Traditions are generally handed down through families, from one generation to the next. Keeping
these traditions feels sacred somehow–especially holiday traditions. Placing the same
decorations in the same places year after year, serving the same meals on holidays that your
mother served, going to the same places, singing the same songs…
But like language, traditions evolve over time. Young families blend disparate traditions and
create their own combined set to pass on to their children. Families new to the U.S. bring
traditions with them and pick and choose from among those they discover here to pass on to their
children. Each generation ends up speaking a slightly different dialect of Holiday.
I’ve done this in reverse.
I brought home from Germany a whole host of traditions to add to those I grew up with. I
discovered advent calendars while living in Jülich and we started opening one of the 24 windows
each December morning until Christmas Eve. I still send my grown children one every
November. We started celebrating St. Nicholas Day while in Germany, putting out a boot to be
filled with small presents on December 6th. I wonder if my children will continue this when they
have little ones?
We also brought home from Germany a beautiful handmade wooden carrousel, but started
lighting the tiny candles to make it spin for a few delightful minutes every evening on December
7th, el Día de las Velitas (the Day of the little Candles) a lovely celebration that I discovered
when I lived in Colombia. Which one of them will claim this new family heirloom, I wonder,
and will their children ever trace back the December 7th candle-lighting start date to my stint in
South America back in the 1970s? There is usually a seed of logic in even the most
I also imported buñuelos from Colombia. These fried dough delicacies are an intrinsic part of
Christmas, served with natillas. Yum! And I generally cook up a big pot of Ajiaco, a delicious
stew with chicken, potatoes and capers that is ubiquitous in chilly Bogotá, particularly on Christmas
But I have just discovered a lovely tradition that I plan to adopt this year from a country I have
never lived in or even visited.
In Iceland, literary and holiday pleasures are melded into a single remarkable event, the
Jólabókaflóð (pronounced yo-la-bok-a-flot), or Yule Book Flood. On December 24th, families
and friends all give each other books. Then they spend the rest of the night curled up reading, often
with some hot chocolate or jólabland (a fizzy orange drink mixed with brown ale).
Does that not sound like the ultimate in hygge, to invoke that über Danish concept that roughly
translates to a rich combination of utter coziness, low-key celebration, and keen self-care?
I am starting the Yule Book Flood tradition this week. I have chosen a special book for each of
my family members and friends and I plan to give them on Christmas Eve, just like in Iceland.
By next year perhaps I can turn this into the exchange it is intended to be (and receive a few gift
books myself…). What a great way to discover new authors and read books you might never have
stumbled across otherwise. And spending the Night Before Christmas in bed with a book sounds
And that, Virginia, is how holiday traditions are born.
May your holidays be safe, laden with beloved traditions and full of friends, family (all wearing masks) and unmitigated joy!