My Christmas Traditions

On this Christmas Eve I thought I would take the opportunity to tell you a bit about the Christmas holiday traditions I have developed over the years with the hope it will inspire you to share your traditions with us as well.

Julbord at Tre Kronor. Tre Kronor (“Three Crowns”) is a Swedish restaurant on Foster Avenue in Chicago. My daughter Emily used to live near there, and some friends introduced her to the restaurant. Accordingly she discovered their annual Julbord (“Christmas Table”) tradition and turned us on to it. We’ve been going for many years now. It doesn’t hurt that my wife is part Swedish; her maiden name is Lothson.

We start across the street at a Swedish shop (having common ownership with the restaurant). You can find pretty much anything Swedish there you can imagine: ornaments, foods, clothing, kitchen utensils, books. We usually schedule about an hour to look around there. At some point the restaurant will call the shop and tell them to send us over.

They always greet us with Glogg. The food for the feast is arranged in a separate room, generally in four courses. First is herring of all kinds, which is actually quite good. Next are cheeses, salads, eggs, fruits and the like. The main courses are things like Swedish sausage, meatballs, ham. (Part of this course is the famous lutefisk, cooked with lye–not my thing). Finally there is a dessert table with burnt custard, rice pudding, whipped chocolate tarts and more.

During the evening the waitstaff will come out and lead us in drinking songs, and Santa Lucia (with real candles!) always makes an appearance. The whole thing is tremendous fun.

Songs of Good Cheer. The newspaper I read is the Chicago Tribune (which I delivered as a boy and have subscribed to my entire adult life). In 1998 columnist Mary Schmich wrote a column about how people don’t get together to sing Christmas carols anymore. Her fellow columnist Eric Zorn decided to do something about it, and Songs of Good Cheer was  born. This is a public carol singing party at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, proceeds going to charity.  This year was the 21st iteration, and my childhood friend Mark Anderson and I have made it every year. (Mary even recognizes us now and gives us a shout out from the stage.) The backing band consists of musicians with the Old Town School, and they are uniformly fun and fantastic. We sing traditional favorites, but we also learn more obscure songs from around the world (like Los Enanitos).

They usually have a contest of some sort. This year they had a man and a woman come on stage with a story to tell. Her son is autistic (and wasn’t present due to the loud environment), and for the story to make sense you need to know he’s a big (6’3″) scary looking guy. The man who came on stage was a security guard at a hospital. The son was having some problems and so mom brought him to the hospital, but he started to freak out about it, and mom was very worried about what might happen to him before he could get treatment. The man on stage was the security guard, and he didn’t mind telling us he was scared because that was one big dude. But this man happened to have an autistic son, and he began to suspect this patient was himself autistic. He tried talking to him in a funny Elmo voice he uses with his son (and he gave us a sample, it was hilarious), and that caught the young man’s attention right away. Before long the guard was leading five other guards who had been called in singing a song to the young man. It all worked like a peach and the young man was able to get the help he needed. The story has quite an ending, because somehow it went viral, and to make a long story short, the man told us that in a week he was leaving for his new job as head of security for a large hospital in Washington state.

Sing Along Messiah. My SIL Patti and I do one of these every year. A long time ago we did it at the Egyptian Theater, an historic theater in DeKalb, the town of our youth, but eventually they stopped doing it. After a hiatus of a few years we found another one at the Raue Center for the Performing Arts in Crystal Lake, IL. We try to sing (I do bass, she does alto), but I don’t mind admitting sometimes I get lost. Still, it’s fun. Afterwards we get dinner in a big bar down the street (in an old bank building) called Finn McCool’s, which has lots of big screens up for football and hockey games (Patti is a big sports fan).

Music Box Double Feature. The Music Box is a vintage 1929 movie theater on Southport in Chicago, and every year they run a double feature of White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life. But that doesn’t convey the whole story. They play black and white Christmas shorts Suzy Snowflake and Hard Rock, Coco and Joe. They have local singer singing carols. Then before each show Santa Claus comes out with a guy on the organ and leads us in singing Christmas songs (words projected on the screen). But what you really need to know about this is that it’s sort of the Rocky Horror Picture Show of Christmas movies in that it’s audience participatory. People wear their garish Xmas sweaters, antlers, bells, etc. There are scenes where people ring their jingle bells. There’s a scene in White Christmas where General Waverley almost gets hit by a horseshoe and everyone yells “Watch out!” Stuff like that. It’s great fun.

Yu’s Mandarin. Once many years ago we decided to go out to eat on Christmas Eve. To our surprise, however, every place we tried was closed for the holiday. Place after place was dark. Defeated, we began to drive home. When lo what should we see but a light emanating from a strip mall near our house. It was a Chinese restaurant called Yu’s Mandarin, and it was open. Not only was it open, but as we went inside we could see it was a happening place. It was crowded with lots of happy chattering guests. We got a seat at a table in a prime location, where you could watch the cooks do their work through a window, with fire often leaping from their woks. And the food was terrific. So of course we turned it into a tradition; we have been back every Christmas Eve since, and we are going there tonight.

OK, I went first. Now tell us about your holiday traditions…


  1. We’ve lost quite a few over the years–we no longer do Christmas story night, or the puppet Nativity. Maybe those will return with grandchildren someday, but we’ll see. For now, we still:

    Gather together as a family to watch The Muppets Christmas Carol.
    Make and eat rosettes and homemade hot cocoa.
    Celebrate the four Sundays of Advent.
    Go to church on Christmas Eve.

  2. jlouielucero says:

    We decorate cookies together
    Each person picks a menu item that they also must cook themselves (this year the menu is buffalo wings, ramen, homemade pretzels, pot roast, sparkling fruit drink, and brownies with ice cream)
    Watch Elf
    Open one gift before bed
    Read or watch Nativity together
    Each person writes a love letter to all the other family members.

  3. Somehow we’ve ended up with two of the last three Christmas Eves mired (ha ha) in none-too-successful potty-training. So that’s festive.

    Our annual extended-family bad Christmas poetry competition concludes on Christmas Eve, and there are usually some last-minute gems.

    The overnight pecan rolls get made for tomorrow AM’s breakfast.

    We read Luke, and then a book of the kids’ choosing—the Grinch gets picked a lot.

    And then Santa gets to work, which may be even more fun than when Santa came when I was a kid.

  4. We open our gifts on Christmas Eve, usually including boxed and wrapped print outs of gifts that we ordered too late. Then, on Christmas Day we usually fly to SLC to see extended family. I used to love to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with the kids because the dialogue is so hilarious, and honestly, I’m not sure George Bailey is a very good guy. But now that they are grown up, they aren’t that into it.

    Our Christmas stockings are disappearing one by one as if it’s an Agatha Christie novel, and my policy is if you lose your stocking, you get whatever I can find in the garage. Last year my oldest ended up with a plastic pumpkin pail instead. This year someone’s going to get an Easter basket instead of a stocking.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for sharing. I aspire to doing Advent one of these years, but it wasn’t part of my youth so I forget about it until I start to see Eric’s pictures on FB.

    When I was a kid we got to open one present on Christmas Eve, but my parents always got to pick which one, and it was usually new pajamas or a bathrobe or something like that.

  6. “John Denver & the Muppets: A Christmas Together” remains my most cherished Christmas album. I listen to it all the way through once a year sometime during December. To that, I’ve added viewing/reading some version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And I love attending a candle light service on Christmas Eve, actually two sometimes including Midnight Mass.

  7. I’m the only single among my siblings, so after everyone goes home from chaotic kiddie Christmas Eve dinner, we finish cleaning up and then my parents and I settle in to watch “Christmas Vacation”. In spite of it being something initiated by my mom years ago, every year 20-30 minutes in she says ” I don’t remember this movie being so crass!”

  8. We accidentally started a tradition years ago when my mom was tired with many small children at home that we eat Stauffer’s Lasagna with meat sauce for Christmas eve (easy to prepare, we all liked it). She’s miffed that she started this tradition and not something fancier, but now it just doesn’t feel like Christmas without frozen Lasagna for the big family dinner.

    Also, It’s usually just my parents and me on Christmas day, so we started our own tradition of checking out library books to give to each other. We have a great time shopping at the library, and have a favorite librarian who saves recommendations for us all year long (Santa in our house is now named after her!). Then we read the books and return them to the library a few weeks later- it’s free, and doesn’t contribute to clutter around the house.

  9. We play Christmas carols on a set of chimes – something you don’t have to be a musician to do.

  10. This strange recipe for an hors d’oeuvre that includes homemade meatballs and little sausages simmered in a sweet homemade mild chili sauce. It’s so unhealthy and we are all addicted.

    We always watch the latest Nativity video from the church. For years it was from from the late 80s on a VHS tape, but we had a new version this year and it replaced one that was less than ten years old I think.

    I am a stickler for fresh, live Christmas trees. I love them.

  11. For as many years, even a number greater than 20yrs; my extended, multi-generational family has gathered for Christmas Day to have dinner. This year like most the gathering occurred only with less persons there.

    The constant on this year’s gathering was no different, as we all have one or many family members who serve to offend as many present as possible, all while not knowing the degree of offense from their blistering words or acts to others.

    The day was early and most had arrived and taken a seat at the Table for blessing and eating all sorts of burnt bottom mac and cheese to re-heated stuffing and more than enough fruit cake, sweet potatoes pie (It is not the same as pumpkin pie), chocolate cake, German chocolate cake, banana pudding and more than I’ll list here.

    Sure happiness and joy were all around, until the phone rang and Dear Aunt J (full name not used here) blurted out, “come on over, I’m here will all my dead sisters’ children.” Knowing well that the aforementioned dead sisters’ children were just to the right of her, within a breath or whisper away.

    “Don’t say that, I’m sitting right here.” Responded the cousin with hurt feelings, displaying restraint, but disapproval of the hurtful words of a non too apologetic aunt, who further shouted, “well she’s dead, eat a slice of pie.”

    The sound of forks and knives clinked and drowned out what would be a moment of awkward silence, turned to be a moment of revelation to me. We are who we are even in moments of hurt, we are family still, given aunts with hurtful words yet to be told every year after year and we are those that sit and choose to endure those moments, as tradition it wouldn’t be the same without nursing the wounds of a childhood or adulthood to once again gather, pray, eat fruit cake and burnt mac and cheese and reflect on what brings us back, home.

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