Skip to main content

Neighbors of DuPage

Holiday traditions

by Ben Scott

Whether religious, cultural or entirely original, many families have inherited traditions that make their holidays unique. Sometimes these traditions are quirky or unusual and reflect a family’s distinct personality, while other families have traditions that are rooted in a special place like their hometown.

Sing for your gift

Kate O’Malley Sullivan (a 16 year Darien resident) shared her family tradition that has crossed generations.

“I have one sister and five brothers. My father, a World War II veteran, drove a bus for the CTA,” Sullivan said. “He was a hard working, dedicated family man. The holidays, especially Christmas, were everything to our parents.  And to all of us. There wasn’t a lot of money to go around, but we made the most of it with a special tradition. We each had to sing a carol before we could open a gift. None of us could sing very well, and we seldom knew all the lyrics, but we sang anyway. And we laughed. And we sang together. Every Christmas all of our differences (there were many) were put aside while we were reminded how important we are to each other. We all have families now, but when we get together, singing is still part of the gift giving. It is a reminder of the strength of family that my parents instilled in us.”

Holiday treasure hunt

For Darien residents Mike and Jenny Overmann, family Christmas celebrations begin in November with a tradition that started when Jenny was a child.

“On Thanksgiving Day we have a treasure hunt for our kids,” Jenny said. “At the end of the treasure hunt each kid receives a Christmas ornament. These ornaments are hung every year on our tree and allow the kids to build up their own collection of ornaments. This way they have ornaments for their own tree when they move out of our home. This tradition started with my parents when I was a child and I still look forward to looking at the ornaments I receive each Thanksgiving.”

Of course, the greatest variety in United States holiday traditions comes in the form of the holiday feast. New England, for instance, has given us Lumberjack Pie, the southern states have hominy grits soufflé and whiskey cake, and Baltimore serves sauerkraut with their Turkey. ( In Darien alone there are a wide-range of unusual, tasty recipes whipped up during the holidays. For instance, Darien resident Joan Wayman said her family eats Gitmush – a meal similar to a Pennsylvania pork and oatmeal hash brown.

Seafood feast

Likewise, Darien local (and Neighbors contributor) Angelo Imbrogno described the meaning behind his family’s delicious holiday spread.

 “On Christmas Eve morning we all gather at Mom's to help prep for our seafood feast later in the evening. First on the list is fried doughnuts with sugar,” Imbrogno said. “Our tradition is to have 13 different dishes for the evening. Why 13? One for each disciple and one for Jesus. After dinner, someone dresses as Santa to bring the kiddies presents. My father, a master tailor by trade, created the suit by hand over 20 years ago. It's a blast!”

Left, center, right

Still other family traditions evolve as each new generation adds their own unique spin to the custom. Darien Mayor Kathleen Weaver recalled the way her family’s Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions have grown and changed with the addition of new family members. 

“One Thanksgiving Eve my sisters got together to prepare the turkey, dressing and side dishes and dessert. It has become a tradition for us and has expanded to my daughter- in-law and granddaughters. We have some great bonding time with a lot of laughter and even a glass of wine,” Weaver said. “Our Christmas holiday is more fluid with my siblings celebrating alternating Christmas Eve and Christmas Day so that everyone can celebrate with their spouses' families. In the past we have pulled names at Thanksgiving of a family member and only bought gifts for that person. Then we changed to a white elephant type gift exchange with items you didn't want around the house anymore and had a lot of laughs with that. But we are a game playing family so we have moved to playing the Left Center Right dice game after dinner that lasts for hours.”

Find the pickle

Similarly, area native Jenny Scott detailed her German family’s celebration of the Saint Nicholas’ Day holiday and the ways this celebration changed as she grew up and started a family of her own.

“My grandparents had thirteen children who were all married and had children,” Scott said. “It was a huge family and we used to get together on the evening of December 5th to celebrate. Since there were so many children, instead of putting boots out, St. Nick delivered the sweets in individual bags for each child. All of these bags were put in a big, galvanized tub outside the door. It was very exciting when we looked out later that evening, saw the tub and realized St. Nick had finally come. There were always good chocolates, pfeffernüsse cookies and tangerines.”

When Scott married, the St. Nicholas tradition continued with the addition of an unusual Christmas tree “pickle game.”

“My mother-in-law bought me a pickle ornament years ago and told me about the tradition of The Christmas Pickle. No one is really sure where this game came from, but some say it originated in Germany. Someone hides the pickle somewhere on the Christmas tree and the first to find it wins a prize. This has turned into a huge event at our house. We go in heats of two people at a time, and the winner plays other winners until we’re down to one. It gets pretty competitive. Ornaments have gotten broken in the excitement, but now we have a rule that if you touch the tree, you’re out.” 

Gifts to charity instead of each other

Like Scott, Marcie Callicoat’s Christmas celebrations include a large extended family.

“This family (the Bordoshuk family) has been getting together on Christmas Day for over 70 years. The celebration includes at least 50 or 60 people with aunts, ‘aunties’ (which are different than aunts), grandparents, nieces, nephews, spouses, friends, etc. The meal always includes an extensive variety of homemade family traditions like Polish sausage and sauerkraut, pierogies, a roasted turkey, amazing mashed potatoes, enchiladas and sweets that could last for months but usually don’t.”

Marcie and her husband Neil have a five year old daughter who just started kindergarten and a three year old son in preschool. Marcie said the holidays are one of her family’s favorite times of year to make lasting memories, and her family also goes above and beyond to give back during the Christmas season.

“I’m proud to share that instead of exchanging gifts, our family collects donations for a charity,” Marcie said.  “The charity is chosen by the person who hosts the party that year and the cause is always something special to that particular host. Everyone takes turns hosting and everyone pitches in.”

And Marcie said her family also has a tradition for closing out the holidays.

“Our favorite tradition to end the holiday season is a New Year’s Eve sleepover. We ring in the New Year with some of our closest friends. We each take turns hosting and we always stay in to play games and watch movies. We used to get together before kids and now we’ve continued the tradition with our children. But I have to admit it’s getting harder to stay awake!”

 What are some of your favorite holiday traditions? Do you plan on continuing an old tradition or starting a new one with your family this year? Whatever your plans are, the holidays are a great time to reflect on the importance of traditions and their unique ability to bring families together while creating memories that last a lifetime.