Tag Archives: Christmas tradition

Christmas Tree Tradition – Star Topper

Main Piece:

SE: “When I was a kid, every Christmas, we’d have the Christmas tree set out and all decorated. But instead of having a normal angel on the top, we have an angel with the head of an airedale terrier.”

Me: “A dog?”

SE: “Yeah, it was the first kind of dog we had. The star actually has a name that my sister gave it. We call it the ‘Guinness’ angel named after our first dog. And we have a rotation between us kids of who gets to put Guinness up each year.”


The informant, SE, was raised Catholic and grew up in Pasadena. He’s been celebrating Christmas his whole life, and the dog angel has always been a part of the holiday for him.


We were exchanging Christmas traditions amongst our friends and SE explained his family’s unique ornament ritual. Important to note, their dog Guinness has since passed away, but they still put up this star topper as their angel.


My family also has a tradition around who gets to put up certain ornaments on the tree, and a rotating system for how that is decided… but I’ve never heard of the dog star topper. The style of object significance is much alike how tourismus can garner a much greater value despite being of such cheap materials. Having the knowledge that Guinness is no longer alive almost makes the star have even more spiritual value, as the family’s own animal watches over their home when the holidays come around.

Wigilia – a Polish Christmas Eve (Polish-American Christmas)

Main Performance:

The informant, JK, and their full extended family (as many as can come, usually ~40) gather for a big feast and a host of different rituals for Christmas Eve. An extra place setting with food is traditionally set for “the unexpected guest” to celebrate hospitality and community, but this practice is not present at their Wigilia anymore. Instead, to avoid food waste, the family invites friends and boyfriends/girlfriends over to join for the big dinner and night of celebration, serving a similar symbolic purpose. At this feast, you are also not supposed to eat any meat and stick strictly to fish and vegetables.


The informant, JK, is my dad and also one of the figure heads behind putting together this gathering every year. He too has been attending Wigilia every year of his life and is part of a long line of family who keeps this gathering going. In our conversation, he noted other rituals that I was unfamiliar with that he grew up with for Wigilia. One of these practices being attending a midnight mass at the Catholic church.


Our conversation took place over the phone, where he recounted the history of the holiday and explained the different practices within the ritual time. As this post is the broad-stroke of the tradition, I will dive into the minutia in separate entries.


The general practice of Wigilia is far more religious in explanation than I had ever known it to be, as it has become much more focussed on the simple act of gathering for food and a toasting ceremony. But the Catholic roots are very present in the metaphorical significance of community, sacrifice, and family. There is also a great emphasis on the passing over into the New Year, that despite not being directly correlated to New Year’s, the time spent at Wigilia is stressed as setting a precedent for the coming year (i.e. if the community fights during this time, it will be difficult times ahead).


There is another piece on Polish Yuletide that is in the Folklore Archive that I have linked below:


Reindeer Food

Content: On Christmas Eve, when her kids were young, D mixed up glitter and oats and called it “reindeer food.” Her children would sprinkle the mixture on the front yard, and repeat the following: “Sprinkle on the lawn at night. The moon’s light will make it sparkle bright. As Santa’s sleigh flies and roams, this will guide the reindeer to your home.” 

Background: D was born in Richmond, Virginia in 1963. She moved to Atlanta, Georgia in 1981. She raised three daughters in Atlanta in the 1990s and 2000s. 

Context: This story was told to me over a phone call. I found the variations online. 

Analysis: After I spoke to D, I found several different variations of the saying that goes with reindeer food. Below are a few examples.

  1. Make a wish and close your eyes tight. Then sprinkle it on your lawn tonight. As Santa’s reindeer fly and roam, this food will guide them to your home.
  2. Come December 24th as Santa flies here from the North, here’s what you do, it isn’t hard ~ just sprinkle this stuff in your yard…the sparkles draw old Santa near and oats attract his reindeer…then you just wait ~ they’re on their way.
  3. Sprinkle this reindeer food outside tonight. The moonlight will make it sparkle bright. As the reindeer fly and roam, this will guide them to your home.

I found it interesting that all the different poems that go along with the reindeer food use some of the same words: sprinkle, sparkle, flies. Additionally, I found that some websites called it “reindeer dust” instead of “reindeer food.” The recipe seemed to be about the same, although some substituted sprinkles for glitter.

The Christmas Pickle

BACKGOUND: NH is a friend of the interviewer.
CONTEXT: NH describes his family’s “Christmas Pickle” tradition.
Informant: “Every Christmas Eve, my grandma would hide a green pickle ornament somewhere in our Christmas tree. My three cousins and I would compete to find it first. She usually hid it deep in the tree somewhere. Whoever found it first got $10 or so.
While it does have German-American roots, and my family is of Luxembourg origin – so it kind of tracks – I also think we might do it because our last name is Heinz, like the infamous pickle-makers. You know, 57 Varieties of Pickles?”
Interviewer: “Yeah, of course. Any known relation to the company?”
Informant: “No, unfortunately.”
ANALYSIS: The Christmas Pickle is a known, semi-practiced Christmastime folk tradition originating, as NH described, in German-American households. The use of a pickle ornament could be a reference to pickles’ prominence in Germany, Poland, and Eastern Europe cuisine. The cash prize associated with the tradition goes along with the idea of Christmas as a time for gift-giving, even though there is slightly more work involved to get the cash than with a usual Christmas gift. For another version of the Christmas Pickle tradition, one that delves into the tradition’s history, see:

Churchill, Alexandra. “The Untold Story of the Christmas Pickle Ornament.” Martha Stewart, 10 Dec. 2019, https://www.marthastewart.com/1097532/decorative-past-tradition-christmas-pickle-ornament.



Informant: So like a German tradition is you hide like a pickle––or, the parents hide a pickle––like, in the Christmas tree… And then like all the kids have to find it in the tree. And like, whoever wins––like in the olden days, they used to get like an orange. Or they might get an ornament. But that was in like the 1800s. 


Informant: Um… But so my grandma was like, “That’s gross.” So my uncle was like, “We have to do it!” And so then they got a pickle ornament instead. So they hide the ornament in the tree, and a lot of people do that now instead of getting like a real pickle.  And we like don’t give an orange cause that’s like… Boring. So it’s more like… You get like a little extra sweet or something, but it’s more like bragging rights… And I know that my German family does it too, but I don’t know if we’ve like Americanized it at all though. 

Interviewer: Did you like it as a kid?

Informant: Yeeeeah! You know, what’s a little competition on Christmas? It spices things up! Cause it’s like, “Who’s gonna win?” So it was always me and my cousin, ‘cause my sister and my little cousins were like babies. But then they started hiding it like lower down. Like that was annoying ‘cause then the little ones had a better chance of winning. 


The informant expressed that the pickle tradition has been modernized, with her family replacing an orange with a sweet, and a real pickle with a pickle ornament. The tradition has undergone variation over time. However, the fun it brings to the children remains the same, allowing the tradition to continue. Engaging in a tradition will always be a contemporary activity; traditions happen and are upheld in the present moment. The informant’s family is engaging in the tradition in the modern day, and so adjusts it to modern sensibilities. Tradition does not replicate the past, it just connects us to the past.