Holidays in a multicultural household
File photo of nativity set under Christmas tree. Mike Sonnenberg, Getty Images
Before I had children, I paid little attention to how my husband and I celebrated the holidays. Usually we would head up to Michigan to visit my family during Thanksgiving, which would guarantee that my favorite bars would be open, I wouldn’t be in the north in the thick of winter and I could catch up with old friends. Christmas would be spent in Miami with my in-laws.
My husband’s parents, who are from the Dominican Republic and live with us, have a much more intense agenda when it comes to celebrating Christmas. There is the cantata at my mother-in-law’s church. There is an unquantifiable amount of prayer breakfasts and vigils and activities throughout the days leading up to Christmas. There is the production that is Nochebuena, a daylong feeding frenzy that culminates with a huge pork loin and pasteles en hoja adorning the dining room table. Then, in the evening on Christmas Day there are visits to or from friends.
I realized that my in-laws and I had different ideas about holiday celebrations when we decorated our first tree together. I had to have a real tree, the house had to be full of the scent of pine like the ones in mother’s house in Detroit. My mother-in-law, who knew that a real tree would turn to ash in less than two weeks in South Florida’s heat, advocated for a fake tree.
I convinced my husband to go for the real tree, and of course, by the 24th of December, the pine needles were sagging and brown.
Once, I heard my mother-in-law mutter as she pulled decorations out of the Christmas storage bins, “Who is this Santa Claus, anyways?” For her, it’s the Three Kings that bring presents, not some German saint.
Underneath the Christmas tree, where I figured our bounty of gifts would go, she put up her Nativity set - which had survived over 30 years and migrations from Santo Domingo to Puerto Rico then on to Miami. Most of the pieces were glued together somewhere - several camels were three-footed - Maria’s head had been replaced so many times that she had a glue gash running across her neck. The shepherds no longer had sheep, but were now wrangling plastic toy donkeys and a porcelain cow that was probably really a kitchen decoration. The original baby Jesus didn’t survive and had been replaced by a baby from another nativity set, one of much larger proportions because the new Jesus looked like a napping three-year old in his manger by Maria and Jose.
When I placed all of my Nutcracker decorations – heirlooms from my mother – on the sideboard, my mother in-law didn’t understand what they were about.
“I have a wooden Nativity that would look great in here!” she beamed.
My mother never put out Nativity scenes, but I decided to put away my Nutcracker figurines after hearing myself explain the story of The Nutcracker to my mother-in-law. Aside from being a holiday tradition, I couldn’t really make any connection between the Sugar Plum Fairy and the baby Jesus. Besides, I reasoned, the Mouse King figurine would creep my children out.
I remember the morning of my daughter’s first Christmas in Miami. The tree was replete with Christmas gifts positioned around the Nativity set, the stockings stuffed. I had left (and eaten) the cookies for Santa Claus. We were all in our pajamas and my husband pulled out the video camera to capture our daughter’s reactions when I heard my mother-in-law’s high heels clicking on the floor at 8 a.m.
Of course, I had forgotten about Christmas Morning Prayer. While I am indulging in my consumerist construct of the holiday, my in-laws are praying for our souls and eating pastelitos with their churchgoing friends. That night we ate Nochebuena leftovers and my in-laws went out to visit various and assorted church friends.
The following year I told my husband that I wanted a white Christmas.
Christmas in Michigan was picture perfect, in the sense that you can’t tell how perfectly cold a place is from looking at a picture. The snow on the rooftops gave my parents’ neighborhood the idyllic look of a Winter Wonderland, but the subzero temperature made building snowmen or snow angels an impossibility. We spent the next week hibernating between meals, avoiding bathing, watching television and listening to the rattle of the radiators working hard to heat up my parents’ home.
When my husband asked about the menu for Nochebuena, I told him my mother always pulls out the fondue pot the night before Christmas. In retrospect, I am sure our tradition of Christmas Eve fondue comes from my mother seeking an easy dinner to prepare before she spent all night wrapping Christmas presents.
“No turkey, no pork?” he asked, confused. I told him my mom always cooks a bird on Christmas Day and the menu would be a lot like what he usually saw for Thanksgiving. Christmas dinner is when you should prepare those pasteles en oja that you snuck into your suitcase, I informed him.
Christmas Eve festivities always wind down early at my mother’s house; kids in bed so the adults can get busy placing the presents, stuffing the stockings, and eating the cookies that were left out for Santa. My husband was puzzled when we were in bed by 10 p.m.
The next morning the family spent the morning watching the kids unwrap gifts while the grown ups drank mimosas. My husband looked at me like I was crazy when I put on high heels and stockings to go downstairs to the dining room for Christmas dinner. He immediately went to iron some nice slacks.
After our Christmas up north, my husband and I knew that a compromise had to be made. Every family has to have its own traditions in order to thrive, so my husband and I can’t expect our children’s holidays to be a repeat of the Christmases of our respective youths. We must forge ahead, taking the good from both traditions to create our holidays that will be memorable for our children.
What that means is that Nochebuena and Christmas dinner are celebrated with equal fanfare. The kids can open gifts on Christmas morning, but my in-laws get their gifts the night before (and the kids can open a gift or two with the abuelos). We will go to the cantata, but we will also see The Nutcracker. We alternate Christmases between Miami and Michigan, depending on our schedules.
Needless to say, our kids don’t really care where each tradition comes from. My daughter is as happy to leave cookies out for Santa as she is to leave cigars out for the Three Kings. She knows that there is something in it for her.