Illustrator of Candy Kingdom and I Hope Your Dreams Are Sweet
Culture is a complex word. We often use it to describe and set apart whole populations and groups, but we can also use it to describe the habits and customs of our everyday lives. We can use it to describe places and beliefs we associate ourselves with, or we can use it to describe the environment created within those structures. I like to think we are a melting pot of many cultures, whether by birth, circumstance, or choice. Our lives are filled with the obvious and more subtle rituals and practices associated with these vital elements of our identities.
Recently, author Stephanie Morris and I released a bedtime book titled I Hope Your Dreams Are Sweet. It features a mixed-race family with a Caucasian father and a Latina mother and their son and daughter. We chose this family dynamic because every family is a combination of cultures. Every person and family has a unique heritage and culture, whether the members are from different countries, from various towns in the same state, or even next-door neighbors. As the illustrator, I tried to include elements in this family’s home that might be found in a mixed-family home with Latin-American influence. For example, on the couch, you’ll notice an intricately embroidered Otomi pillow and, on the kitchen table, a woven saraperunner. There are remnants of a dinner of tamales and beans on their plates. The home is also painted and decorated in bright colors. A little later in the story, the daughter is wearing a colorfully embroidered blouse with huarache sandals. All these details stem from various Mexican cultures.
Similar to how this family celebrates their culture by household decorations, we celebrate our cultures through the special holidays and events in our lives. These may be religious celebrations, life events, or community group events, and they may be celebrated by many or a few. With the onset of cooler months come myriad holidays and celebratory occasions for people around the world. This season carries a beautiful feeling with it of time with family, food, music, and religious devotion. Let’s talk about some ways the family in I Hope Your Dreams Are Sweet might celebrate the coming holidays in their home, as well as you in yours!
You are likely familiar with the holiday Halloween with its fun costumes, spooky tones, and sweet treats. Did you know it shares the same date as a holiday that has great significance to people in Mexico? It’s Día de los Muertos! The Disney movie Coco is an excellent introduction for all ages to this Mexican two-day celebration, honoring ancestors who have passed on. (This year, it was celebrated on November 1 and 2.) In Mexico, people honor their families by framing pictures of their loved ones, decorating with colorful sugar skulls and marigolds, baking delicious food to remember what their family liked to eat during their lives, adorning graves, and sharing stories. If skeletons aren’t your thing, don’t let that scare you away from incorporating this holiday in your home. Focus on remembering loved ones, discovering their history, revisiting family recipes, and rejoicing in their influence in your lives.
For Christmas, often the biggest celebration in Latin American cultures takes place on Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena. This is a time for families and friends to gather for good food, music, exchanging gifts, celebrating Christ’s birth, and dancing late into the night. The family in I Hope Your Dreams Are Sweet would likely gather with grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles to eat a delicious dinner of tamales and pozole, a traditional meat and hominy stew. The mother of the story and the other women in her family would chat and laugh in the kitchen while forming an assembly line to make those delicious dishes. Making tamales is a family event. While serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Oregon among the Latino populations there, I had the delectable opportunity to eat lots of tamales. I learned firsthand from several women how to make them. My favorite is tamales of chicken mole wrapped in banana leaves. Your family might be blessed to receive tamales as gifts from neighbors, or you might know of families that make and sell them during the holidays for others to enjoy. You might even try your hand at making them! Tamales are one thing you can happily incorporate from this culture in your home during the holidays.
Warm Holiday Drinks
The cold months call for warming up with delicious treats like steaming chocolate (Mexican hot chocolate with cinnamon), atole (a warm beverage made with rice or cornmeal), or champurrado (chocolate atole) enjoyed by dipping warm pan dulce (sweet bread) into the tasty liquid. The family in I Hope Your Dreams Are Sweet could be found snuggled in a warm blanket on the couch enjoying these sweet treats! Instead of the traditional hot chocolate with peppermint, consider trying a recipe for one of these yummy drinks!
In addition to the Christmas carols you are familiar with, search for some villancicos (carols) in Spanish! The children in this book are probably well-versed in the popular carols “Mi Burrito Sabañero” and “Los Peces en El Río.” There’s something beautiful about music during the holidays, and these, among other songs, may end up forming a memorable part of your family celebrations!
New Year’s Fun
New Year’s Eve and Day are special days across the world with diverse ways to celebrate them. Did you know that in addition to gathering with family, listening and dancing to fun music, and eating yummy food, some Latin Americans (and even people from Spain) will eat twelve grapes with the stroke of midnight? One for every chime of the clock to welcome the new year in. Try it out at your next New Year’s Eve celebration!
Continue the Holidays
In continuation of the Christmas celebrations, the family in our bedtime story might also be found celebrating Día de los Tres Reyes, or Three Kings Day. It is a holiday of significance in many Latin American countries and cultures. It’s observed at the beginning of January in honor of the three wise kings who brought young Jesus precious gifts. Children will place their shoes outside of their doors for the three kings to fill with small gifts. Families gather to enjoy Rosca de Reyes (a delicious traditional sweet bread), otherwise known as Kings Wreath, decorated with colorful candied fruit. Baked inside this sweet bread is a small toy baby, representing baby Jesus being hidden from King Herod after his birth. Whoever gets the slice of bread that contains this little toy gets to host the next big family party. You can find a recipe online to make your own Rosca de Reyes or look up a local Hispanic bakery that sells them. It’s a fun tradition that I had the opportunity to participate in several times on my mission! I did get some bread with the toy baby, but as a missionary, they generously let me off the hook from hosting their next family party.
These are just some of the many ways you might consider including some new traditions from the Hispanic cultures in your home this holiday season!
Other ideas to integrate more cultures in your home during the holidays:
-If staying close to home is more your comfort level at the moment, the internet is a fantastic resource to learn about the holidays and customs of other groups and peoples. As a family, you can research the history of certain groups and their holidays, how and when they celebrate these special days, significant recipes to cook, and music to listen to that form part of their traditions.
-Have a treat exchange with your neighbors. Ask them to prepare family favorites and prepare some of yours to exchange. What a fun and easy way to share your family’s holiday culture! For years, our family shared homemade caramels with our neighbors. One family would tell my mom, “It’s not Christmas without Bonnie’s (my mom’s) caramels!” We received all kinds of family-tradition foods over the years, including tamales, pepper jelly and crackers, sweetbreads, fudge, smoked salmon, and tins of multi-flavor popcorn. These foods were important to those giving them, so they became special to us and a wonderful way to integrate other unique traditions in our home!
-Join or attend performances of a local interfaith choir. While growing up, my family participated in a choir that integrated members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints with members of the Catholic church to put on a Christmas program. The performances were held in both churches and in front of the Mesa Arizona Latter-Day Saints Temple. It became a yearly tradition for these community members to share their time and talents together for other community members to enjoy. An interfaith choir provides an opportunity to meet and make friends with people from other congregations and beliefs and enjoy learning songs from their faith as well as sharing some of your own.
–Serve in your community. The holidays are rife with opportunities to serve those in need within your community and in communities abroad and give you a chance to gain a deeper understanding and compassion for others. Look around for local food/clothing/toy drives and food distribution centers in need of volunteers. Consider creating gift packets of food, warm items like blankets or socks, and simple hygienic supplies to give to homeless people you see during the cold and difficult months. Gather a group of friends and family to sing for or spend time with people at a local care center for the disabled or the elderly. Invite a family you don’t know well in your neighborhood to dinner. Instilling a culture of caring in your family is perhaps the most important culture of all and one that anyone can be a part of.
-Attend local holiday cultural presentations. Check the calendars of local cultural centers for upcoming events where you might be able to learn about community events to celebrate holidays you aren’t familiar with or to experience how these groups celebrate shared holidays through their unique customs of food, music, and dance.
-Many families enjoy attending theatrical, choral, or orchestral performances during the holidays. The classic story of A Christmas Carol is part of many families’ holiday celebrations, and you’re bound to have a local theater or group that puts on the play. Many local ballets carry the yearly tradition of presenting the Nutcracker. A prestigious community choir in my area puts on yearly Christmas and Easter concerts. If attending fine arts performances isn’t a part of your family culture yet, consider searching for opportunities to introduce your family to these unique and beautiful experiences.
-Instead of just turning on the radio for Christmas music, try searching online for celebratory music in other languages or from different countries during the holidays. My family had some CDs growing up called Christmas Around the World that featured the instrumental music of well-known and less-known Christmas carols from various countries. It was beautiful and became one of my favorite things to listen to each Christmas! You don’t have to be fluent in a particular language or cultural background to appreciate its music and include it in your celebrations.
It is important to note that in some families, differing backgrounds and customs may initially clash or conflict with each other, and that can cause stress, tension, and even feelings of loneliness that cast a pall over the holiday fun. But with some effort and willingness to learn, we can all use the holidays as an opportunity to overcome and celebrate differences and also share what’s important with each other and with our friends. I love the book Around the Table That Granddad Built by Melanie Huesier Hill. This book features a large multiracial and multicultural family gathering and contributing to a sizeable and heartwarming feast around the table that their grandfather built to unite them. Food, service, willingness to participate, and love can bridge those gaps that families might experience and fill members with appreciation, inclusion, and stronger family bonds.
One way you can help your children, whether you are a part of a diversely multicultural family yourselves or would like to introduce them to other cultures and traditions outside of your own, is to read books to them featuring these celebrations around the world. One to consider would be What Do You Celebrate? Holidays and Festivals around the World by Whitney Stewart. This book teaches children about people and their customs from a variety of countries using colorful illustrations by Christiane Engel, photographs, and includes directions for DIY crafts and kid-friendly recipes. What better way to learn than by hands-on experiences? Another good book is Our Favorite Day of the Year by A. E. Ali and illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell, which follows four young kindergarten friends throughout their school year as they learn about the differences in each of their family holiday celebrations—religious, like Eid Mubarak, and non-religious, like Pi-Day—and share them with each other in class. The book features a calendar at the end so children can be aware of additional holidays too.
Many people might be afraid of participating in or celebrating other people’s cultures and customs because they worry about unintentionally disrespecting a culture if they don’t do it correctly. While it should be essential to learn the history, significance, and proper terminology and practice for the customs of other cultures, that discovery should excite and not deter us from venturing out of our comfort zones. Introducing our families to increased knowledge and appreciation for different ways of life can broaden our minds and our social circles, bring color and variation to our daily lives, and help us gain a greater love and desire for the inclusion of those around us.
Happy holidays, no matter how you celebrate!