When the season kicks off, these four multicultural families know there’s not just one way to celebrate—especially when there are so many traditions to go around!
Pass the maracas
Pass the maracas
Susana I. Sanchez-Young • Guatemalan and Nicaraguan
Christopher Young • Chinese and Japanese
Kids: Joaquin, 6, and Valentina, 4
City: Walnut Creek, California
Everyone comes over on Christmas Eve, and we eat tamales and drink ponche, a warm punch made with fruit, coconut, cinnamon, and other spices. When I lived in the same city as my mom, she would make it. After relocating, I had to Google the recipe, so that my “Latina card” wouldn’t get revoked! My mother-in-law brings an Asian salad made with a soy sauce–based salad-dressing recipe that was passed down from her mother. She likes to sit next to my abuelita, who doesn’t speak English, and practice her Spanish.
After dinner, we put on music and dance to classics, like “Mi Burrito Sabanero.” My in-laws and two brothers-in-law watch and sway from side to side. While they’re very quiet, they do enjoy learning about other cultures. We’ll play musical chairs and pass out instruments I’ve been collecting for years—an accordion, claves, tambourines. My father-in-law joins in the fun and will shake the maracas. It’s a good way to burn off the tamales.
On Christmas Day, we’ll go to my in-laws and make sushi. I’m not very good at it, but my mother-in-law is teaching me. This year, the kids will get involved. My children have been introduced to different cultures since they were born. When we get together with our families, and there’s a mishmash of foods and traditions, it’s the most normal thing to them. They’re just happy to get together.
Latkes and peppers
Latkes and peppers
Dolores “Lola” Dweck • Mexican
Michael Dweck • Syrian-Jewish
Kid: Amado, 4
City: Highlands Ranch, Colorado
I converted to Judaism before I got married, but we still celebrate Christmas, as well as Hanukkah. A few weeks before Christmas, we travel to California to my mom’s house to make red pork chili tamales with the women in my extended family, about 25 people. We do a special kosher batch with chicken for my husband, since he can’t eat pork. Then we stick them in the freezer to enjoy later when the whole family returns for Christmas.
One year, my son taught his cousins the hora, a traditional Jewish dance. He found a version on YouTube and played it on the surround-sound speakers in the house. Then he pulled everyone into a circle in the kitchen at my aunt’s house, joined hands, and taught them how to move in a circle in one direction and then in the other direction. They’d raise their hands and tried to go forward and backward fluidly, but everyone was bumping into one another!
During the eight days of Hanukkah, I make potato latkes with a serrano or jalapeño pepper and apple salsa to give them a Mexican flair. We light the menorah together and spin the dreidel. Depending on how it lands, you either take “money” (chocolate gold coins called “gelt”) from the pot or put it in—it’s basically gambling. I love that my son is completely comfortable doing Hanukkah or Christmas and being in a synagogue or a church. While I know that he’s still figuring it out— he once saw Pope Francis on TV and asked me whether he was wearing a kippah (skullcap) like he wears on Shabbat—he has already learned to identify and connect with his family in different ways.
Tara Payor • Puerto Rican and Spanish
Austin Payor • Polish and Yugoslavian
Kids: Harlow, 5, and Hendrix, 2
City: Tampa, Florida
I lived in Puerto Rico until I was 7, and we’d have a huge Nochebuena party. My husband is an emergency-room physician, and he sometimes works on Christmas Eve, so we keep it low-key. I make a few Puerto Rican dishes—lechón and arroz con gandules for dinner and a coconut pudding known as tembleque for dessert—and take the kids to see the neighborhood lights.
On Christmas Day, my husband makes the same jam-filled Polish cookies (kocie oczka) with our kids that he made with his Polish grandmother, Henrietta, who was a mother figure to him. She gave him the handwritten recipe before she died, so it’s important for him to keep that special tradition going. We have Polish Christmas decorations that she passed down, and my husband puts them around the house as a way of remembering her.
Our daughter likes to spin the globes we have at home and gets excited when we locate Tampa, Puerto Rico, and Poland.
Farid Ali • Colombian and Palestinian
George Constantinou • Greek Cypriot and Costa Rican
Kids: Gustavo and Milena, 6
City: South Orange, New Jersey
We invite our Latino friends over on Christmas Eve for rice and beans, empanadas, tamales, and natilla (cinnamon pudding), and we play Latin Christmas songs. That night, we put the Nativity scene, or pesebre, under the tree and hide Baby Jesus somewhere in the house for the kids to find. The winner gets a small gift. Then we Skype with relatives in Colombia and Cyprus.
During Greek New Year’s, on December 31, we go to a party at a church hall. There is always tons of Greek food like souvlaki, baklava, lamb meatballs, lemon potatoes, spinach pie, and sugar cookies. Many people dress up in traditional Greek outfits (colorful vests, white skirts, white tights), gather in a circle, and dance a jig arm-in-arm—that’s the Kalamatianos. The twins are young, so they just watch and clap.
That evening, we follow another Latin tradition called “burning the effigy.” We create a scarecrow doll out of random items—sticks, Styrofoam, leaves, Legos, buttons, straw, etc. Once the doll is made, we stand around the fireplace and talk about the sad parts of the last year— friends who have gotten hurt, people we’ve lost, moving to a new place and saying goodbye—and then we throw the scarecrow into the fire. It’s a way of letting go of the past, looking toward the future, and making room for new experiences and new relationships. We hope that as our kids get older, they’ll continue these celebrations and travel to our home countries, knowing there’s love for them there.