Christmas and Kwanzaa: Keeping Family Holiday Traditions and Finding Your Own
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 favorite 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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This post is part of the “Ways We Celebrate” series, in which we hear from people in different communities about what makes their traditions and celebrations unique—as well as discover the things we all share.
Christmases full of family, food and fun
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 humor 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 and her siblings don’t regift 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 favorite 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.
Plenty of love (and food) for everybody
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 centered 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 everyone pitches 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.”
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.
For those with new holiday traditions at the forefront
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’ centers 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 favorite 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.
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 favorite 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 favorite holiday activities are more about connecting with friends and having fun.
“For some reason, rewatching 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.”
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.
- Making the Holidays Your Own
- 80+ Holiday Traditions for Your Family
- 45 Ways to Make Christmas Magical for Kids
- Holiday traditions: Why they matter, how to keep them, and when to let them go
- Interfaith Holiday Celebrations and Traditions
- Unwrapping Hanukkah: family-focused theme nights and gift ideas
- Latinx Christmas Traditions and Holiday Celebrations
- A Christmas tribute: meaningful ways to weave memories of lost loved ones into new holiday traditions
- What is Kwanzaa?