Connecting through stories: Sharing Holiday Traditions


For the past couple of years, our family has been taking little weekend trips during Thanksgiving. Our extended family is scattered throughout the United States so we typically focus the rest of our holidays and travel efforts on visits with them. This Thanksgiving, we spent some time at Legoland in San Diego. While we were waiting on line for the 4D Legends of Chima movie, we met a family who has been coming to Legoland every Thanksgiving for the past 12 years. Chuckling, as he was talking about family holiday plans, the dad said “I know we’re crazy but we love it. It’s just what we do.” What he said didn’t strike me as crazy, though.

Family traditions are special and memorable, and quickly become beloved habits. They form bonds, are reliable, and give children a sense of ownership and something to look forward to. It made me happy to think that traveling with just my husband and my daughter could turn into a special holiday tradition for us.

Our family celebrates both Chanukah and Christmas. Chanukah brings songs of peace and celebration as we light the menorah. With regard to Christmas, we prep in our own home by playing the CD A Charlie Brown Christmas as soon as our tree is up. No decorating takes place until the music is playing. It’s simply something that sets the tone, and gets us in the mood for the holidays. We also visit with our extended family for Christmas, and watch as Em wakes up to find filled stockings and gifts under the tree. In the evening, we launch into a post-dinner dance party battle. It’s a rager and it’s so fun! No surprise that music is the centerpiece of our holiday celebrations.

Sharing stories of tradition and hearing from the family during our Legoland trip, added a feeling of connection and another element of joy for me this holiday season. It was a nice reminder that amidst the hustle and bustle of it all, there are sweet, sentimental moments to be grateful for. Besides, it’s always fun to hear other people’s stories.

As an addition to holiday music posts, today’s post features friends and artists sharing their holiday traditions from their own childhood, things they do with their families now, and of course some music.

Ann Torralba (Little Miss Ann) –

At Christmastime, my Lola which is grandma in Tagalog (filipino language) and I would make hundreds of empanadas.  My Lola would roll out the dough into little circles. I would then fill it with the cooked meat, potatoes, peas, and raisins. Then I would fold them over and close them up.  My Lola would then fry them up to golden perfection.  Besides making delicious empanadas, going to the midnight mass was a tradition as well. I always remember going into the crisp, dark winter night and seeing the glowing lights as we drove past.

My husband, daughter, and I have the tradition of making Briolattes –
delicious braided rolls filled with italian sausage, onions, and garlic.
My husband’s dad was an italian butcher for over 40 years and would make these. When he passed away, my husband and siblings carried on the tradition. We always make a few “meatless” ones for our vegetarian daughter as well. It’s funny because this year I was planning on adding to the briolattes and holiday cookies that we already make a new tradition of
making empanadas!

My absolute favorite holiday album(s) are Sufjan Steven’s Christmas albums which are quirky, indie-folk albums full of banjos and ukelele songs along with unique harmonies.  Once, those albums come out every year, I begin feel the holiday spirit! Another album, I love is called “Low” Christmas. This is an indie-rock husband-wife band that sing holiday songs that to some might not sound festive and maybe a bit sad. For some reason this album fills my husband and I with wonder every Christmas.  Our teenage daughter, on the other hand, likes to stick to the more traditional holiday music on the radio. Either way, this time of year, our house is filled with holiday music, good food, family and friends and for that I am grateful.


Lucy Kalantari – When I think of Christmastime during my childhood I think of Elvis and pasteles. My brothers would put Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” on the record player, and I’d get caught up in the hypnotic motif, “ooo ooo oo oooo oo, ” while staring at our fake Christmas tree that had seen better days. I loved our fake tree, and the bizarre plastic, muggy smell it had coming out of the box. Then I’d get called in to the kitchen, to join my Dominican mom and my two big sisters hard at work grating plátanos, yautía, guíneo verde…these are some of the ingredients for a traditional Dominican (and Puerto Rican!) holiday dish called pasteles. It’s like a Mexican tamale but made with green plantains and a mix of starchy root veggies, wrapped in a banana leaf. We settled for parchment paper in our home in Newark, New Jersey as we didn’t have access to plátano leaves. Since they were so labor intensive, we would work like a factory to make what seemed to me like a hundred pasteles! But I’m sure that’s my 7-year-old self embellishing just a little bit. Maybe.

Here’s a Pasteles recipe from one of my favorite Dominican cooking sites.

For the first couple years of my son’s life, I couldn’t bring myself to put up our Christmas tree. I’d imagine all the different variations of how the tree would wind up on top of him followed by a trip rushing to the hospital. I’m still astounded by the insane amount of worry that comes with being a parent. Finally this year, I decided it was time to let go and give Darius his own Christmas experience. It was the most delightful time I’ve had decorating a tree in a long while! We got out our own 8-year-old plastic tree (sans muggy smell and not a bad plastic smell.) Every ornament was followed with the voice of a little boy saying, ¡Ooooo!!! ¡Quiero ponerlo! [I wanna put it up!] We have yet to make pasteles, but we most definitely played Elvis while putting up the tree. And by the way, the tree is still standing. No hospital visits.
I’m a complete sucker for Christmas music. There’s a bounce and lightness to so many holiday songs, I find it uplifting. My absolute favorite Christmas album is Ella Wishes You a Swingin’ Christmas. I’ve been listening to this album every year for over 10 years now, and there’s nothing like having Ella’s honey-filled voice singing “Chestnuts Roasting on An Open Fire.” Harry Connick Jr.’s “Sleigh Ride” always makes a guest appearance in my holiday playlist every year. Gimme those horn hits anytime and have a happy, happy holidays!

KB Whirly – James moved into the house across the street from me the summer before 5th grade. He was kinda funny lookin’, just like me. He wasn’t THAT great at basketball, just like me, and he was a “musician”, just like me. I was doing the classical thing, and he was doing jazz. I could memorize a ton of music and play complicated stuff. He could just “hear stuff” – and with a few notes, make chords and sounds I’d never heard before…. yeah. We were best friends.

It had become tradition for me to join his family on Christmas Day. We were in 7th grade when Janes’ big sister gave him an ACTUAL record of The Beatles’ REVOLVER. My sister gave me a cassette tape of David Lee Roth’s, YOU’RE JUST A GIGALO”  (but I had no idea what the title meant.)

The record player sat atop a low, and very deep bookshelf. The living room floor was covered in plush white, wall to wall carpet. We sat in front of the record player, and dropped that needle over and over again. We jumped up and down on the sofa. We laid on our bellies and traced our fingers over each black pen mark of the Revolver album art. We knew exactly what it was all about. We had no idea.

Lisa Loeb – I remember secretly opening and then rewrapping Christmas gifts with my friend at her friend’s house.  One time she got the Flash Gordon soundtrack.

[Our family] lights Hanukkah candles every night and [we] try to give gifts for 8 nights too. It’s really fun for the kids.  Also, my husband’s family is really into playing dreidel and we’ve started doing that.  It’s really fun!

We sing the Hanukkah blessings and when my mother-in-law is in town, we also sing Hanukkah songs after we light the lights. My song “Light” is about the symbolism I find in the miracle of the oil that lasted 8 nights instead of one. Hope is like that: when you think you have none left, there is always more.  It’s a strong metaphor to meditate on throughout the holiday.

Ralph Covert (Ralph’s World) – We have several holiday traditions in our household. To begin with, we have a blended family, so we celebrate our Christmas late, usually around December 29th. We’ll head out as a family and do the last of our holiday shopping with after-Christmas sales! Every year we wear matching pajamas (new ones each year), which we open on our Christmas Eve. We also each get an ornament each year that somehow emblemizes the year for that person, and includes photos taken during the year. It is our thought that when our kids have homes of their own they’ll each take with them their personal collection of ornaments. Looking at them as we hang them really brings back a lot of memories and reminds us of our own journey as a family.

One musical event that is also a big part of our family’s Christmas tradition is an annual benefit that I’ve performed at for the last 12 years raising money for an organization called WINGS that provides shelter and counseling for battered women. The benefit is a beautiful affair, including Santa, family photo sessions, and an elaborate room for the kids to make their own gingerbread houses. Ralph’s World plays for it every year, and our family looks forward to attending and being part of the festivities. My band members jokingly call it the official start of the Christmas season, and for all of us that’s actually a pretty accurate statement!

One of the songs we always play at the event while Santa and Mrs. Claus join us on stage is “Santa Please,” from my holiday album A Holly Jolly Ralph’s World (available on iTunes and all streaming services as Songs 4 Holidays).

Steve Denyes (Hullabaloo)

Best Christmas Ever.

I was ten. We packed up the family van the day school let out for winter break and headed south into Baja California. A few days before Christmas we settled in to camp on a beautiful beach on the East Cape.

Being ten, I was still caught up in presents and pageantry of a typical suburban Christmas. As the big day approached I couldn’t help but mope and think of everything I was missing at home — the lights, the decorations, the caroling and the presents. But mostly the presents.

On Christmas Eve we decorated a cactus in our campsite with shells and “ornaments” we made from paper, pens and fishing line. When the sun set we drove into a fishing village and sang Christmas carols.

When Christmas morning came, there was one small present for each of us kids underneath the cactus. And, it was the best Christmas ever.

To this day, I can tell you exactly what my one little present was. I can tell you the songs we sang in the village and the exact order in which we sang them. They were Jingle Bells, Joy to the World, Silent Night and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. . . in that order!

There was something about the simplicity of that Christmas that amplified the joy. As a grownup, I always try to remind myself of that when the holidays arrive.

Heather Gaida (Trusty Tails and Trusty Treat Kitchen)

Food was the main tradition in our home. My family moved around a lot so we celebrated Christmas in different homes and different states, but my mom always cooked the same delicious meal each year.  Our extended family–counsins, aunts, uncles, grandparents – were always a part of things which made it a lot of fun.  Sometimes we would trade off and go to their home.

My mom would hide a pickle ornament on the Christmas tree.  She wouldn’t mention it was there.  Whoever remembered to look and find it would receive some sort of prize.  The prize would always be something silly. One year, I remember the prize was tupperware lids that cover your food for the microwave. Haha!

Music consisted of Christmas carols and putting the Yule Log on TV.

Devin Walker (Uncle Devin) – My family celebration was probably no different than many families in the U.S.  It usually would start with me and my siblings running downstairs once we woke up on Christmas day (our rooms were upstairs in a three-level house in a small Maryland town just 2 miles outside of Washington, DC).  This would lead to unstop playing with the different toys we received and going outside to play with our neighbors and to see what they received.  One of my favorite memories was watching A Charlie Brown Christmas each year.  We just loved it.

I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore.  However, my family still does.  Most times, I enjoy the peace that the day brings and enjoy just sitting home and resting, maybe playing some music.  Every now and then, I may have dinner with family or friends, but I prefer just relaxing on this day.
Although I don’t celebrate Christmas anymore, I still love most Christmas music.  It brings back so many great memories.  I especially love Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” and Christmas music by The Temptations, The Jackson Five, and Dean Martin, to name a few.

[I like the song] “My Favorite Things,” even though it really isn’t a holiday song, but one that is generally played during the holidays.

Jeff Krebs (Papa Crow) – I really love the holiday season and am in love with classic Christmas songs.  I love to hear them, play them, sing them (songs like “Do You Hear What I Hear?”, “Home for the Holidays” “We Three Kings” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”… ahh, this list goes on and on!).  The songs are like old friends that you get in touch with just once a year–they’re always a comfort.

Another holiday gift I like to share with my kids is the classic Christmas TV specials of Rankin-Bass. The stop-motion loveliness of two of our favorites: “Santa Claus is Comin'” To Town” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is something that we have to see each holiday season.  They’re chock full of wonderful characters like Yukon Cornelius, The Bumble, Hermey the would-be dentist, Burgermeister Meisterburger, the Winter Warlock, and the music is top notch as well!  Yes, we love Frosty and Heatmiser too, but Rudolph and Santa are our favorites.  The other night while watching Rudolph, seven -year-old Billy said “I’m not sure Rudolph is real–I know the other eight reindeer are real…”  I don’t think five- year-old Pablo heard.  Super cute.

Speaking of Pablo, here’s a video that features nine-month-old Pablo in one of my all time favorite Christmas songs: “Little Drummer Boy.”

Jason Rabinowitz(The Pop Ups) – In our house we used to play “Hot and Cold” for our Chanukah presents.  It was one of my favorite things to go on this scavenger hunt…  Also, my family would do readings/songs/performances when we all gathered together… Still do. As for new traditions, we make up songs for everyone on their birthday and send them little iPhone videos of the kids singing (and hammering on toy pianos and stuff).  It’s fun!

Laura Lallone, Writing and Editing Partner (Your Goodness Guide) – Growing up in a small suburb of Philadelphia, my family followed fairly typical 1970s Christmas traditions. The popcorn and cranberry stringing, building gingerbread houses, baking cookies and dousing them with a horrific amount of red and green crystalline sugar.

We’d drive around the neighborhood for what seemed like hours, oohing and aahing at the lights and listening to Christmas songs on the radio. It was a mini light show, set to music. We’d get cozy under blankets in our wood paneled station wagon. We’d chat – and fight, I’m sure – and daydream as we took in the lights and music.

Later, I’d butcher the same songs on our piano while my more musically inclined older sister and mother would perfect them. My favorites were “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Good King Wenceslas.” Even then I had eclectic taste.

Today, I love the little moments with my own family during the holidays. The pajama couch days watching Elf with my partner Brian and our boyssinging along with Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Listening to the kids practice their holiday pageant songs in impromptu private shows. Making gingerbread houses. And cruising around our very festive 1950s throwback neighborhood, oohing and aahing at the light configurations and poking fun at the house with too many inflatable lawn Santas.

Sarah Sloboda, San Francisco-based Family & Kids Photographer – My favorite tradition of the whole year is the tradition of sending Christmas cards. I am a family and kids photographer, so I help a lot of people create images for their holiday cards. And, I start the process of conceptualizing and designing my own towards the end of October. Throughout the process, I keep picturing those hours I will spend in front of the glowing Christmas tree, addressing envelopes and personally sealing the good wishes I will send to friends and clients and family. I love sending a tangible object to the people who have touched my life that year, and reflecting on all of the people who make my life what it is.

When the cards arrive in the mail, I revel in how they turned out. I order festive stamps and put a lot of love into the details of what each recipient will experience when they open the card. Somehow, over a couple of months, I mash together a spreadsheet of everyone’s mailing addresses, and I use a column on the far left to mark once I’ve addressed each family’s card.

To me, a ritual is not a ritual without certain tastes, scents, sounds and a warm beverage. For this tradition, I like L.A. Burdick hot chocolate and the Nest Holiday candle. I boil a kettle of water (I like it better with water) and use milk chocolate hot chocolate, light the candle, put on Christmas music, and focus on my best penmanship. My favorite Christmas music discovery this year was that the great jazz artist Duke Ellington once did an album of the Nutcracker Suite. The best track is his version of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. It’s a gorgeous and unique take on the sounds of the season, especially if you’re a jazz aficionado like myself.

As I write the names and addresses, I think about the miles these cards will travel. The poor US postal service is sadly under appreciated! For 49 cents, they’ll send a physical object to any place in the country, and my friends and colleges will get to hold in their hands these things that I personally touched. I reflect on how all of these people have added to my memories and experiences, what places I saw them in, and what we did together, and I feel the significance of putting their name on something. It’s like saying “I recognize you. Thank you for touching my life.” In the smallest ways, so many people touch us in a year. And, all of that adds up to what makes a life. Addressing these cards is the only time of the year I get to spend hours at a time simply focusing on the fact that life is vast and complex and wonderful and full of connections, big and small.

Todd McHatton – The Most Wonderful Time. Slowly. Carefully. I didn’t want to scratch it. I would lift the lever and move the needle back to the beginning of my most favorite Christmas song over and over; “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams. Andy made a bunch of Christmas Albums and Television Christmas Specials. I was a young, probably 5-years-old, hadn’t even started playing the guitar yet. Andy Williams sounded like magic, like big warm rainbows of happiness.

I’m fairly certain that lever got wired directly to my central nervous system. I started playing the guitar a few years later. I wanted to lift that lever on my own needle and drop it down on my own internal record.

Years later, the end of 2007, I launched Almost immediately I began trying to post a new song every week. It was strange and exciting, although looking back at those early posts I cringe a bit. The recording quality was poor, however, it was wonderfully freeing just putting things out there, wondering who might stumble upon it and perhaps enjoy it as much as I was.

I’ve been so blessed and grateful for everything that came from that focused bit of passionate attention. I developed an entire composition ritual that sparked realizations of musical dreams, all the way from my childhood, and fantastic new adventures for my family.

Christmas is a big thing for our us. A really big thing. So naturally when it came holiday time that first year of the big experiment I began composing songs to celebrate the season. I did a handful of these songs and released them as a free digital only EP. When the holidays rolled around the next year I was naturally inspired to do more. And so began a yearly tradition until finally I had a full albums worth. I finally put that up on iTunes a couple of years ago. For us, it’s a fun little ride through our family holidays. When we listen to [the Christmas Songs album] we’re instantly transported back in time. Hazel and Marvy have their fantastical banter, I sing about Harry Nilsson, there’s some rocking, and a lot of weirdness. I love it because it sounds and feels like it’s a part of us. The only frustrating thing is that it’s the holidays again and I want to write more – but the album is done and out there and I haven’t done random song posts in years. Perhaps it’s time for a new Christmas Album or maybe even a Christmas Special. It worked for Andy Williams.

Laurie Berkner (The Laurie Berkner Band) – I am a relative newcomer to Hanukkah. I only started celebrating when my daughter Lucy turned 3 (she is now 11). We had been talking about Hanukkah a lot that year because I had recently become fully aware that – while I was raised celebrating only Christian holidays – everyone on my mother’s side is actually Jewish.

I think the whole thing was either a little confusing, or extremely fluid for Lucy.  The only thing she asked for that Christmas was…a menorah. We have been using it every year since!

Caroling at Christmas time is one of my most vivid childhood memories.  We would all gather by the local library and someone would hand out music and candles with tinfoil wrapped around the bottom to catch the dripping wax.  We would light our candles from each other’s wicks and start to sing as we walked through the streets towards the town Christmas tree. The glow of the candles and sound of everyone singing together stirred something inside of me and made me feel like Christmas really did have magic.

We traditionally spend Christmas Eve at the home of family friends who invite a few other people each year.  We all bring instruments and sing carols together. This is something I also did every year with my own family in our home.  We pulled out our various songbooks, my dad played his 3/4 sized violin from Junior High, my brother and I played piano and guitar as we got older, and we all sang together.

Patrick Hanlin (Josh and the Jamtones– I’ve had some memorable Christmases! There was 1993 when I got an AWESOME Sega Genesis and started doing laps around the house, or ’95 when i spent the whole day freezing my butt off in the garage, wailing on my first ever drum set.

For my family it was never really the presents, though — it was all about some serious tree decorating madness. We would put in a mix of our favorite holiday tunes, or sometimes music that my brother or I had been recording (of course our mother made us play and replay our music ad nauseam), and get to work piling literally HUNDREDS of ornaments on our tree, which of course was the biggest, fattest tree in the lot.

We would find all the perfect places for each ornament, depending on the height/weight/durability of said bauble and the sturdiness of each individual branch. We quickly learned important tree decorating stratagems, like NEVER putting the glass ornaments on the bottom of the tree because your butthole cat will DEFINITELY knock them off and shatter them on the hardwood floors. We would wrap our tree with six or seven sets of string lights, both colored and non-colored, blinking and static. After tossing a couple bags worth of garland, we would break out our tallest ladder and gingerly place a little angel on top of the tree.

Altogether, tree decorating tended to be a 3-5hr affair, full of sing-alongs and eggnog (or in later years, a special “Rock and Rye” family concoction that’ll lay you out in about 15 seconds flat). To this day, once we’ve gotten everything wrapped up (maybe around 1 or 2am) and everybody else goes to sleep, I’ll stay up and chill on the couch with our dog, basking in the warm Christmas-y glow of our massive monster tree :):).

There’s a TON of good holiday songs out there, but one of my very favorites is Mindy Smith “Santa Will Find You.”

Alison Faith Levy  – Both my parents grew up Jewish, mom in New York and dad in Louisiana, and both had the same bizarre tradition of celebrating Christmas, but without a tree. They had stockings, and decorations, and Santa Claus and presents, but no tree. Both of them! So that’s how I grew up. Then, when I married my husband and we wanted to raise our son Jewish, we phased out Christmas and now celebrate only Chanukah.

When I was about 10, my parents got divorced and holidays were pretty complicated and stressful – shuttling back and forth between their houses etc. But now they are both remarried and great friends, so we celebrate all holidays together as one big family. It’s really nice! I make really killer latkes.

With regard to music, our absolute family favorite is the Phil Spector Christmas Album. It wouldn’t be the holidays without it! And right now we are totally digging the Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings album, It’s a Holiday Soul Party.  SO great! I’ve been dancing to their funky “Eight Days of Hanukkah” with all the preschoolers I teach.

I’ve been writing a lot of Jewish holiday songs to sing with my kids at the preschool, all year long, so that has been really sweet and inspiring (we Jews have a LOT of holidays). My “All I Want for Chuankah is a Ukulele” song has beens lots of fun to share – people seem to dig it!

Greg Page – My Christmas memories as a child are of spending time with my family. Christmas Eve was always spent at my Gran and Pop’s house – we would exchange gifts and have dinner, and when it started to get dark, my sister and I would stand on her front porch looking for any light in the sky, in the hope that we would see Rudolph starting his trip around the world with Santa!

Andres Salguero (123 Andrés) – I grew up in Colombia and experienced Catholic traditions as a child. More important than the tree was the nativity scene that each house would build in their house. I remember going to malls and being mesmerized by huge mechanic nativity scenes where there were little tiny fisherman magically pulling the cane and carpenters hammering.

¡When I get the chance to visit Colombia we get together around my grandmother, sing villancicos (like the one on the video) and eat tamales!

I’ll tell you what I will be listening to 🙂 There’s a cool Christmas album by Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno that I haven’t heard. It think it will be awesome. She’s great!

I just recorded three cool holiday songs with Alina Celeste. Here is one of them called “Tutaina.”

Bonnie Ward Simon (Maestro Classics) – Everyone in my family played an instrument. The day after Thanksgiving every year, my father would pull out his set of Christmas music parts and we would have “Family Orchestra.” Every evening after dinner between Thanksgiving and Christmas, we would all sit down in the living room and practice. While we all groaned a bit, by Christmas Day when friends stopped by we would play several carols for them. Years later they told me how they had looked forward to our music-making. When we all grew up and went our separate ways, the one thing that I missed most was playing Christmas carols with the family orchestra.

Every Christmas when my husband and I lived in The Dakota in New York City, we hired the Juilliard Brass Quintet and invited the entire building to come and sing Christmas carols. We handed out sheets with all the words and it became a tradition. When we moved to Washington, our living room was considerably smaller and we missed our old caroling. Our solution was to start a Holiday Sing-Along at the Kennedy Center where families came to the Concert Hall and sang that wonderful large body of American holiday music that included everything from Santa Claus is Coming to Town to Silent Night to Dreidel, Dreidel. Before long the concert was sold out before Labor Day and for many families it was an ecumenical holiday, where people of all faiths could enjoy music together. The last one was over 10 years ago and I still miss it.

Paige Doughty (Jeff & Paige) – We celebrate Chanukah and Christmas at our house. Since having our baby, Wolf (now one), both of these holidays have taken on new meaning… I thought I’d never want to decorate the house for the holidays and just the other day I found myself buying lights to hang up! For the fist night of Chanukah, we lit all the menorahs in the house (they seem to have multiplied since Wolf got here. –photo attached). Generally, in our home we try to be creative about our gifts and find things that are used, sustainable, or helpful to the world around us. We have a coupon night, a random act of kindness day, and other silly stuff. Speaking of silly you might enjoy this video we made of an original Chanukah tune called “Latke Man.”

Boogie Woogie Bennie (aka Marc Capponi) of Rocknoceros – I have always loved holiday music.  My dad would stack 6 LPs on the record player, and they would play one after the other.  When they were done, we’d flip over the whole stack to play the other sides.  When that was done, we’d flip ‘em again and start all over!

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