Chippewa Valley Parents Share Unique Ways They Celebrate

Bonni Knight, by Katie Larson, Tom Giffey, Rachel Hart-Brinson, Jessica Miller

Whichever holidays families celebrate this time of year, they inevitably develop traditions: Religious or secular, serious of silly, maintained for generations or created just for today’s generation, these traditions serve as familiar touchstones as our families grow and change. We recently asked some of our readers about what traditions their families have revived, created, and continued year in and year out.

My grandma loved Christmas!

She spent hours putting up the most beautiful tree, which was home to thousands (and that is not an exaggeration!) of Christmas ornaments. Every year she bought at least 10 new ornaments, and it became a competition among cousins to see who could spot the newest ornaments first. It took hours of guessing and re-guessing to get the new ones identified. She also used to assign pseudonyms for each family member, which made it almost impossible to guess who was getting which present. She included the adults in on that fun, too. Every year there was a different theme (animals, types of birds, Disney characters, famous people, terms of endearment, etc.). She kept a list with everyone’s names and pseudonyms to keep track. Grandma also hid the list in a different spot in the house every year so no one – including my grandpa – could find it. On Christmas Eve when we all celebrated the holiday together, we would try to guess who each person was. It was a ton of fun, and it made my Christmas every year – and I am Grinch, so that says a lot. 

Growing up, I always loved fruitcake:

Yes, this yuletide treat has gotten a lot of bad press over the years, but it’s truly delicious. My dad wasn’t much of a cook, but for a few years during my youth he took it upon himself to make fruitcake each holiday season, which was stashed in the cool of the basement laundry room with my mom’s surplus Christmas cookies. Eventually, however, the fruitcake tradition faded. During one Christmas in my early adulthood, I lamented that my dad no longer made fruitcake. “Nobody ate it!” he lamented in response. (Apparently he didn’t know about my late-night visits to the laundry room for slices of fruitcake.) I decided to rectify the problem and began making fruitcake myself. I found a good recipe in “The Joy of Cooking” that’s not hard to make (though the process is a bit time-consuming), and now my own kids happily help with both the creation and (especially) the consumption of the fruitcake. I bring fruitcakes to family Christmas gatherings, give fruitcakes as gifts, and have even been known to bring a cake to the office Christmas party. Fortunately, the insulting anti-fruitcake jokes have been minimal and I’ve enjoyed introducing new generations to the fabled fruitcake tradition almost as much as I’ve enjoyed eating the rich, sweet cake itself. 

Our family tradition is that we close down The Joynt every Christmas Eve.

True story. It started about 10 years ago, when nobody wanted to help me decorate the Christmas tree, and I was too tired to do it alone. There we were on Christmas Eve, bickering about who was going to do it, and how, if we went to Christmas Eve services at church, it would never get done. My adult daughter and my husband made a deal with me: If we could stop at The Joynt after church, they would help me trim the tree. And that’s what we did. Some years, I get the tree done before Christmas Eve, but the Knights still always go to The Joynt. It’s actually lovely then. It’s just Bill (the owner), maybe Manas (the bartender), and about three to five other people. The bar closes at 10pm the night before Christmas, so we grab a post-church beer or two, and then head home and wait for Santa. 

Our family was in charge of the cookie plate for the extended family Christmas.

This means that my mom, sister, and I made over 13 kinds of cookies for our cookie plate every year. My sister and I aren’t as involved any more, but my mom usually saves the Swedish Cremes for us to make (butter shortbread rounds with almond frosting, also known as “little hamburger cookies”). When I was in Peace Corps, Mom sent me a container of cookies that was the best Christmas present. We also cut down a Christmas tree from the myriad red cedar trees growing wild in the pastures around our house. This started when I was very little. There is a story about arriving back at the house in the old beater truck and getting out of the truck to get the tree and not finding it in the truck: It had fallen out on the bumpy way out of the field. Getting the tree has evolved into a high-level negotiation and a reminder of perspective. (The perfect tree is always two times too big.) My parents still wait to put up the tree until we get back home so we can get it as a family. (Dad does a lot of scoping out of possibilities, but it can be an epic tromping around.) 

The holiday traditions in Eastern France start on Dec. 6 for “la Saint Nicolas.”

Children discover chocolate, mandarin oranges, and walnuts in their slippers. Then there is Christmas on the 25th. Then the season finishes on Jan. 6 for Epiphany (Three Kings’ Day). We eat a galette des rois (“king’s pie”) which is puff pastry with an almond filling, and a figurine inside. Whoever finds the figurine is the queen/king for the day and gets to pick a queen/king and both rule the family. Usually parents cheat so that children get the figurine. That item is nowadays made of porcelain, but back in the day it was a dry bean, called “fève.” It is still referred to as “fève” today. If you count the days between Christmas and Epiphany, there are 12 days. Those are the real 12 days of Christmas in the famous song, which proves wrong all those people who throw away their trees right after Christmas. The season is just getting started!