addition to the Christmas celebration line-up. And though I refuse to adopt this character into my family’s holiday jollity (simply because I don’t have the time or the brainpower to remember to move the darn doll every day), I find it interesting that the Elf on the Shelf originated from a retired music teacher turned-millionaire’s family’s tradition.

According to Carol Aebersold, the Elf on the Shelf innovator, it was a family tradition. “I had an elf as a child, so when I got married, he came along with me… and my children grew up with an elf,” she said on Windy City Live. “I remember them speaking with [Santa] and telling him things they wanted him to know and maybe things they didn’t want him to know. One day, my daughter was sitting at the table with me, and she said, ‘Mom we should write this down and share it with the world.’” In 2005, Aebersold and one of her twin daughters Chanda Bell self-published The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition and convinced Aebersold’s other daughter (Bell’s twin) Christy Pitts to quit her job as a QVC host and launch Creatively Classic Activities and Books.

Since then, from Thanksgiving evening to Christmas Eve, parents tell their children about the roving, ever-watching elf that delivers naughty or nice reports back to Santa. The children can speak to the elf, but they cannot touch it, which as my daughter Ruth Love says is no problem, because, “he’s weird, Mommy.” (The more I reflect on this, the more I can’t help thinking the Elf is a freaky doll version of Big Brother from 1984.) The Elf now comes in both genders and different skin tones and is an inflatable figure in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Moreover, its originators are jingling all the way to the bank with over 16 million dollars in sales in 2011 alone.

Though not a multi-million dollar franchise idea (yet), every year my family has a Dupper dough party. Here’s the backstory: My father’s name is Dupper. As a child, every Christmas Eve, my brother and I made salt-dough ornaments. We would blast Christmas tunes, while having a blast making an array of winter wonderland-inspired figurines. When my husband Lee and I were first dating, we could not afford to buy a bunch of new ornaments for our tree. So I hosted “Dupper Dough” night and had all our friends over. We baked homemade pizzas and salt dough designs. That was 16 years ago. Now, minus the all-night affair and off-beat creations (we still have Lee’s famous Christmas barracuda), my three girls and I have a similar party with their friends and parents. It’s my favorite night of the year.

As part of her family tradition, my dear friend and local artist Brucie Holler plays a game called Jackrabbit. “I don’t know what triggered it, but it started with my paternal grandfather. The month leading up to Christmas my dad’s family would get in their car and look for Christmas decorations,” Holler explained. “Once someone spotted a Christmas decoration, they were to yell “jackrabbit!” The person with the most jackrabbits was the victor. This tradition was passed down to Holler from her father. When Dove Street in North Forest Beach had its epic neighborhood-wide display, Holler’s husband Greg would put the top down on his 1974 Persian lime green Cadillac El Dorado convertible and he, Brucie, their twin boys, and Brucie’s divorced parents and their new spouses would pile in with blankets and warm toddies, and play jackrabbit.
“Dove Street was like a jackrabbit jackpot,” Holler joked. Jackrabbit has also started a friendly holiday competition with her sister Bebe Cifaldi. “As soon as the decorations go up, it is game on,” Holler said. As for which sister usually wins, “I’d say me, but Bebe would probably say her.”

As I researched this article and spoke to friends, I learned about other funny traditions. “My mother grew up in small town in South Carolina (Abbeville) and was raised in the Southern Baptist Church,” began Graham Smith. “She met my father while they were both working at a bank in South Carolina. He was a flashy New Yorker who was raised Orthodox (Jewish).” Smith said her family “muddled together religion as we saw fit,” trying to incorporate aspects of both her parents’ holiday traditions. Rather than a star on top of their tree, they place a sombrero.

Equally quirky, my cousin KC Tucker and her family in Arkansas leave a “Yule brew” (a Shiner Holiday Cheer beer) for Santa. My walking buddy Deena Paradiso starts Christmas morning with 24-hours of A Christmas Story. (Ralphie as an adult: “Aunt Clara had for years labored under the delusion that I was not only perpetually four years old, but also a girl.”) My brother prefers a National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation marathon. (Eddie: “You surprised to see us, Clark?” Clark: “Oh, Eddie… If I woke up tomorrow with my head sewn to the carpet, I wouldn’t be more surprised than I am now.”)

So, what makes these holiday traditions have staying power? What enlivens Italians to cheer on witchy women during the La Befana festival? Or drives parents to, after a long day, still get inventive about their Elf on a Shelf? Or keeps Brucie and her sister Bebe calling each other and yelling “jackrabbit” each year? Or, whatever tradition you and your family honor? Maybe we all need something to count on. Maybe we all want a reason to celebrate. Maybe traditions remind us why we really get in the holiday spirit—to enjoy friends and family. 

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