"Seeing Each Other During the Holidays" by Erica Pernell, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion
The following was an assembly talk to students before the Thanksgiving holidays.
I’m nine years old. In my childhood home, as Christmas approaches, things get really loud. Jazzy songs from Charlie Brown and Luther Vandross blast through the walls. Our cat climbs up our Christmas tree and crashes down about every other day, littering pine needles all over the living room. My brother's and my increased sugar intake and lack of stimulation result in massive sibling battles involving projectile quarters and dimes aimed at each other’s heads. My mom—my poor mom—is stressed. She has to cook and clean and make sure everyone has a perfect gift and ironed outfits when she really wants to be like those moms on TV, calmly laughing in a Christmas robe, sipping hot cocoa while the food magically cooks itself. As all the chaos unfolds, my dad simply turns up the soulful Christmas jams and relaxes on the couch. It smells like Christmas cookies and homemade pierogies and that fake evergreen Yankee Candle scent.
My mom is Polish American and my dad is African American. Each Christmas Eve, we spend time with both sides of the family, but separately.
We begin the night at my maternal grandparent’s house in Connecticut. My favorite part of Polish Christmas Eve happens before dinner: everyone gets a piece of a thin wafer called oplatek. The tradition holds that you take the time to connect one on one with each person present, and as you do this, you eat a piece of their wafer while they eat a piece of your wafer. We exchange Merry Christmas wishes and say "I love you" before sharing a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Some of our traditions aren’t Polish at all. We start the meal with some shrimp cocktail and for dessert, my grandmother makes Italian snowflake cookies called pizelles. I’m pretty sure she just added these foods because she likes appetizers and cookies. After the meal, we open gifts in a very orderly fashion, one person, one gift at a time, and enjoy a fire. Then, we head to my grandfather’s house about 45 minutes away for Christmas Eve part II.
My dad has a huge family and we all squish into my grandfather’s finished basement. He has a collection of antique slot machines and all the kids get a giant cup of quarters and try our best not to lose it all. The adults pile onto couches and watch movies, usually action or suspense. Gifts aren’t opened in a strategic way. We all tear the paper and throw it around at each other afterwards. Children fall asleep in piles wherever they end up getting tired while the adults spend the whole night catching up, and enjoying life together until three or four in the morning. I wake up on Christmas morning in my own bed, at my own house, and barely remember my dad gently lifting me up and carrying me out to the car to start the ride home from my grandfather’s house.
I love the different ways my family celebrates, but holidays can also be a time of forced conformity, as I was often required to wear a dress even though I desperately didn’t want to. As I’ve grown older, our family traditions ground me and keep me connected to my history and my ancestors. But the feeling and the excitement around holidays now also includes sadness and grief, as there are empty seats around the table because my family has experienced the loss of grandparents and cousins.
We all celebrate different holidays and some of us don’t believe in celebrating at all. Even those of us who do celebrate the same holidays, do so in different ways and assign different meanings to our celebrations. It is essential to remember that holidays are a time for joy, but for many of us, holidays also bring up pain, loneliness, grief and struggle. We have to hold all these truths simultaneously and find ways to make sure the holiday season is an opportunity for all of us to reflect our desire and drive to acknowledge and truly see everyone in our community.
There are some really simple ways we can be inclusive of each other during the holidays.
Ask others if and how they celebrate instead of assuming.
Do your own research about holidays that are unfamiliar to you.
Show your interest in and respect for members of our community by asking and attempting the correct pronunciation of any holidays or terms you’re not familiar with.
Share stories from your own traditions.