by Carissa D. Lamkahouan
As soon as the light fades on Thanksgiving Day, Neville the Christmas Elf shows up for his yearly visit with the Caliguiri family. For them, Christmas is the big event come December.
Jennifer Caliguiri and her 12-year-old son Ayden look forward to Dec. 25 every year, and though they tie no specific religious significance to the date, they are a family who believes in the spirit and magic of the season.
“Santa is a huge part of why we celebrate,” said Jennifer.
Ayden agreed. After all, he relies on his elf Neville to communicate with his boss – Santa Claus – when he falls behind on his gift giving.
“Sometimes I’m too lazy to go to the mall (and buy presents) so I just tell Neville to tell Santa what I want for Christmas and for my mom and dad and then I’ll get it on Christmas Day.”
Christmas traditions are important in the Caliguiri home. Each year since 2009 Ayden has received a special Nutcracker figurine. In 2015 he expanded his collection to include snow globes. Now several years later, Ayden proudly displays his treasures on the mantle and makes sure to leave milk and cookies for Mr. Claus.
For many Houstonians, holidays in December look like they do in the Caliguiri home. But for others in Houston, a city bursting with ethnic and religious diversity, Christmas is but one of several holidays observed not only during this most magical time of the year but throughout all twelve calendar months.
And why not? The Bayou City is home to approximately 4 million people speaking more than 100 languages. From near and far her people hail, and all come with their special traditions, including celebrations of Diwali, the Lunar New Year, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice and many more. Indeed in Houston, the parade of holidays celebrated here can be found the world over.
Just ask Paresa and Alessio Santini. A Greek Orthodox Christian family, the Santinis regularly observe their faith’s saint’s feast days, including St. Nicholas’ Day on Dec. 6. The celebration, Paresa said, is marked with a special prayer said for the saint they’re celebrating and a recitation of a prayer the saint wrote. Often the story of the saint’s life is read, as well. And, as with most holidays, there’s lots of delicious food to be eaten and shared with loved ones.
What’s special about celebrating saints’ days is, for those of the Orthodox Christian faith they are often named after a saint, Paresa explained. For instance, her son Alessio, 11, is named for St. Alexios. When the family celebrates St. Alexios’ day, it makes for a special event in the Santini home. Alessio is treated to a special meal, given gifts and takes calls from loved ones and others in his faith community. He also pays tribute to St. Alexios, whose likeness has a special place in the family’s home.
“Every Orthodox home has a wall of icons with many pictures of saints on the walls, especially the saints the people in your family are named after,” Paresa said. “On your saint’s day, people will tell you ‘Happy Birthday.’”
Alessio said he’s happy to focus on his faith and honor its traditions. As an alter boy at his church, he said he’s found a way to do just that.
“My mom said I should try to do it, so one day I did and I really liked it. It was fun and so I just continued to do it,” he said. “It’s important because it keeps me thinking about God and how he gave us life and keeps us safe.”
The richness of Houston’s holiday traditions is displayed through the actions of its people, many of whom cherish their unique rituals and relish in keeping them foremost in their home.
Houstonian Nelly Obregon remembers childhood moments spent in Mexico celebrating Las Posadas, a Mexican Christmas tradition which means “the lodgings” in Spanish and is marked from Dec. 16 until Dec. 24.
Celebrated for more than 400 years in Mexico and in other Latin American countries, thousands of Houstonians keep the tradition alive here in Houston. The nine-day observance is rooted in Mary’s nine-month pregnancy and her and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in advance of Jesus’ birth when they were trying to find a place to stay. It’s marked by a group of people going from home to home, being turned away several times before they find their way to the chosen home, the posado, where they are welcomed in, just as Mary and Joseph were welcomed into the stables.
“People carry candles as they go from house to house singing songs,” Obregon said. “At a posada you open your home for them, to the people you care about. You offer them traditional heartwarming food like tamales and rice, and the kids break a star piñata. It’s just a lot of fun and a very sweet tradition.”
Like Obregon, Beenish Memon takes care to keep her holiday and religious celebrations rooted in those of her birthplace, Pakistan.
A Houstonian for 10 years, Memon is mother to three children. She said it’s important her children understand and appreciate Houston’s multicultural vibe, but as a Muslim mother raising young children, Memon puts special emphasis on the Islamic holidays of Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr and the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
She does this by hosting henna parties during Eid celebrations and by celebrating family iftars, or breaking of the fast, every weekend during Ramadan.
“Before Ramadan we decorate our home and we light up the house, ” Memon said. “We also have a decorative praying corner.”
Besides fasting, prayer is especially important during Ramadan. Memon said her son, who is the oldest child and has begun fasting with his parents, will travel to the mosque – the Muslim house of worship – to offer night prayers in congregation. For Memon’s two young daughters, who are not of fasting age, she focuses on fun.
“I print out lots of Ramadan coloring pages and we do a lot of crafts, as well,” she said.
Making children part of any religious or secular holiday is common across most traditions, as is tailoring the traditions according to their ages.
Mark Newman, a Jewish father of three, has celebrated Hanukkah for years with his family. Also called The Festival of Lights, Hanukkah commemorates the victory of the Jewish Maccabees over the Syrian Greek army. After their win, the Jews rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem and set to light the menorah, a candelabrum used in a Jewish prayer ritual. However, there was only oil enough to light the menorah candles for one day, yet a miracle from God kept the light burning bright for eight days, hence the eight nights of Hanukkah.
Like Memon, Newman has adapted his family holiday traditions as his children, a 14-year-old and 12-year-old twins, have grown.
“When the boys were younger they would light their own candles on their own menorahs,” Newman said. “On the first night of Hanukkah they would get a big gift, like a bike, then the other nights they would receive smaller gifts.”
Now that the Newman boys are older, the family shares one menorah and the gift-giving is pared down. However, the spiritual importance of the holiday is preserved.
“Every night (of Hanukkah) we all gather together and say our prayers and we all light the candles together as a family,” Newman said.
No matter how your Houston home celebrates, be it in honor of religious tradition or secular holiday fun, common themes of family, the sharing of gifts, the breaking of bread and merriment shine through.