Christmas and Kwanzaa: Keeping Family Holiday Traditions and Finding Your Own

By Sara Quenzer and Courtney Taylor on November 17th, 2021
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Whether you’re single or starting a family, religious or agnostic, someone who celebrates Christmas or Kwanzaa or both, holiday memories are made up of your favourite traditions. Writers Sara and Courtney talked to Black Hallmark employees Stephanie R., Sharnel Y., and Mercedes L., about the rituals and activities that make their holiday seasons meaningful.

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Christmases full of family, food and fun

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Stephanie R. is a senior software engineer for Hallmark who’s been integral to tons of behind-the-scenes IT work, and especially to the IT aspects of our Keepsake Wish List. On top of being an amazing engineer, she loves giving back by supporting Harvesters Community Food Network and mentoring kids in her community.

“Always remember the reason for the season. Make it a priority to spend time with family and friends. Build traditions that can be passed on to your children.” — Stephanie R.

Stephanie was born and raised in Jamaica, and her family members all live in different places. Still, most of them get together every Christmas—and it’s super special when everyone can make it.

“I hadn’t seen my older brother in, like, years—and he was able to join [in 2016],” Stephanie tells us. “We had a house full of people, everyone was sleeping everywhere…it was very fun.”

Stephanie’s family has celebrated Christmas her whole life, and their holiday traditions revolve around the well-loved foundation of food and togetherness. Their fun-loving spirit gives the holidays the kind of casual, intimate charm that makes for a merry time, rooted most strongly in just being around each other.

As kids, Stephanie and her siblings couldn’t buy each other gifts, but they kept good humour about it.

“We were young, so we didn’t work and didn’t have any money, and so for Christmas we would take something from the next person and wrap it and give them as gifts. It’s just the idea of, ‘Hey I’m giving you something, even though it’s yours already.’ When we look back at that we always laugh.”

Stephanie's favourite story

“My favourite [story] is about me. Back then I loved, loved, loved music, so every time we were driving home [my parents] would be playing reggae and dance-hall, and I’d always tell my dad that I wanted to stop and go dance.

“And he was like, ‘No.’ So he said I hit him in his head and said, ‘When I get to age 16, I’ll be going to dance and just enjoy myself and you won’t be able to stop me.’ At the age of 16 I couldn’t go anywhere—and that explains why.

“The stories are not always Christmas-focused, mostly because we are always around my side of the family—so that’s my dad’s time to tell our spouses that, ‘Yeah, these are the ladies that you married.’”

Stephanie and her siblings don’t re-gift each other their own personal possessions anymore, but the holidays are still about having fun together.

“Every Christmas, my sisters and my mom and I normally drive out just to look at how others decorated their homes…to see how beautifully decorated the houses are and the effort that everyone puts in. My oldest sister and my youngest sister are big on decorations,” Stephanie says. “I’m just there for moral support.”

Cooking is a family activity, too: Everyone helps in the kitchen. Stephanie’s dad is usually in charge of the baked ham and her mom makes the fried dumplings. The traditional Jamaican breakfast of ackee and saltfish is a staple every year. Not a cook? No worries—Stephanie jokes that she mostly helps by being a taster. And before they enjoy all their delicious food, Stephanie’s family says grace.

“Family prayer before eating is a must,” she says.

Stephanie’s family loves to listen to Christmas carols and reggae during the holidays. Their favourite carols are “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night”—Bob Marley takes care of the rest. (This is, of course, when Stephanie’s dad isn’t busy telling stories.)

And though they love their long-held traditions, they make new ones, too.

“For the past three years, we have started wearing festive, matching clothes—like tops and pj’s—and taking unprofessional photos, playing dominos, and ludo.”

“As a child, Christmas meant family time, eating fruit cake and baked ham and watching Bible stories,” Stephanie tells us. “As an adult, Christmas still means family time. We decorate, bake ham and potato pudding, and exchange gifts. As soon as the clock strikes 12 a.m., it’s time to open gifts. My dad hates that—he needs to get his beauty rest.”

They also still go to church nearly every Christmas Sunday, balancing their fun-loving family time with their love for Jesus.

Takeaway Tips

Stephanie’s family holiday celebrations resonate with a lot of traditional ideas about Christmas, but they also have their own unique elements. Here are a few tips and ideas based on the ways they celebrate:

  • Find the fun in everything. If not everyone can be there, if you can’t afford brand new gifts, if your dad’s grumpy about opening presents at midnight…the holiday isn’t ruined.
  • Keep the focus on the people. Tradition for tradition’s sake adds rigidity the holiday doesn’t need. Stephanie’s family gave her dad a year off from waking up for presents at midnight, and the tradition wasn’t lost forever.
  • Have fun while you’re helping out. If you’re not up for being the big decorator or head chef, take a leaf out of Stephanie’s book and have fun supporting the people who do want to play those roles.

Plenty of love (and food) for everybody

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Sharnel Y. is a category program leader for Mahogany and is currently getting her Master of Science in Business Analytics. When she has free time, Sharnel loves to watch Marvel movies, spend time with her family, travel and paint. She even started a mobile and virtual paint party company to bring out others’ creative sides.

“Being able to have these holidays where we can come together and celebrate and let go of everything in the outside world is just amazing. It was so important for me to have these experiences and traditions…now it’s like I want my children to experience that. I want my children to hang out with their cousins and their grandparents and just love on them how we were loved on.” — Sharnel Y.

Sharnel’s family has been alllllll about holiday traditions since she was a kid. They have a long history in their Georgia hometown that’s led to the family owning and living on a lot of land.

“The whole road we’re on is our family. My mom’s in my backyard, my Grandma’s across the street,” Sharnell tells us. “I grew up in a family where we’d get off the bus at my Grandma’s house with all of my cousins—we all grew up together like brothers and sisters. It’s very important for me to be home near family.”

It should be noted that Sharnel and her family are expansive with who they call family.

“I feel like in the Black community, everyone’s related,” Sharnel says. “So, anyone’s invited. Anyone is welcome. We have an open-arms policy—whether you’re in need or you just want to come and enjoy the family.

Most of Sharnel’s holiday traditions are centred on Christmas. The family has a holiday cookie-bake on December 23 to make treats for Santa; Sharnel’s late aunt would hold a Christmas Eve dinner; her mom hosts a huge Christmas morning breakfast; and everyonepitches in for dinner on Christmas Day.

“My mom will host Christmas breakfast around 11 a.m., where she’ll invite like EVERYBODY on the block—my dad’s side of the family, her side of the family, everybody will come over,” Sharnel says. “We would be up at like 7 a.m., and just start cooking, just start cooking.”

The food. The food. The food.

Sharnel’s family has a lot of must-have dishes for Christmas.

“Certain people have to cook them,” she tells us. “New people that enter the family, like someone that’s just getting married in? ‘Bring the drinks.’ You don’t enter into the staple foods.”

On the menu:

  • We have the collard greens.
  • We need some fried chicken and/or fried turkey. My dad will deep-fry the turkey out on the porch—something gotta be fried.
  • Gotta have the honey baked ham.
  • Sweet potato souffle. Aunt Serria makes hers so amazing—so fluffy and rich.
  • My mom makes her famous cornbread that’s like amazing, her famous banana nut bread, her infamous sausage balls…people just love them.
  • Pound cake. My great grandmother has this recipe—only a few of us can make it like her, and one of them people is me.
  • My aunt—the one that passed—would bring her cheesecake.

And Sharnel’s side of the family aren’t the only ones who can throw down in the kitchen.

“[My husband’s] mom cooks this baked chicken—I’m like, ‘I’m moving down here with you so you can feed me.’ Everything his mom touches is just amazing.”

Making these Christmas memories takes a lot of work, but for Sharnel’s family, the connection is well worth it.

“It’s just fostering that familyhood…bringing us together. We may have had a bad week, we may have had an argument with our sibling or our cousin, but coming together and loving on each other is just so important.”

And things have been harder than just an argument or a bad week, following some already-tumultuous years with really difficult losses. As some of the grief eases, Sharnel and her cousins are figuring out who will carry on which holiday traditions based on kids and house sizes, and who wants to take them on.

It’s an ongoing process—one they expect to evolve as the years go on. Sharnel’s also been incorporating her husband’s family traditions into her holidays. They alternate years spending the holidays with each other’s families.

“His family goes to Disney. Every. Christmas,” Sharnel laughs. “We’ll be there from open to close with them—we’ll wear our Disney shirts, we’ll have our Disney ears and we’ll just go and have fun.”

And she has hopes for adding her own spin to events she may host, like incorporating more matching pajamas and encouraging more of a pot-luck vibe so that there isn’t as much pressure with cooking preparations.

Takeaway Tips

Sharnel’s family holiday celebrations are big, traditional and beautiful—as well as completely welcoming to anyone and everyone (unless you’re trying to make a food dish you SHOULD NOT be making). Here are a few tips and ideas based on the ways they celebrate:

  • Master a dish. It can be an old family recipe or something you’re already good at making and want to incorporate. (Or something you order from your favourite place. No judging.)
  • Tradition-hop with other loved ones. Especially if you’re still figuring out what your own traditions are going to look like, don’t be afraid to take up invites to other loved ones’ traditions.
  • Give yourself all the grace. It’s okay to take a while to reincorporate or adapt traditions after big life changes. If you need time to figure out what you even want that to look like, give yourself that time.

For those with new holiday traditions at the forefront

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Mercedes L. is a senior writer at Hallmark whose skills go way beyond amazing cards—including the Mahogany line—and articles. She enjoys contributing to research initiatives across the company and has authored and published countless poems, fiction and nonfiction stories, anthologies—really ALL the writing things you can think of.

“The holidays don’t have to be stressful or perfect. Lean into what you love and cherish, because these will become the memories you look back on. As you begin creating your own holiday traditions, don’t be afraid to make completely new traditions that are unique to you.”Mercedes L.

Like many millennials, Mercedes has pursued work away from where she grew up, and her family lives all over the country. This has given her the chance to discover new holiday traditions that resonate with who she’s grown into, as well as include the new loved ones she’s met along the way.

“Recently, I’ve found that so many of the principles and values in traditions like Winter Solstice or Kwanzaa have given me a new, authentic way for me to embrace the holiday season,” Mercedes tells us.

And she let go of those holiday traditions that no longer served her.

“As I’ve redefined my relationship with religion and spirituality, I no longer go to mass or church. The nativity was always prominently displayed growing up, but many of the religious aspects of the holiday season have fallen away for me.”

One of the most significant celebrations Mercedes began to pursue is Kwanzaa. It had never been part of her family’s holiday traditions growing up, and she hadn’t known friends to celebrate it either.

“Kwanzaa was something I only occasionally noticed on a calendar or heard briefly mentioned before a holiday break,” she says. “So much of what it means to build a sense of ‘home’ centres on traditions you carry and the ones you create. When I really started getting curious about Kwanzaa, I found a tradition that connected me to heritage and ancestry. It’s an invitation to restore and recalibrate with others.”

Mercedes has been able to delve into Kwanzaa through her connections as an active literary citizen, and her celebration blossomed because of that commitment to her creative community.

“My favourite Kwanzaa experiences are ones I spend with other Black artists and musicians. Finding community anywhere is vital and I’m grateful to have found a community like this in the Midwest,” she says.

Finding meaning in the principles and rituals of Kwanzaa

To get a more complete picture of what Mercedes’s Kwanzaa celebration looks like, and inspire your own celebrations, we asked Mercedes to set the scene:

“Some folks come in traditional African kente prints, whether it’s clothing, head-wraps or kufi caps. Most of the time, it’s pretty casual…[there’s] peanut stew, warm cider, red velvet cake laughter, a Kwanzaa music playlist from a speaker, children running around, people talking about how good the peanut stew is, poetry, live music, banjos, keyboard.

“All gifts are homemade or connected to some aspect of Black heritage. There’s no requirement for gifts, either. If someone feels called to bring a gift, they do. The intention of the gift is what matters the most. We usually spread out any gifts on a table when we arrive and anyone is free to grab something that ‘speaks’ to them.

“One of my favourite Kwanzaa celebrations was in a local art studio. Because so many of us are artists, we chose a space where we can share our art through music, poetry, and more. As with so many of our communal gatherings, everyone is invited to bring a dish to share. Before we begin the festivities, we also take time to honour ancestors and kinfolk through libations.”

Mercedes has written more about Kwanzaa here—and for those exchanging cards, there’s advice on what to write.

Mercedes has African American and Latinx/Hispanic heritage. Since she was raised by her mom of Latinx/Hispanic ancestry, a lot of her holiday traditions are rooted in New Mexico culture. As we found in our other conversations, food has shaped Mercedes’ holiday season.

“If I’m spending the holidays with little ones, we’ll usually build a gingerbread house. Bizcochito cookies are one of my favourite Southwest holiday staples, so I definitely try to make those,” she says. “I’m way too intimidated to make tamales, but that’s also something I grew up eating around the holidays. I don’t usually eat meat, but there’s always something about a warm bowl of menudo that makes me feel at home.”

And some of Mercedes favourite holiday activities are more about connecting with friends and having fun.

“For some reason, re-watching Game of Thrones has become a holiday tradition for me, although I usually have to start in early November. A couple of friends and I have a Game of Thrones group chat where we share memes and funny tweets about the series.”

Takeaway Tips

The way Mercedes’s celebrations have changed over the years remind us that the holidays can be meaningful with new traditions and old, no matter how you’ve personally changed over the years. After all, holidays are so culturally, spiritually, and food-ally rich with ways to celebrate, why not keep all your favourites? Here are a few tips and ideas based on the way Mercedes celebrates:

  • Don’t be afraid to be forget the deadlines. Celebrating on the official holiday is way less important than making the quality time happen whenever you can, with whoever can be there.
  • Incorporate new communities that warm your heart palace (a term coined by Mercedes). If your community bases have changed—for example, if you no longer go to church but you’ve developed a serious love for Dungeons & Dragons—ask your DnD group to do a holiday-themed one-off game. Fire-breathing reindeer, let’s go.
  • Let yourself adapt old traditions if you’re missing them from your childhood. It might feel weird at first to carry on a tradition without all the same people around, but the folks who taught you that tradition(s) will feel honoured that it meant so much to you in the first place.

If you’re actively looking for new traditions to speed up the holiday spicing-up process, check out these links. There are so many traditions that might fit well with you and/or your family.