Here’s what Christmas looks like in different cultures in America

The Christmas joy in the Catholic Church is indeed “Catholic.” Its universality becomes evident in the many ways believers from different countries celebrate the same feast. Such richness is alive in Denver and in most of the country, reminding us of the beauty of being truly “universal.” Here are some of the ways Catholics celebrate Christmas in our midst!

The Polish way

The Grondalski family (Henryk, Margaret and their children: Peter, Anna and Julia) don’t only celebrate Christmas the Polish way, they also do it speaking Polish. They are members of St. Joseph’s Polish Parish in Denver and Margaret serves as the principal of the Polish Sunday School.

The Grondalski Family (Poland) celebrate Christmas with a traditional Polish meal. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

The family waits for the first star to show on the sky of Christmas Eve to begin the family dinner, symbolizing the star that led the three wise men. Their tradition consists in having a 12-dish dinner with absolutely no meat, an ancient European tradition of abstaining from meat in anticipation of a feast. Instead, some of the dishes include the “kasza,” elegantly served with salmon, braised cabbage and mushrooms – only after a beets soup containing “pierogi,” filled dumplings.

At the center of the table, a stack of hay is left under a few wafers on a cloth. This symbolizes the Eucharist and the child Jesus on the manger. It’s not until the following day that the family eats a festive meat-based meal.

A Ukrainian tradition

The Wynar’s celebrate a Ukrainian Christmas with the whole family, literally, all of it: Living or not. They follow the traditional practice of leaving an extra plate with dessert for those family members who have passed away. It’s a way of honoring their presence and participation in this great feast.

Misio Wynar and his family gather to celebrate Christmas at home with Ukrainian traditions. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

Misio, Mariana and their children – Melania and Bohdan – are parishioners at Transfiguration of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in Denver. Other than speaking Ukrainian at home and teaching it to their children as their first language, Misio and Mariana also follow their parents’ tradition of having a 12-course meal on Christmas Eve. The meal, containing no meat or dairy products, begins with the first star of the night. And three rings of Christmas “kolach,” a traditional braided bread, are placed at the center of the table with a candle to symbolize the Holy Trinity.

Other Ukrainian traditions include giving gifts on the feast of St. Nicholas instead of Christmas and placing hay under the table, a Christianized ancient practice to represent the manger.

Practices from Mexico

Jose Angel and Claudia Amador have numerous activities to prepare their family – Jose Angel Jr., Emanuel, Andrea, David and Daniel – for Christmas. The family attends the “posadas” (Spanish for “lodging”) at St. Pius X Parish in Aurora, Colo. The 400-year-old tradition refers to the time Mary and Joseph looked for an inn in Bethlehem. They consist of gatherings for nine consecutive days leading up to Christmas to pray a rosary and novena, and enjoy Bible plays, songs and food.

The Amador Family (Mexico) celebrates their Christmas traditions, including setting up Nativity Scene during Advent. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

On Christmas Eve, a rosary is prayed before dinner, during which the real clothes on the statue of Baby Jesus are taken off. Afterward, he is laid and venerated on the manger of the Nativity scene, wrapped in diapers. He will remain there until Jan. 6 (or Feb. 2 in other regions), the Epiphany of the Lord, when he will be dressed again, sat in a chair and placed on a place of devotion. The Amador’s give presents to their children on Christmas Day, telling them that it was Baby Jesus who brought them.

The Ghanaian Spirit

The Bonsu family – Seth, Monica, Blessing, Linda, Elvin  – keeps the joy of the Christmas season common in Ghana. Although they miss the all-night drumming and dancing on the streets of their hometown after midnight of Christmas Eve, they still dress completely in white for Mass on the 25th, at Queen of Peace Church in Aurora, Colo. Colors are key. On Good Friday, they usually only wear red or black to represent their mourning. On Christmas and Easter, they all wear white as a sign of joy.

The Bonsu Family celebrate Christmas with the joy common in their home country of Ghana. (Photo by Bonsu Family)

Their main meal is on Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is mainly dedicated to set up a manger and have the kids perform a Nativity play. On Christmas Day, they have the most special dinner of the year. It is the time to make a delicious meal, such as their traditional “fufu,” served with peanut soup and chicken.

On Dec. 25 and 26, it is common to take the children to houses of family members or friends for gifts, where they usually receive sweets and small toys.

An Italian feast

Joél and Giovanna Contreras remain strong in their Italian Christmas practices with their children: Rachel, Grace and Zawadi, originally from Congo; and Francesco and Lorenzo. They don’t only prepare through their service at Cure d’Ars Parish in Denver, but also by making crafts. In fact, most of their Christmas tree ornaments are made by hand.

The Contreras Family (Italy) celebrate their family traditions for Christmas including setting up an elaborate Nativity Scene. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

The Contreras family sets up a big Nativity scene they made from chalk, clothes and wood years ago. The many figurines in the set were brought from San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, famous for such art. All are painted by hand and dressed in real clothes.

On Christmas Eve, they enjoy a long, fish-based dinner with seven to 10 different dishes. They begin with appetizers such as shrimp cocktail and move up to a “scoglio” pasta, followed by salmon, many side dishes and “pastiera” or other desserts. Christmas Day is first and foremost a family day for the Contreras’. They spend the day doing family activities that range from playing games to watching a movie together.

COMING UP: Here’s how to fully embrace the art of Advent and true celebration

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For parents especially with young children, it’s a difficult balance to raise them in the world with its own culture while trying to instill a way of life that’s centered on the Catholic faith.

So how does one create a Catholic culture in their family? For several families, it’s as simple as sticking to the liturgical year — and the Advent and Christmas season is ripe with beautiful traditions to practice together.

Truth, beauty and goodness

For Ryan O’Connor, assistant principal at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic school, it wasn’t enough just to cut out the secular culture from his family’s life — it was about replacing it and creating their own, based in faith and expressed through the beautiful, true and good.

“We were inspired by the Michael O’Brien quote, ‘How very difficult it is to resist an entire culture, and especially for children to do so, because it is a right and good thing for children to grow into awareness of being members of a broader community.

“‘That is why the solution will never be simply a matter of criticizing the false culture surrounding us. The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand,’” O’Connor said.

He and his wife, Sarah, committed to intentionally created a faith culture for their children early on in their marriage, and they’ve been building upon it over their 10 years together as a married couple.

They focus especially on prayer, order (following the liturgical season) and story (by encouraging reading or passing down family stories, etc.).

“It’s not a monastery, but we try to grab the beginning, middle and end of the day,” O’Connor said. “We do morning prayer, the Angelus at noon and the rosary is the goal [in the evening], but we do at least a decade after dinner.”

He said they also teach their children how to pray from their heart at bedtime, by prompting them with, “Thank you for…, I’m sorry for…, help me to…, and a special prayer for….”

Their family has also incorporated plenty of ways to follow the liturgical season and celebrate the Advent season.

“We have a tendency to go right to Christmas, so we try to avoid that,” O’Connor said. “We do a Jesse tree, which takes you through salvation history, with a Bible verse and ornament for each day.

“We’ve built a collection of Advent and Christmas books and they only come out [this time of year],” he added. “My wife wraps a book for each day in either purple or pink and numbers them to show the buildup [to Christmas].”

Instead of decorating for Christmas all at once, their family slowly puts up ornaments and calls it an “Advent tree.”

“We make it clear that Christmas is a season,” he said. “We will be formed by culture, you can’t void out of it, so you have to be intentional in forming one. It’s either be swallowed up by it or intentionally form a proper, good culture.”

True celebration, a crucial part of culture

While the O’Connor family puts off celebrating Christmas until the Advent season is over, they also fully enter into the celebration of other feasts during the season, like St. Nicholas’ on Dec. 6, with other families around the Denver area who share their commitment to create a culture of faith for their children.

Following tradition, they put chocolate coins and oranges in their children’s shoes — and then finish the day with a party with friends to celebrate the feast.

“We [also] have the kids write a prayer for all sorts of things and have them include three requests for gifts,” O’Connor said. “Something they want, something they need, and something to read. And then we tell the story of St. Nick and teach how God answers prayers.”

Another family that celebrates a feast during the Advent season with gusto is Father Doug and Lynn Grandon, who always celebrate the feast of St. Lucy on Dec. 13, even as evangelical Protestants before their conversion to Catholicism.

“For Scandinavians, she’s the only saint even Protestants honor,” Lynn said. “[There] was this reverence and beauty about it, and I thought it was so holy and beautiful even as a child, not even realizing there were other saints.”

To help in the spirit of celebration for the Advent and Christmas seasons, the Barga family throws a big party on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

Andrew and Rebecca Barga, parishioners at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Thornton, celebrate the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8 by throwing a big party and inviting other families to come.

“A feast day party is a big thing, and we each take a solemnity with friends and switch off,” Rebecca said.

Like the O’Connor family, they also create a faith culture in their family this time of year by celebrating Advent more intentionally with traditions like the Jesse tree and Advent wreath, or more slowly decorating their home. And this year, they’re celebrating 12 days of Christmas with various activities every day.

“We also go downtown and bring a crew of people with us and go hand out bagels and coffee and other donated goods to hand out to the homeless, and the kids physically give to them, which they love,” she said.

Both Andrew and Rebecca stressed that intentionally creating a culture of faith in their family is something that’s difficult to do without a solid community around them — but so worth the way of living they pass on to their children.

“You can’t do this in isolation and do it well, and it’s good for us as parents to have this support structure,” Andrew said. “We actually have to meet and talk about it, and it’s hard work. [It’s also] our relationship with the Lord.

“Without that active prayer life and community, it’s an overwhelming amount of work, but with God’s grace, the little contribution becomes a big contribution,” he added. “It’s harder to look at our daily life with our kids and see how I have an impact in culture. There’s a way of life we’re passing on, and it demands intentionality.”