Awkward Family Christmas Traditions

Featured Article, Traditions
on December 18, 2013
Christmas photo cards are a family affair in Eagan, Minnesota, where Sue Johnson outfits her husband and children each year for themed cards to share with family and friends.

Last December, American Profile invited readers to write us about their cherished family holiday traditions. The response was joyful. Here are some of our favorites.

Extreme Christmas cards

Sue Johnson started her annual Christmas card photo tradition in 1993 with a simple snapshot of her family wearing Santa hats and red sweaters. Inspired by the creative process and the positive reception from family and friends, she began to outfit her brood in increasingly outlandish handmade holiday costumes for subsequent Christmas card photos.

“We’ve been gift-wrapped and we’ve done reindeer and we’ve done Santa and we’ve done snowflakes,” jokes Johnson, 62, of Eagan, Minnesota, who’s also dressed her loved ones as angels, toy soldiers, gingerbread men and poinsettias.

Over the years, she has cajoled her husband Rob, 62, and their three children to pose for each over-the-top photograph. “It’s a family day and we laugh and we feel like idiots sometimes, and then we think about what people are going to think when they open the card,” Johnson explains.

The Johnson children weren’t always crazy about the annual ritual, especially as teenagers. Now that they’re older — Valerie, 33, is an emergency room physician; Erica, 31, is a schoolteacher; and Michael, 25, a lawyer — it’s easier to take their mom’s passion in stride.

“Families tell us they wait until Christmas Eve to open it,” says Erica, whose husband, Andy Riehm, joined the Christmas card cast when they married. “So in many ways, I think it is our gift to our friends and family.”

This year, Johnson is adapting the tradition to their growing family by outfitting only her two grandchildren, Kayleigh and Henry, both 1. Erica is both sad and relieved not to don one of her mother’s imaginative costumes.

“As a teacher,” she acknowledges, “it was a little hard to get my students to take me seriously after they saw me dressed as a sheep.”

French horn blast

For years, George Langford never failed to guess what his wife and children had bought him for Christmas. “We got so fed up with George’s gifts,” recalls his widow, Carolyn Langford, 84, of Warrenton, Georgia. “He would shake the box and say, ‘No need to open it. This is a Christmas tie!’ or ‘This is an Oxford shirt with a button-down collar!’”

He was always right.

But while shopping in Atlanta on Thanksgiving weekend in 1964, Carolyn and her three children—Cary, 9, Julie, 5, and George III, 3—spotted a shiny brass French horn in the window of the Brooks Brothers clothing store. Purchasing the instrument decorated with a gold-and-red tassel, the young mother slyly told the children, “This year, your daddy will not guess his Christmas gift.”

On Christmas morning, George tried and tried but couldn’t figure out what was in the big square Brooks Brothers box. Unwrapping the gift, he exclaimed, “Oh, a Brooks Brothers suit, something I’ve wanted all my life!”

“You can imagine the look of disappointment on his face when he saw the brass horn,” Carolyn says. “But, in the spirit of the holiday, he recovered well and good-naturedly raised the horn to his lips and let out an ear-splitting blast—to the joy of the entire family.”

Every year thereafter, George blew the horn to welcome Christmas morning—a tradition that continued until his death in 1997.

The horn still hangs on the wall in the Langford home. “Everyone, including the grandchildren, have attempted to replicate the sound,” Carolyn says.

Pickle in the tree

Romaine Smith, 88, of Sherwood, Oregon, grew up hearing about the custom of her Polish ancestors of hiding a glass pickle in the Christmas tree and letting the child who finds it be the first to open presents. But Smith’s parents could not afford one of the unique, hand-blown ornaments.

While raising her own family during the 1950s, she splurged and purchased one of the unusual dill decorations—passing along her Polish heritage to a new generation. On Christmas morning, her children scrambled to spot the pickle, which their father had hidden in the tree the night before. When the kids grew up, Smith bought them their own pickle ornaments imported from Poland. Today, her adult grandchildren hide the decorative pickles for their little ones.

Christmas tablecloth

Inspired by a local shop where kids are allowed to paint on the walls, Cindy Baker, 65, of Grand Haven, Mich., adapted the idea for her children on Christmas Day in 1981. Using a flat white sheet for a tablecloth, she encouraged Melissa, then 6, Allison, 4, and Nada, 2, to write their own Christmas messages that ranged from “I got a Cabbage Patch Doll” to “I didn’t like the ham.” Then Baker embroidered the notes on the sheet with colorful thread.

Over the years, relatives, neighbors and the girls’ boyfriends signed the cloth, which now sports about 200 signatures, including the scribbles of grandbabies holding a pen guided by their moms. All spelling errors—including Allison’s “I love my skies” instead of “skis”—remain.

“It’s just a history of our life together,” Baker says. “There’s a lot of goofiness and a lot of love on that cloth.”

Red and green supper

Dianne Almendinger’s parents were married in 1930 during the Great Depression. Money was tight, so her mother became creative with Christmas Eve supper, incorporating traditional holiday colors into the meal.

“She had a can of tomato soup and a box of green gelatin. Cost of the meal: soup, 10 cents, gelatin, 10 cents,” says Almendinger, 82, of Delaware, Ohio. “The next year she added canned pears with maraschino cherries. Every year Mom accepted the challenge of fixing a meal where everything had to be red or green.”

When her mom died in 1970, Almendinger took over the culinary tradition, always serving pink-tinted ham and a combination of peas, asparagus, green beans, beets, red cabbage, stuffed celery, and other red-and-green vegetables.

“You wouldn’t miss it for anything,” she says. “And it had nothing to do with presents.”

Night at Bethlehem

Since the late 1960s, Helen Read, 79, and her husband, Ronald, 86, of San Diego, California, have celebrated a “Night at Bethlehem,” re-enacting the story of Jesus’ birth with their children and grandchildren and re-creating what living in Bethlehem would have been like 2,000 years ago.

Turning off all electronic devices for a few hours on Christmas Eve, they lit candles and served an evening meal featuring foods from biblical times and places—such as lentil soup, unleavened bread, hummus, cheeses, nuts, dates, fish, olives, cucumbers and eggs.

Their children, and later their grandchildren, acted out the Nativity story narrated from the Bible’s book of Luke, and the family sang carols and played historical games.

Last year, the adults and children swapped places, with the grownups dressing in costumes and the kids reading the Nativity story. The Reads posed as innkeepers, and their newborn great-granddaughter Rachel was wrapped in a cloth and laid in the manger.

“I think it brings history a little more alive to them,” Helen says, “and it helps us focus on the Christmas story.”

Yule log

Les Eaton, 63, always yearned for a house with a fireplace, especially at Christmastime. So when he and his wife, Christine, bought a home in Phoenix, Arizona, in 1994, they installed one.

To celebrate their first holiday in their new home, the couple decorated a fresh evergreen that nearly reached the ceiling of their 14-foot-tall living room. But instead of trashing the tree after the holidays, Eaton started a family tradition by removing the limbs, saving the trunk, and burning it as a Yule log in the fireplace the following Christmas.

The ritual is one the family “really looks forward to each year,” says Christine, 61, “and a way of connecting one Christmas to the next.”

Cookies for my brother

Barbara Casuscelli was just 4 when her 19-year-old brother, Bill Bogardus, enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. As Christmas approached, she and her dad baked their first batch of Toll House chocolate chip cookies to send to Bogardus and his new buddies. “I helped, and we had a ball,” recalls Casuscelli, now 70, of North Adams, Massachusetts.

Every Christmas while Bogardus served in the military, and even after he completed his military service and moved to St. Louis, Missouri, his little sister and dad mailed him a batch of homemade butterscotch, cherry winks or chocolate chip cookies.

Their father died in 1966, and Bogardus is now 85. But Casuscelli has continued the tradition, except for a few years ago when she was too busy and frazzled to bake.

“Well, I heard about it from my brother: ‘Where’s the box of cookies?’” she says with a laugh. “So the following year, I made two boxes!”