Traditions are the threads that hold families together. This holiday season many diverse and beautiful holiday customs will be celebrated right here in Findlay, Ohio. Meet four local families who are celebrating holiday traditions from around the world.
The Chinese New Year, China’s biggest festival, celebrates a year of hard work and makes wishes for a prosperous coming year. The Chen family will continue to keep tradition by celebrating Chinese New Year on January 28, 2017, a date based on the lunar calendar.
Since moving to Findlay, Ailing Chen, her husband, Xu, and son Hasen, 4, have taken to celebrating Chinese New Year with local friends because they don’t have an extended family nearby. The Chens invite Chinese friends to their home and each family cooks traditional food to share. The group gathers to celebrate Chinese festivals throughout the year.
“In China, families gather together to enjoy traditional food and time together,” says Chen. Food plays a significant role in the celebration, with each dish holding a special meaning. Fish is always served during the Chinese New Year meal because the fish signifies savings or surplus. Dumplings, which are similarly shaped to gold currency once used in China, represent fortune. Rice cakes are considered good luck to eat during Chinese New Year because they represent increasing prosperity each year.
The giving and receiving of red envelopes is a favorite tradition among children. In Chinese culture, red represents luck and happiness. The red envelopes are filled with money and given by adult family members to children and the elderly as a wish for the New Year. “It’s just like Christmas here.”
Chen teaches her son Chinese New Year songs and dresses him in red traditional clothing. She takes photos and videos to share with her family in China. The family places a red couplet across their doorframe with the words “Best Wishes” and also hangs red lanterns. On the day of the new year celebration all family members– kids and adults– get fresh haircuts and wear new clothing, down to the socks.
“We’ve been here for six-and-a-half years; this is our home now, and we want it to feel like home. I want Hasen to know about his culture,” Chen said.
Paul and Kelsey Witte have celebrated Christmas all around the United States. Over the past eight years the Findlay family has lived in Alaska, Illinois, and Louisiana, observing and collecting holiday traditions from each unique region.
When living in Alaska, the Wittes discovered that salmon was the main dish for holiday meals and gift giving. It’s very popular for Alaskan families to give and receive canned salmon that they have caught and prepared themselves as gifts.
The Christmas traditions in Baton Rouge, Louisiana were some of the more unique and culturally rich that the family has observed. On Christmas Eve, large bonfires are built on the levees of the Mississippi River to guide “Papa Noel” and his team of alligators through the fog to deliver gifts. It takes weeks to build the teepee-like bonfire structures, many of which are over 20 feet tall.
“When they light the fires on Christmas Eve people host big parties with food, traditionally gumbo, and fireworks. Families, friends, and neighbors all mingle and visit along the river,” explains Kelsey Witte.
This year, the Witte family plans to prepare for Christmas by lighting candles on an Advent wreath each night at dinner. In the Catholic tradition there are four candles on the wreath representing hope, love, joy, and peace. Accompanying family devotions prepare their hearts and minds to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Another important family tradition is reading together. “I love Christmas books and reading them with the kids,” Witte says. “We buy a few new books each year and have quite a growing collection.” The Witte girls, Anna, 6, and Kate, 4, say that their favorite tradition is singing Christmas carols in bed each night.
The one tradition that the family keeps, regardless of where they are living, is displaying Kelsey’s family nativity. “My mom gave it to me after my wedding, but I still allow my kids to play with the figures, hoping they will come to understand the true meaning of Christmas.”
Diwali is India’s biggest and most important annual holiday. Even though they are far from their home in Dehli, India, Aruna Rajan and her husband, Rajan, are excited to share the traditions of this special holiday with their Findlay friends and daughter Abhinaya, 7. “Our friends have become more like family now. This year we are gathering in a common place with each family bringing their own goodies and dishes to share. We will eat, light lamps, and celebrate together.”
Diwali is known as the festival of lights because many Indian families light rows and rows of small clay lamps called “diyas” around their homes. The diyas are lit in celebration of the victory of light over darkness, or good over evil. The longer the lamp burns, the more satisfaction or spiritual clarity those lighting the lamp receive. During Diwali, houses are brightly illuminated and inviting. Aruna and her daughter hand-painted clay diyas together this year, paying close attention to draw out the intricate details.
There is extensive planning and preparation for the festival of Diwali. Homes are freshly cleaned from top to bottom and repair projects completed. New clothing, including matching accessories, are purchased, dozens of traditional savory and sweet dishes are prepared to be shared with friends or family, and brightly colored decorations are displayed.
On the morning of Diwali, the family comes together in the home’s worship room where the eldest member applies oil to each person’s head symbolizing a new beginning and getting rid of any evil or selfishness in that individual. The family then worships and prays to the gods who bring prosperity.
That evening, family and friends gather to enjoy a feast of “at least 36 dishes,” laughs Aruna Rajan. “Sweets are the main thing, we always feel when you start with a sweet and end with a sweet everything ends up on a sweet note.” Small fireworks are a common part of the joyful celebration that lasts deep into the night. Diwali 2016 was celebrated this fall.
It should come as no surprise that food is a big part of the Italian Christmas celebration. In Italy many of the traditions and dishes are dependent on the region in which you live. Sofia Grigorieff, grew up in Abruzzo, Italy combining both her mother’s Swedish traditions with her father’s Italian traditions at Christmastime.
“Growing up we celebrated my mom’s Swedish side at Christmas Eve dinner, eating salmon and boiled potatoes with dips,” explains Grigorieff. Christmas Eve is a busy and full time for Italian families, many of whom attend midnight masses at local churches and then “Babbo Natale,” Father Christmas, brings presents to the children. “On Christmas Day, we prepare lasagna and cardone, a local dish prepared with artichoke stems, broth, meatballs, and Parmesan cheese. It started as a very poor dish, just people boiling the artichoke stems, but now people add the meatballs and Parmesan, making it rich and delicious,” she says. Families tune in to the Pope’s Christmas message, which is broadcast on TV from Rome.
Huge and often life-sized nativity scenes are a very popular tradition in Italy. Some families devote an entire room of their home to display their nativity sets, including the village of Bethlehem with the markets, shepherds, wise men, three kings and the stable with baby Jesus. “There is a tradition that every church has its nativity on display,” Grigorieff says. “Churches put out complete sets, showcasing statues and pieces from the 1800s. At Christmastime, you go from church to church to see all the different nativities.”
This Christmas, Sofia is looking forward to spending time with her family who will be visiting for the holidays and creating new traditions for her 2-year-old daughter, Thea. The Grigorieffs plan to take Thea to see Santa Claus, teach her some Christmas carols, and prepare traditional lasagna– “if I can find authentic ingredients!” says Grigorieff.