Tag Archives: presents


  • 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.

German Christmas Traditions

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as SH.

SH: It’s a German thing to open presents on the evening of the 24th. Christmas in Germany isn’t the 25th—the 25th is nothing. My family celebrates in the morning of the 25th because my brother and I grew up in here—Christmas is at its peak when you’re young, and my brother and I lived in Michigan, and I feel like it’s more exciting to wake up as a kid and think “There are presents!” as opposed to like, seeing them there the entire evening.

With Germans, it’s the thing where you go to church and then come back, and the presents have magically appeared. But like, if you don’t go to church, like my family, the presents would have have just kinda been… sitting there.

I guess it’s also a family tradition that my father always tries to force us to go to church, and the rest of my family always resists. Didn’t happen this year though, my dad gave in. He didn’t even mention church. He was like: “It’s fine, it’s whatever. We aren’t doing it.” I’ve found that a lot of other families make a big deal out of doing like—a home cooked meal for Christmas eve, or Christmas dinner, you know. We usually go out.

BD: But not to church?

SH: Nope.


Analysis: The German tradition to open presents the night before Christmas Day reminds me of a tradition my family celebrates, called Noche Buena—celebrated in Spain, the Philippines, and some places in Latin America, this holiday also puts more of the emphasis on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. I was unaware that Germany had a similar idea, and I find it interesting that my informant’s family changed their traditions upon being in America. Though she did not consider her family to be “very German” to begin with, the ease with which they adopted a more “Americanized” tradition for Christmas is very interesting. It helps to show what their family values as well—the excitement of Christmas for the younger generation is emphasized, and in a way, the children are prioritized.

The Angry Elf

While talking about family traditions, my friend started talking about a peculiar custom her family does for Christmas.

Informant: “The angry elf comes on Christmas Eve and, um, he like, he’ll hit you with a soft present. It’s usually pajamas wrapped in newspaper, and like it’ll be when you’re not looking, you’ll get hit behind the head and… one time my cousin Lucas like he saw the elf and he jumped out the window to go find the elf. He like, dive rolled out the window. He opened the window to go catch the elf. He never caught the elf.”

Collector: “But like, obviously someone…”

Informant: “Yeah, as I grew up I figured it was my mom, and my brothers. And we still do it like, well, the elf came! And like, I’ll do it to my parents now. Its fun”

Collector: “Where does your mom come from? Like, does she throw it through the window?”

Informant: “No, she wasn’t actually outside the window but like when my cousin chased after the elf, he was like putting on a whole show, like ‘I think he ran outside the window!’”

“Oh, I see”

Informant: “It was intense”

Collector: “Is this something that just happens within your family, or have you heard of anyone else doing this?”

Informant: “I’ve never heard of anyone else doing this”

Collector: “Do you know how it started?”

Informant: “I don’t. Probably when the three kids were there. It was me and my two brothers. It was all like, all my house. Like everyone just put on this big show. Probably the idea of elves came from the Waldorf School that they went to, because you leave your shoes out, and then on Christmas eve the elves fill your shoes with candy. I think that’s a German tradition.”

Collector: “And you’ve done this ever since you can remember? This angry elf thing?”

Informant: “Mhm”

It’s interesting to see that different families have different Christmas gift-giving traditions. Some have Santa Claus, others elves, and others have both. It’s also interesting to see how families continue traditions of magical gift-giving beings long after their kids have grown up and no longer seriously believe in these beings, in order to continue a family tradition.

Christmas Tradition

The informant is a 21 year old girl, and one of my closest friends. She told me about a tradition she takes part in at Christmas time every year.

Informant: So, every year, the day before Christmas, since we were little, my mom acts like she is the elf…  And puts out Christmas presents and rings a little bell. We all run into the living room, and there are presents. And they are our Christmas pajamas to wear so that when we wake up we are all matching in Christmas clothes.

Me: You used to think it was an elf though?

Informant: Oh, definitely I used to think it was an elf.

Me: And then she told you?

Informant: Well it was her handwriting.  Back when I thought it was the elves, I really thought it was them. I pictured them as the little ones, you know? Little guys with green and red hats and little outfits with little boots. Like the size of… a pencil… that height.

Me: When did you start practicing this?

Informant: As long as I can remember.

Me: When did you figure out it was your mom?

Informant: Probably in 4th or 5th grade I figured it out.

My analysis: When I first heard this story, I was not very drawn to it.  Christmas is somewhat the “go to” topic when talking about different traditions. Looking back, though, that in and of itself is what makes it so interesting. Once I interviewed another informant (transcribed under: Hungarian Christmas), I ended up coming back and rethinking this tradition.  Both of the informants talked about a very very similar Christmas tradition, but one learned it at her home in North Carolina and the other in Budapest, Hungary.  The concept is the same: some figure puts out presents the night before Christmas, a bell is rung, and kids can go see those presents the night before. Which one of these cultures started practicing this first is beyond me, but the fact that they all do gave me a newfound appreciation for something I originally did not think much of.



My informant is a mother of three who lives just outside of Boston with her husband of over 30 years. She is originally from Cape Cod, the part of Massachusetts that is full of beaches and is a world known tourist destination. She is a lover of all thing water; she has worked extensively in water policy and water pollution as an environmentalist.


Interviewee: My dad never did any Christmas shopping for anybody. He always left it all to Mom. As he got older, I guess he got much more free time. He would spend all year going to flea markets. Just searching for Christmas gifts. Sometimes something would catch his eye and he would not even know what it was. The year I ruptured my Achilles tendon playing tennis, I got Tennis For Dummies.

He would just give everyone a massive bag full of stuff. A bag for each person. All this cheap stuff he found at these yard sales and Salvation Armies; sometimes it was thoughtful, but most of it was crap.

It was the worst for the people dating into the family. When Lynn, my sister-in-law, first starting coming to the family Christmas, she got all these random things that no one knew anything about. Weird pieces of wood. A styrofoam ball. But she just took it and said thank you, trying to be polite, while he was just laughing because he knew that he gave crap. But then she surprised us all one year when she turned around and glued it together and created a figurine. Then she gave it to him.

We would come home with so much crap, we couldn’t keep it all, but I do have a farting Santa doll.

Interviewer: What about when he got sick?

Interviewee: When he passed away, we wanted to keep it alive. It was so much fun. We couldn’t all give everyone presents; that was just too much. But we all picked names and gave personalized stockings with funny and outrageous, sometimes nice, gifts to the person.

Interviewer: And you still do it?

Interviewee: Yeah, I mean, no one wanted to give it up. It is hard though. It is all tailored to them. There are no gift certificates. You have to really go out and think about them. It’s nice, even if it is crap. It’s crap tailored for them. Thoughtful crap.


There is so much stress around Christmas. It clearly has become so overwhelmingly commercial and impersonal, that I feel like what her father was doing was almost the anti-version of that. Not to be a hipster or part of a counter culture or whatever, but because that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to give hand picked crap. Just for the joke or shock. Because he was such a strong figure in this family and because he would not stop doing it, it became a tradition.

When he died, that is when it took on a whole new dimension. Not wanting to give him or it up they modified it, so that people kept getting these personalized stockings. Even though he was gone, the stockings and laughter did not have to go. That is most likely the sentimental aspect of it. On a practical level, it is a really good way to make sure that people get gifts for Christmas that feel as though they were personally chosen for them. An added benefit.