USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Christmas Eve’
Rituals, festivals, holidays

A Portland Christmas (Childhood)

Informant Info: The informant is a 22-year-old male who was born and raised in Portland, Oregon and comes from a Catholic family. He currently is a senior at USC and is very into half-marathon and marathon racing.

Interview Transcript:

Interviewer: Growing up, did you have any big holiday traditions?


Interviewee: I would say my mom is the biggest proponent of like keeping the traditions strong in our family. I would also say that Christmas is definitely the one that has most traditions surrounding it. When I was a kid we had ones that would be like kind of like silly now. We would we all do the mass on Christmas Eve together to a Catholic Mass. Before that we always went off to a nice dinner. And at that point nice was Olive Garden for me. So that’s what I though was a nice dinner (laughter). That was a joy. But I think later on I realized that Olive Garden was not indeed a nice dinner, so we changed it up a little bit. But up until I was probably in like the seventh or eighth grade, I uh – We did that as a tradition. So, would go out, we’d have the same waitress at the Olive Garden and we’d have our same meals. I would always order the same thing you know like a fettuccine alfredo and a raspberry lemonade. I remember that very clearly. And then after that I would go to Mass. I think it used to be at 10:00. And then we come home, and we do our little rituals….we had a very set routine before we go to bed on Christmas Eve. We would come around, my mom would have the cookies that she would have out, uhh she’d bring a variety of cookies into the living room and then be laid and

we would each have one or two of those. And then we would read a book. So, we’d have like a massive stack of Christmas books in our living room. And you choose two to three for people to read and at that everyone would be getting pretty tired, so my mom would usually read it and we kind of like were falling asleep. But before that we actually would write a letter to Santa. So, one interesting thing about my parents is that they still will not openly admit that there is no Santa. So even though it’s all kind of like tongue and cheek at this point… Like it’s a bit silly that we still have to write a letter to Santa even though you know as the youngest I’m 22 years old and so that’s kind of like I would say had an example of like the emphasis my mom has on tradition. And so we always write a letter to Santa and maybe cookies and a beer at this point. Uh and so, in the morning, Santa has written back and has eaten the cookies and has drank some of the beer as well. But then in the evening what we do is we have the cookies then we have my mom read the story and then we write a letter to Santa and then we open one present. When I was a kid that was like what I really looked forward to and now as the presents dwindle underneath the tree…We’re like kind of like “Well I really don’t need to because that’d be opening like half of my presents under the tree!”

So we still most of that, I still have like that tradition of it. And then we go to bed. Usually right around midnight. When I was a kid I would always try and stay up as late as I could, as always, and try and listen for Santa coming in. And now I’m like just like a homebody. So I’m like already so exhausted and like “I’m going to sleep, I’ll get up in the morning” and then I would say like in the morning it always would be I would be the first one up. So I would be because I was young as I was usually the one to get up and like my brothers and sisters who are teenagers they would sleep in later. I would always get up and I would try and run to the kitchen and my parents would get up and grab me and not let them go in there quite yet because whenever we wanted to open our presents or see our stuff from Santa we would always have to be there together so I would just sit in parents room and I’d be like sitting from 6:30 to 8 just waiting for everyone to get up and it was the longest hour of my life. Eventually it’d get later and later the older we got.

Anyways, then we would go into the living room together and our presents from Santa wouldn’t be wrapped, they’d be in or by our stocking, so we’d go and see if we got what we wanted and them we went. Then all the other presents would be wrapped so we would do our Santa stuff at first and then my mom would start making breakfast and she’d made most of breakfast the day before. We have really big, really big breakfast with like a casserole and bacon and grapefruit and cinnamon rolls and stuff like that. And that’s something I always look forward to and it was like the calm before the storm of seeing what our Santa presents were and opening the wrapped presents. Instead of just going in and ripping them open, my mom always made sure we had always taken turns, or all had one at a time to open. Afterwards, she’d make sure you wrote thank you notes afterwards. When I was a kid, I was kind of impatient but now I appreciate it. So that was like when I was a kid and those were my habits and traditions. As I’ve gotten older, they’ve changed and adapted slightly but not by much.


The informant’s family Christmas seems to be a very traditional American and Catholic Christmas. On a religious level, it is one of the most important holidays, and he holds Christmas Mass to be very dear to him. On the other end of the spectrum, it seems extremely traditional in terms of it being a time that the family can be very close together. His family traditions of having a large Christmas eve dinner, opening one present at a time, and having a large meal on Christmas align with my own family’s traditions and shares similarities with many other Christmas collections.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Christmas presents & Christmas stockings tradition

My mother has established a very specific way that we do Christmas presents and stockings in our family and it goes as follows:

Stockings are opened on Christmas morning only with our immediate family (extended family waiting in another room) and takes place sitting on my parents’ bed in our pajamas. We would then go downstairs for the rest of the presents.

As young children, we would receive one big gift from “Santa” that was left unwrapped under our fireplace, and the rest of the presents were found under the tree and were addressed from the respective person who bought them (Dad, Mom, Grandma etc.)

As older adults, we still open presents but we open a couple from immediate family members at Christmas Eve dinner and the rest Christmas morning, without an unwrapped gift from Santa.



Background: Tamara has lived her entire life in Southern California and moved her family to Malibu in 2001. She is married and has two children.

Context: My mom started this tradition in our family once me and my brother were both born, and we still do it to this day on Christmas. I asked my mom if she came up with the tradition on her own last weekend while we were at a family dinner and she said she started it when she had kids.

Analysis: As a kid, I thought this was customary, and everyone who celebrated Christmas did it in the same way my family did. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized every family had their own unique Christmas traditions, and how much I appreciated my own. This tradition that my mom started years ago is something I will definitely carry on when I have a family of my own, and I am excited at the idea of adapting it in my own way, while continuing my mother’s ritual.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Christmas Eve Soup

I asked my friend if she had any holiday traditions. She told me that on Christmas Eve, her mom prepares soup:

Me: Why soup?

Lindsey: My mom’s side of the family is Irish, so I think it’s tradition in Irish culture to have soup on Christmas. Maybe the warmth of the soup is comforting in wintertime? Also, I think soup is an easy meal to have on Christmas when people would rather be focused on their family than on cooking.

Me: What type of soup does she traditionally make?

Lindsey: It’s just a stew of different vegetables and beef. Really light. Really simple.


Analysis: Having soup on Christmas Eve is not a tradition I had ever heard of. I think the idea of spending time with one’s loved ones instead of cooking in the kitchen makes sense. It is more important to have Christmas with family and invest in quality time, than having an extravagant meal.


Peppermint Pig


Dina is a college freshman from Northern California, she comes from a large yet close knit Italian family.


Informant: So every christmas eve my entire mom’s side of the family gathers to celebrate and we have this one tradition we do every single year. Its called um… the peppermint pig. And we take this…. We have this peppermint pig and you’re not… it’s wrapped in a velvet bag and you’re not allowed to look at it. You aren’t allowed to take it out. And after dinner we all gather around the pig and everyone takes turns hitting the pig once with a silver hammer from youngest to oldest. Take your turn, hit the pig. And then once everyone has gone, which is like 20 people, you open the bag and there’s all these fragmented pieces of a peppermint pig and you HAVE to eat a piece for good luck for the next year”

Collector: Do you have any idea where that tradition comes from

Informant: No clue

Collector: Why is it lucky

Informant: It just is. yeah it just is It just gives you good luck. Everyone has to, my aunt won’t let anyone leave the room unless we all eat a piece.

Collector’s thoughts:

What most interested me about this piece is that the informant has no idea of where the tradition came from, but is still adamant that it gives good luck. She stressed the fact that everyone has to eat a piece of the pig for good luck. When asked why the tradition is luck, the informant replied in a confused tone, not understanding why an explanation for the luck was necessary




Feasts Natalae

Background: A.S. is a 22-year-old student at USC studying Occupational Therapy. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, and both of her parents are professors at USC. The informant’s mother told this story to the informant multiple times, especially when describing her childhood or her favorite holiday. This was her mother’s favorite time of the year, because it was the one time that she could be all together with her family and celebrate, even though they were Jewish and the tradition revolved around a Christian holiday.

Main piece: “My mom was born in Rome but grew up in New Jersey. Her mother was Italian and she was also Jewish…which is interesting since there aren’t too many Italian Jews. Anyways, she still celebrated Christmas because her father was raised Catholic. So my grandmother would prepare a traditional Italian meal for Christmas in the house when they lived in New Jersey. It wasn’t like other Christmas dinners in the states…it was like specifically Italian. So they would have a bunch of courses, seven I think, because of the seven sacraments or something, and almost all of them included some sort of fish plate, but no meat. I think my mom told me it was called um.. oh it was called Feasts Natalae. It was traditional in Italy to have the dinner on Christmas eve but it was still called Christmas dinner I think. Each course was fish because it’s like a kind of fasting…they just don’t eat meat. My mom said this was a really special time for her because she knew her family would be together. And it wasn’t even about the holiday or religion or anything, it was about being with her family.”

Performance Context: I interviewed the informant while we were both together, sitting on a couch, in the house where she lives on west 28th Street in Los Angeles. Feasts Natalae would typically be practiced on Christmas Eve, and is a prominent tradition in Italy. This tradition would be practiced by Anna’s mom’s family every year.

My Thoughts: I think that this story is representative of the fact that each culture and each family has a different way of celebrating Christmas, both culturally and religiously. Each nationality and each individual family has a way of making the holiday special for them. There are a lots of Christmas traditions around the world that aren’t officially coming from the church, but are still important to families and have to do with Christmas.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Christmas Eve Festivities

“Our family gathers at our home on Christmas Eve. Um we exchange gifts before Santa comes and usually have a really nice dinner like tenderloin, followed by a birthday cake for Jesus and all the kids gather around and sing Happy Birthday to Jesus and blow out the candles. And they we use, use isn’t a good word, but we use Christmas crackers, and everybody stands around the table and pulls the crackers. Usually in the cracker is a hat and toy and a joke in each cracker. So everybody shares their joke and puts on their hat, and this is usually right after dessert. And we do this just kind of to have fun I guess. And then Kate usually performs a concert and plays Christmas carols. And that began about ten years ago, and all three kids would play in the concert because they played piano, but as the other two dropped out of piano, Kate was the only one who kept it going. And a cousin played once, but Kate is the only one who plays now. It pretty much just adds festivity to the celebration.”


Informant: The informant is a fifty-two years old, a mother of three. She is of Irish, French, and German descent, and was born in Chicago. She moved to Dallas when she was three, and she is the oldest of three children, with a younger brother and sister. She is an active member of the Catholic Church.




This particular holiday ritual is interesting because it is similar to a birthday party. I think that this is due to the fact that the family is Catholic, and therefore recognizes the true meaning of Christmas as the birth of Jesus. Therefore, they celebrate Christmas Eve as they would celebrate the birthday of a family member. Every family member gathers together as they would at a birthday party, and they even have a birthday cake and sing happy birthday to Jesus.

This reaffirms that this time period, Christmas Eve, is a liminal time, as Jesus is brought into the world. The magic that surrounds the beliefs about Santa and Christmas Eve are incorporated in the family gathering and sharing of presents, while the Catholic teachings are kept in mind and celebrated as well. The blowing out of candles by the children can represent making a wish as children would for their birthdays, but doing it for Jesus.

In addition, the use of the Christmas crackers is interesting. Everyone is able to partake in the silliness of this practice by putting on a hat and sharing a joke. This brings the family closer together in celebration. It is also a very childlike performance, reaffirming the likeness of this celebration to a child’s birthday party, which is true to the Catholic meaning of the holiday.

Also, the concert that is put on by the children supports this as well. The children are able to demonstrate their skills and entertain the adults by playing the piano. Although only one child continues, who happens to be the youngest in the family, it is still representative of the festivities of Christmas Eve as childlike. This honors the birth of Jesus as a newborn child, by making the ritual of Christmas Eve as celebrated by this family as like that of a child’s birthday party.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Christmas Eve Pyjamas

The informant is my mother, who was born and raised in North Vancouver, Canada. She has two older brothers, and both of her parents immigrated from the United Kingdom when they were adults. She worked in accounting until she retired at the age of 50. She is widowed and has two children: myself and my brother, who has Cerebral Palsy.

This relates to a Christmas tradition where everyone in the family is given a pair of pyjamas on Christmas Eve, while the rest of the gifts are opened on Christmas Day.

“The pyjamas came from Kerry [informant’s sister-in-law]. That was started by Kerry, Kerry had that as a tradition in her family and she, uh, told me about that one and now we include it as a tradition with our family, um for you guys so we all got up on Christmas Day and we all had nice little new jammies to be worn for getting our photos taken in.”

So, what exactly happens with the Christmas pyjamas? Could you explain it as if to someone who had never heard of this?

“Well, what happens with the Christmas pyjamas is that, of course when you’re little, you’re all excited about having a present to open, and when you’re going to bed on Christmas Eve, you’re looking at, you know, the tree, and you know there are presents from your family and you know Santa’s coming, but we used to always let you guys open, or the kids, open one present on Christmas Eve. The thing was, is that they knew exactly what the present was going to be after the first couple of years cause it started to become, “Okay, yeah, know what this is now.”

But it was still the idea of having something special to open up on Christmas Eve and that was opening up the pyjamas and having that little ritual and it almost became… um, if it is to be not pyjamas, that would have been not good—it had to be pyjamas after a while, because that’s what one wanted, was just another new pair of pyjamas to put on in that evening. And that actual tradition got picked up by another family when they heard me telling them about that tradition and now they do it as well. And Anne and Brad [informant’s friends] do that with Robyn. And someone else I know started that tradition after I was telling them about it, but I started doing it because of Kerry.”

And why pyjamas?

“Why pyjamas. Well, so you’ve got something nice and new to sleep in that night, and then when you wake up in the morning and you’re doing all your unwrapping of presents and they’re taking pictures, you’ve got your nice new clean pyjammies. So you look cute!”


This tradition ties into the larger Christmas present tradition, and combines the “open on Christmas morning” scheme with the “open on Christmas Eve” scheme. I find the picture justification interesting as well; in a sense, it coordinates and moderates the children’s wardrobe. Additionally, allowing the children to open one present early might help take the edge off of the children’s excitement for presents, which would give parents a more quiet and peaceful night’s sleep, giving it a strategic element as well.

This was one of my favorite traditions when I was younger, and I intend to continue it.

Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Mexican-American Christmas Eve



My informant tells me that despite her ethnicity, she does definitely not associate herself as being culturally Mexican. It is telling then that despite these claims, the part that she associates with the most in this tradition are the Mexican foods and treats that her family indulges in. Clearly tamales, Mexican chocolate, and the special breads do not make their rounds frequently, but when they do they are welcomed with open arms and mouths.

It is also a tradition that celebrates the liminal moments – the moments of transition. They open the gifts together at midnight on Christmas Eve, the moment when it exactly becomes Christmas. They celebrate that together. I also think it is interesting that they have the child transitioning to adulthood as the one who distributes the presents. It is a form of initiation and celebration for that person who is growing up. He or she is the center of attention for that moment.


Seven Fish Dinner

I gathered this piece from my friend who comes from a very Italian family. Her parents family’s are both from Naples, her mom’s side is from Mirabella and her dad’s side is from Benevento. Even though her parents weren’t born in Italy, Italian culture is still very important in their family, and keeping up traditions such as this Christmas Eve dinner are very important to her parents, especially her father.

“I come from a very Italian background. My paternal grandmother was born in Italy and then came here, so my father is first-generation. My mother’s grandparents were from Italy…so they come from a very traditional Italian background. And one tradition that we’ve always followed in my family is that on Christmas Eve you are supposed to have the “Seven Fish Dinner” which means that you should be having seven different types of fish for your Christmas Eve meal. Every year my family would invite all of our family and friends over and my dad would spend about two or three days slaving away in the kitchen to cook all these different things which included lobster, probably cooked multiple ways, clams, shrimp…scungilli salad, which is octopus salad, a type of fish which I am not remembering what it’s called…and other things that I can’t remember.”

Q: So is this something your parents got from their parents?

“Yeah, it’s an Italian tradition. My family is not the only one’s that ever done it or heard of it. I know my dad keeps a lot of his Italian heritage in memory of his grandparents who he spent a lot of time with….’This is what my grandparents did so this how we’re going to do’ kind of a thing”

Food folklore tends to revolve around family and family traditions, and this is no exception. The informant learned about this through participating in a family tradition, which was kept by her parents in order to honor their Italian grandparents. Participating in the tradition becomes a way to keep the tradition alive and maintain the culture.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Annual Christmas Eve Dinner Party


“So every year, I have really strong memories, when I was young all the way to high school, of our annual, Christmas eve, party that my mom would always throw. It was always her. And we would always have family, friends, and neighbors over and it grew and grew and grew every year until by the time I was older, it would be about 50 or 60 people over at our house. And she had the same menu every year, she’d make the same food. And she, we would always have eggnog, always some kind of meat. It was usually roast beef I think, that she would carve. Uh, hmm, there was always a crab dish, there was always lobster rolls. Not like the kind, in the northeast like in Maine. I can’t really describe, exactly how they were, gosh I’m blanking out now. But um there’d always be a vegetable dip, there’d always be fruit, um and we’d always have dessert, lemon squares, brownies, that was common. So, yeah um it was the same, it was the same people year after year obviously more people came each year but it was the same crowd of people. Everyone dressed up, and I remember one of our neighbors was a doctor and he would bring his accordion over and he would play the accordion every year, it was funny. And unlike me, the more chaos and the more noise, the happier my mom would be, you know that’s not how I am. And I just remember being a little kid, all the kids would hang out together. One of the neighbors, he would, he would always go home and call our house and pretend he was Santa, and he’d say things like “ho ho ho,” and he’d be like “Rudolph be quiet” and stuff like that. And of course as kids we believed that it was Santa Claus, it wasn’t until later that were like ‘oh it’s just him.’ So everybody had someone to hang out with, and, that was pretty much our Christmas eve.”


The informant that I received this item from is actually my mother, and I had never heard about this tradition before. She grew up in Dallas, Texas.


As far as a Christmas eve tradition, my mother’s family tradition seems normal. Her account of this tradition becomes interesting, however, when looked at in light of the Christmas eve tradition that my family settled in to. Although she remembers her Christmas eve’s fondly, I see in my mother’s account of them a differentiation, a separation between herself and her mom. She mentioned in her account that “unlike me [her], the more chaos and the more noise, the happier my [her] mom would be.” The Christmas eve’s that I grew up with consisted of a nice dinner cooked by my parents that we would eat in the dining room. It was the only time of the year that we would sit down as a family and eat in the dining room; we would normally sit at the table in the kitchen. It was also always just my family, never any of our friends or relatives. That said, I now look at my Christmas eve’s as a vehicle for my mother to express her individuality, personality, and parenting style.