Family Holiday Traditions Worth Sharing

By Christina Elston

Add any of these ideas from L.A. families to your seasonal celebration.
holiday traditions

Happy bakers (left to right) Erin Epstein, Emily Epstein, Kaela Selesnick and Hannah Selesnick mix up a batch of biscotti. PHOTO COURTESY PAULA SELESNICK

When you roast a Thanksgiving turkey in my house, you have to use Grandad’s stuffing recipe. And all the up-and-coming young cooks in the family are pressed to take a good whiff of the stuffing so they can learn how much poultry seasoning to add. (Sniffing is the best way to tell.)

Family and friends love my Christmas cookies, but most have never tasted the little reindeer with the pretzel antlers and candy noses. That’s because my mom, my daughter and I only bake and decorate those on Christmas Eve – and they are gobbled up soon after.

L.A. Parent is all about family, and families are all about tradition, so we put out the call and gathered up a few more fun traditions to share this season.

Giving Thanks

Single dad Warren Kaufman, who sells advertising for L.A. Parent, has a cooking tradition that isn’t really about cooking. His daughter Melanie, who will turn 26 Christmas Day, lived with him growing up, and Kaufman admits he isn’t much of a chef. “We always went out to dinner. With that said, when Thanksgiving rolled around, I certainly didn’t cook a turkey,” he says.

Instead, the Calabasas dad would drive his daughter to Bristol Farms to pick up a fully cooked turkey dinner. When Melanie was around 8 years old, they were driving back from this errand with their food when Kaufman spotted some homeless people at the side of the road and decided this would make a teachable moment, saying, “Honey, let’s just give this to them.” The pair donated their dinner, and have been doing so every year since. “The two of us go for a ride off of Las Virgenes  Road, headed into the Valley,” Kaufman says. They give the meal, paper plates, plastic cutlery and a little cash to the first homeless person they find, and always receive tremendous thanks. “I remember one particular time when a lady told me, ‘You have no idea how many families you’re feeding tonight!’” he says.

Writer Libby McInerny of Glendale also likes to keep the “thanks” in “thanksgiving” front and center – which she does with a gratitude tree. “I look forward to the start of Thanksgiving week, when I head down to the Los Angeles Flower District to select fresh branches, which I place in a tall vase with water,” she says. “Then I cut out different types of leaves and birds from colorful, patterned papers I’ve chosen, and place them in a wooden box alongside some pens.”

holiday traditions

Each Thanksgiving, Glendale writer Libby McInerny creates a gratitude tree so that her family and friends can share things they are thankful for. PHOTO BY LIBBY MCINERNY

McInerny says this is much more than a craft project, serving as a way for her to express her gratitude for good health, a loving husband, a big extended family and many friends. Anyone visiting her home that week can select a leaf or a bird, write down something they are grateful for and tie it to the tree. Two years ago, McInerny took her tree on the road to visit a friend and her two young daughters for the holiday. “The girls embraced the tradition enthusiastically, running through almost all of the leaves and birds I had created in order to give thanks for everything from their mom and dad to their favorite toys,” she says. And though there is no specific ritual for adding to the tree, it seems never to lack for participants. “The jam-packed tree is a beautiful thing to behold at the end of the long holiday weekend!” McInerny says.

Sharing the Light

When Hanukkah rolls around each year, mom of three, writer and blogger Rina Baraz Nehdar pulls out her calendar to plan her family’s daily themes. When she was growing up, Nehdar’s family didn’t observe many Jewish traditions, “so I had to go out and find traditions to bring into my own family,” she says.

At a workshop at her temple around six years ago, people gathered to share their holiday traditions and Nehdar took note. She chose those she liked best and combined them into eight days of activities for her young family.

Each year, Nehdar assigns a theme to each night of Hanukkah (keeping weeknight themes manageable). These might include baking, games, family movie night, volunteering or charitable giving, art night, having a party with family and friends, or a night where everyone sings karaoke. “I just wanted to make it more meaningful,” Nehdar says of the holiday celebration. And though the goal is to shift the focus away from presents, Nehdar’s sons do receive small gifts that fit each night’s theme. For baking night, they might receive silicone cupcake molds. For movie night, a family film on DVD. “I think they really like it,” she says of sons Knox, 6, Kaleb, 8 and Kyle, 19. “They just enjoy everyone being together and doing things together.”

Cooking Up Some Joy

L.A. Parent Director of Content Elena Epstein and her family are also Jewish, but they have a Christmas tradition to go along with their Hanukkah ones. “We have been getting together with our good friend Paula Selesnick and her daughters Hannah and Kaela every year before Christmas to bake Paula’s grandmother’s traditional Italian biscotti,” Epstein says.

holiday traditions

The biscotti the Epstein and Selesnick families bake up at Christmas each year are based on Paula Selesnick’s grandmother’s recipe. PHOTO COURTESY PAULA SELESNICK

Selesnick is Catholic and her husband is Jewish, and the cookies are one of their blended family’s traditions. The Epsteins became part of it when Hannah and Epstein’s younger daughter, Emily, were in preschool. And there’s a reason this is a recipe you want to make with friends. These aren’t the hard-and-crunchy biscotti people dunk in coffee. These are tender little cookies made in fun shapes with the help of many hands. “We do an assembly line because it’s a huge batch,” Epstein says. Once the dough is made, small pieces are pulled off one by one and rolled into logs, then twisted into shapes, brushed with egg wash, sprinkled with sugar and baked.

After the cookies are finished, the girls always have fun putting together gingerbread houses while the moms relax with coffee. Three of the four are off at college this year, but are looking forward to getting together during winter vacation to continue their tradition.

Italian cooking is also a big tradition in the home of realtor Kim Rouggie O’Rourke of Woodland Hills. “Something smells fishy in our house on Christmas Eve!” says O’Rourke. “We celebrate a very old Italian tradition called The Feast of the Seven Fish.” This means the family’s holiday table is filled with precisely seven fishes, including calamari, cod, crab, scallops, shrimp, salmon and an anchovy pasta called “Pasta Alice” that O’Rourke says she hated as a kid but now loves. There are many theories about why there are seven fishes served, but for O’Rourke it’s just tradition.

“I was born and raised in Los Angeles and my parents were from the Midwest, but I feel it’s important to keep this tradition alive,” she says. “If you think I have a table full of Italian Americans in my home on Christmas Eve, think again. Our family has grown to include Irish, Jewish, Chilean, Mexican and English.”

Tree Traditions

Trees are a Christmas tradition in many homes, but Fox 11 parenting reporter and mom of two boys Donna Tetreault found a way to turn the tree into a

holiday traditions

Donna Tetreault’s family decorates a special tree every year in remembrance of their Nona. PHOTO BY DONNA TETREAULT

tribute. “With the passing of my mom, Loretta Tetreault, three years ago, it was important for me to keep her spirit alive,” Tetreault says. “Every Christmas we have our regular Christmas tree and also a small tree for Nona. We decorate it with the same ornaments each year. The topper is an angel that is beautifully lit. We talk about Nona and how much she loved Christmas. This is one way we keep her memory alive as well as tell stories about her. I want my children to know my mom and know how much she loved us all.”

But what about when Christmas is through? Kaumudi Marathé is a caterer and writer and mom to one daughter, Keya Marathé-Bajaj. “When Keya was a toddler, it made her very sad to see Christmas trees thrown by the curb after the 25th,” Marathé says. “When we went for our walks, she would decorate the trees with acorns, magnolia pods, leaves, etc. so they wouldn’t feel discarded. So we started doing that purposefully every year. At 15, she still stops and does that in our neighborhood.”

One For the New Year

A tough time in writer Thea Fiore Bloom’s life sparked a New Year’s Eve tradition she now cherishes – and one that could be adapted to almost any holiday. After a divorce, Bloom decided to spend one New Year’s Eve at home rather than going out.

She set out, and now puts out each year, a herd of tea light candles in front of her fireplace, each beside a small piece of paper with the name of a family member or friend written on it. She then takes her time lighting them one by one. “As I light each person’s candle I imagine that individual healthy and whole and happy in the new year,” she says. “I picture them having their dreams come true. For example, I would picture in my mind my best friend  getting married, walking down the aisle in a long lacy white gown, because that is her biggest wish.”

Bloom says putting her focus on the happiness of others lifts her spirits and fills her with love and hope. That sounds like a great way to start the year, or to kick off the holiday season.

Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.

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