Tag Archives: christmas

Secret Santa/Secret Sister Gift Exchange

Background: The informant is my college roommate and friend. She spent the first fifteen years of her life in Minneapolis, Minnesota before moving to Thousand Oaks, California for high school. She is currently in her twenties and attends school at the University of Southern California. She was on a women’s basketball team all four years of high school.

Main Piece:

“So Secret Santa is basically where you have a group of people come together and anonymously everyone gets assigned a person and they either buy them multiple gifts or just one and then you do like a gift exchange at a certain ate and then you try to figure out who your secret Santa is, or you just find out when you get your present.”

Context: Beyond the brief description my informant gave me, she clarified a few additional logistical details. Secret Santa, or Secret Sister as they called it, was done every year on the high school women’s basketball team. The team captains organized it for about fifteen participants, and people filled out a premade form of things they liked (favorite color, favorite movie, favorite candy, etc) to make shopping easier. There was a fifteen to twenty-dollar spending limit. The informant isn’t entirely sure on the timeline, but she thinks that people dropped off gifts in the locker room shortly before the first home game of the season and opened them when they were done playing (in January usually) She also remarked that people liked to guess who their gift-giver was, but there wasn’t any sort of process or reward for guessing correctly.

Thoughts: It’s interesting that my informant referred to this exchange as both “Secret Santa” and “Secret Sister”—besides the process of gift-giving, nothing else ties this ritual to the Christian celebration of Christmas or Santa. Instead, it’s built entirely around a sports team folk group, and occurs in January to correspond with the first home game of the season, rather than the holiday in December. I’ve seen longer versions of this “Secret Sister” play out in both high school sports teams (always women, and always multiple gifts spread out over an entire competitive season) and in university sororities. I wonder if men’s sports teams and other club organizations also do something similar and if so, what term it would fall under, since “Secret Sisters” is gender-exclusive and “Secret Santa” implies a Christian/holiday-centered context.

Christmas Chimney

Main Piece:

This is the transcription of an interview I had with the informant about her Christmas traditions. 

“So my dad’s grandma, my great-grandma, she made us this chimney. Like out of wood. And we put it on the dining room table on Christmas Eve. My mom is always in charge of it. And she puts tiny gifts like pencils or a piece of candy in the thing, like in the chimney. Then there’s a ribbon that’s attached to each gift that has a name of a family member on it. There’s one for each of us. And then after Christmas Eve Mass we come back and have dinner and stuff and after dinner we get to pull the string with our name. So it’s like the first gift of Christmas”


The informant comes from a very tight-knit family. She grew up near all her extended family. Her great-grandmother is of Eastern European descent. 


I was talking to the informant about traditions that make her think of family and this was one of the first she told me.


The holidays produce a lot of traditions and customs important to families. This “first gift” of Christmas often mirrors what is discussed during Christmas Mass from the gift of Jesus’s birth to the gifts the Wise Men bring to the child. This provides a small tradition the family can do to physically celebrate the holiday in a way that combines the Santa ideas of Christmas as well as the biblical meaning.

Advent Traditions

Context: The informant is my mother, identified as L.M., who was raised as a Catholic, and grew up with many traditions for each of the Christian holidays, some religious and some not. This is her description of the season of Advent and two of the traditions she followed with her family during her childhood.

Main Piece: I remember the coming of the Advent season each year, which begins on the Sunday closest to the beginning of December, and is viewed by the Catholic Church and many other Christian churches as a time to prepare and reflect on the religious meaning of Christmas. The Advent period includes the four Sundays before Christmas, plus all of the days in between and up to Christmas Day. Our church sermons during this season all focused on readings from the Bible about the preparation for the arrival of Jesus, and we also would sing special hymns during this period. The one I remember in particular is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Catholics, including our family, would fast and not eat meat on Fridays during this period, we used to have a lot of tuna fish sandwiches or fish sticks for dinner on those Fridays, which I wasn’t a fan of. As a child, I remember there being a huge Advent Wreath in our church up by the altar throughout the Advent season. The Advent Wreath was made of various types of evergreen branches, and had four large candles set in its branches, three of them were purple and one was pink. The wreath symbolizes life, and the circular shape of the wreath symbolizes eternity and the everlasting life of the soul. One of the four candles is lit on the first Sunday, and then on every other Sunday during Advent, one more of the candles is lit, so by the fourth Sunday before Christmas, all four are lit. The purple color for three of the candles represents the liturgical color of violet, which signifies a time for prayer and sacrifice, and the pink color for the other candle represents joy, as rose is the liturgical color for joy. The first candle lit is purple and represents hope. The second candle lit is also purple and represents faith. The third candle lit is the pink one which represents joy. And, the last purple candle lit symbolizes peace. We also used to make our own Advent Wreath for our home. My mother would make the wreath out of fresh evergreen branches and wire them into a circular shape, and then place the candles, three purple and one pink, into the wreath. We would keep it on our dinner table all throughout Advent, following the tradition of lighting each new candle on the appropriate Sunday. And, every night of the week, not just Sundays, the one, two, three, or four candles, depending on which week it was, would be lit before dinner and we’d have our dinner meal around the table with our candlelit Advent Wreath. The other Advent tradition I remember is that we would have an Advent calendar every December. This was basically a large free-standing form made out of heavy card stock paper and decorated with some overall Christmas motif, religious or non-religious, with doors numbered one through twenty-five. Every day in December, we would open the numbered door with the proper date, and inside each door there was a holiday scene of some sort, for example, a star, or a decorated Christmas tree, or an ornament, or a shepherd, or an angel, or Santa Claus, or holly, or a gingerbread boy, and on the 25th, we’d open the last door, which always had a traditional religious Nativity scene with Mary, Joseph and the Baby Jesus. Now, I still have something similar to an Advent calendar that I bring out every December, but it isn’t religious. It’s a small red table-top cabinet of drawers, and each is numbered 1-25. The number one drawer has a collapsible little artificial Christmas tree that I set up on the kitchen counter, the number two drawer has a garland of tiny red ornaments to string on the tree, and the remaining drawers up to twenty five have a variety of small and whimsical ornaments to hang on the tiny tree- a candy cane, holly and berries, a snowman face, a santa head, a red mitten, a tiny gift, a santa suit, all made from things like beads and felt, bells and tiny white styrofoam balls. I love opening each drawer day by day and decorating the tiny whimsical Christmas tree. It brings me back to all of the childhood memories of anticipating Christmas and the joy and magic of the holiday.”

Analysis: “Advent” is defined as the awaiting of the arrival of a notable person, event, or thing. Originally, advent calendars were created to count down the days until the arrival of Jesus Christ, as Christmas is his day of birth. However, it seems as if the religious importance of both advent calendars and Christmas has been somewhat lost. Christmas is now much more commercialized and seen as a time to eat sweets and receive and give gifts in American culture. Santa Claus is a much more prominent figure during Christmas than Jesus is now.

Danish Christmas Almond Game

A Christmas Eve tradition.


Informant: As far as traditions like that. My aunts are Danish, and we do this thing on Christmas eve where every person gets this like lemon dessert. Everyone in the house gets one, and only one has an almond underneath. I’ve never known what it’s supposed to represent or whatever, but the person with the almond has good luck for the rest of the year. Also, the person who gets the almond has to host the party for next year. We do that on Christmas Eve.


I asked a group of friends if they had any holiday traditions. This was one of their replies.


This is very similar to a game my neighborhood plays every year where a bundt cake is cut, and whoever has a plastic baby Jesus in their slice has to host the Christmas party the next year.

Advent Calendar

An advent calendar is a folk object typically used around Christmas time in between family members. It is a physical calendar with doors numbered 1 through 24, each representing a day up until Christmas Day. The subject used two different types of advent calendars. The first was a personal calendar that featured one chocolate a day. The second was a recurring wooden calendar featuring a house, significantly larger than the chocolate calendar. The doors were still labeled 1 through 24 but were not prefilled. Family members would get gifts for each other and place them in the days and the members would take turns opening the doors on the corresponding date of December.

The subject was taught this folk practice by their mother. Her mother would buy these advent calendars while they lived in Scotland together when the subject was younger. The subject remembers it because of the enjoyment she found when she was a little girl. She then introduced the tradition to her own family, and now they do it every year together. They think that it is a fun way to show appreciation and give smaller gifts to other family members. In addition, it gets everyone prepared for the Christmas season and keeps everyone in the holiday spirit, much like Christmas songs.

I think that folk practices such as the advent calendar are used to embody the intended spirit of Christmas more successfully. The idea of Christmas is to spend time with loved ones like friends and family and to give gifts and spread joy. In my opinion, acts like these are less about the gifts and more about the comradery and kindness, further spreading the sentiment of Christmas. It allows Christmas to be less of a build-up towards the monetary gifts one receives at the end, and more of a drawn-out feeling for people to share. Other similar things to this would be Christmas lights or carolers during the Christmas season. Although vastly different forms of folklore, both are about mood and time rather than one big buildup.

Tió de Nadal, A Catalan Christmas Tradition

Main Piece:

“The Tio de Nadal is a Catalan Christmas tradition that some Catalonia immigrant communities brought with them to other parts of the world, particularly in the Western Hemisphere there are big Catalan populations that still do it. But basically what it is a little log that you prop up on a kind of legs or stool or something. You can draw a face on it, you don’t have to. You put a blanket on it but you put it up weeks before Christmas and then it’s something fun for kids to do because you get a stick and you beat on it with the stick. And there’s all sorts of Catalan language chants and little songs, you know like Christmas songs, that they sing to encourage the log to shit out presents. Like small nuts and candies are the traditional idea because its a medieval tradition so like little sweets basically. The idea is that if you hit the log well enough, then on Christmas, you can take off the blanket and then the little kids are gonna have a bunch of little almonds or cheeses or something that they got from the log. There’s all sorts of names for it but there are regional specifications in Catalonia.”


The informant is a 21-year old male from Kansas City, Missouri who has lived there for the majority of his life. For his elementary and middle-school schooling, he studied at a school with a Spanish immersion program, making him near fluent in Spanish. Furthermore, he now attends Georgetown University where he intends to graduate with a major in History and a minor in Spanish. Last semester, he spent several months living in Madrid as part of a study abroad program.


This was a conversation we had late at night about Holiday celebrations around the world.


This piece, to me, seems very rooted in old Catalan culture. One of the most interesting revelations that came about researching this topic and talking to my informant is how the piece relates to Catalan identity. Catalonia has infamously had issues with the Spanish mainland as it relates to their own identity. Oftentimes, the celebration and practice of Catalan traditions have been restricted in order to better assimilate them into Spanish culture, so by celebrating these old traditions, it seems like a method of rejecting the push to assimilate and a method of maintaining their own unique identity from Spain. The other interesting part to this piece is the timing of the piece as it is close to Christmas, which is a liminal time for a majority of Europe.  As mentioned above, the origins of the practice go as far back as Medieval times and it seems to still be practice in Catalan culture. Furthermore, it does not seem to fit into the Christian canon of traditions associated with Christmas, making me feel like this might have roots back to Pagan rituals. This outlook is only further supported by the emphasis of the piece being wood, which would fit the notion of Pagan holidays that celebrate the natural world. Finally, the informant is not from Spain, but has visited there and taken the culture and reworked it into his own Christmas celebrations which somewhat shows the spread of originally location-specific culture to entirely new places and contexts. This type of reinterpretations across such a large physical location would not be nearly as possible with modernity and the increase in cross-cultural communications.

Christmas Baby Jesus Cake


Informant: I know as a kid– I grew up in a fairly predominantly hispanic neighborhood– there was this cake. It’s like this big pastry, and each person gets a slice. One of them has the baby Jesus. It’s supposed to represent Jesus in everything. It’s also supposed to be good luck.  You’re like receiving him into your home, and the good luck that that brings.


I asked a group of friends if they had any holiday traditions. This was one of their replies. The informant is of hispanic descent.


I grew up playing this game with my neighborhood at the holiday block party. I had no idea it had a specific connection to being a hispanic tradition.


  • Context: The following informant, S, is a 59 yr. old man with three kids and a wife. Though the family does not identify as Christian, they celebrate Christmas and participate in the Christian tradition of Advent. This conversation took place when the informant was asked about any specific family traditions surrounding holidays. 
  • Text:

S: “So… for those who don’t know… Advent is a Christian celebration… uh… I think it’s tied in to the Twelve Days of Christmas too when you add it up, but I could be wrong… I don’t know about that… but, basically it’s the entire month of December it starts on December 1st and the day is December 25th… where you actually don’t get an advent… oh and each day you get a little… a little gift… sort of leading up to Christmas. But on Christmas day, you don’t get a little gift for Advent, you get your Christmas gifts. Um… and that… for me at least, started when I was… well as long as I can remember with my mom. And she would have an Advent calendar and we would open that up and… I think she had clues for us, if I’m not mistaken… and we would go find the little gift. It was was usually like a piece of chocolate for each of the three of us, I had two brothers… uh… nothing big… and maybe on the weekend a toy… but you know, nothing massive.

And that carried over when I first had, at least for me, I don’t know about my brothers, I’m sure it did, knowing my mom… but when I had my first kids, I started to get a box in November… from my mom… around Thanksgiving time… with all of the gifts and clues to go with them for the 24 days leading up to Christmas. So all I had to do was put the clues in the Advent calendar and run the process, and all my kids loved it… well of course my mom passes away a few years ago and… a couple years before that, I think actually, I started doing the clues myself and getting the gifts and what not.

Me: “What are the clues like?”

S: “Well, it’s a shame, I don’t remember what they were like as a kid. But what I do now… um… I either do a little sort of rhyming scheme sort of couplet thing… or I do a riddle… or I do something to do with the number of the day… umm or some combination of that stuff. Plays on words all the time ‘cus that’s sort of riddling. As [my kids] have gotten older I’ve tried to make it a little more challenging to figure out what it is and hidden them a little bit more… they used to be in plain sight way more often than they are now.”

Me: “And is it like each kid gets a clue or…?”

S: “One clue for the three [kids]. And [my kids] actually rotate, [they] decided to go youngest to oldest… uh [the youngest] does the first, [the middle] does the second, [the oldest] does the third and then [they] rotate through. Uhh…”

Me: “Reading the clues?”

S: “Reading the clues out loud. And then everybody… well it depends what kind of mood people are in… some days [my kids] decide to sit and not participate and sulk, but most days all three of [my kids] go and look, and of course mom, when she figures out the clue, can’t hold herself back and has to yell out where it is ‘cus she’s so proud of herself for figuring it out.”

  • Analysis: This version of Advent is similar to other versions I have heard of. Mainly, I have heard of pre-made Advent calendars with chocolates or small gifts inside each day. The main difference between this version of Advent and others is the addition of clues and hiding the presents. This type of Advent is more of a game, that includes riddles and rhyme schemes that lead to the hidden presents. This is the Advent I grew up knowing, and until I began to go over to my friends houses around the holidays I was unaware that Advent was not a game in all other households as well.

Le Pere Fouettard


The informant – MZ – is a middle-aged woman originally from the French Alps, now living in South Florida. Growing up, her mother was French-Moroccan, and her father was Moroccan-Algerian. She is one of my mother’s close friends. The following is from a conversation in which I asked her to tell me about any French-Moroccan traditions she remembers growing up.



For us in Europe, all across Europe, when we have parades for Santa, there’s always the bad guy, we used to call him Le Père Fouettard. Fouet means whip, so he was the whipper. So we had this guy who was kind of a monk, with a brown cloak. And he would be along with Santa Claus, along with the parade. And during the parade, we’d have Le Père Fouettard, and it was like, be careful if you don’t behave! The Père Fouettard will come and whip your ass.




Fairly clearly, Le Pere Fouettard is a variation of Krampus. I think it’s very interesting that, though Krampus is a prominent figure all across Europe, this specific variation exists in France’s Christmas tradition.

Venezuelan Hallacas

Context: The informant was speaking of Venezuelan foods eaten during Christmas, and she began to expand on this recipe and the history of the food.



Informant: Ah ok um so one tradition that we Venezuelans try to do every year is hallacas. And hallacas is a dish that originally comes from when we were conquered by the spaniards and it was it is made with, it is like a tamale but it combines um chicken, pork, olive, raisin, and it is said that it is the leftover from the slaves, what they ate. And the tradition is that family gets together and one person prepares the inside and one person cuts the leaves um and it is actually wrapped in plantain leaves and it’s a tradition that goes from family from family, and there is a saying that the best hallaca is always from your mom. And every family has their own way of doing it.

Collector: Is there any specific part that this matters to you

Informant: I actually haven’t done it myself, but in my family I remember my mom would put boiled eggs on it and that is specific to region I am from, Puerto Ordaz. Other people will put other extra ingredients depending on the region or family.


Background: The informant, a middle aged Venezuelan woman, currently lives in Boston but lived the majority of her life in Venezuela. She still practices a lot of Venezuelan traditions, especially in her cuisine. The hallacas are an example of a Christmas dish in Venezuela.

Analysis: This recipe is very historically connected to the Venezuelan people. The dish is said to be made of the scraps that the slaves were left to eat during the Spanish reign. This implies that this tradition has been practiced since then and continues to be a major part of the Venezuelan cuisine. It also reflects how history is important to the Venezuelan people, as it is displayed in the recipes of their dishes. The community aspect in the cooking of the dish is also very unique, as it brings together the family to work together during Christmas time– a time that is typically focused on family. It also has multiplicity and variation within the recipe, as it becomes personalized to the family and/or the region they are from.