by Courtney Chorba,
PAC International Certifications and Events Coordinator
December holidays. Some people love them and begin celebrating at the first signs of cooler weather (Christmas decorations for sale two months ahead of time?!), and some people loathe them, feeling heavily the stress of added responsibilities and obligations, and any loss or grieving that people have experienced may resurface during this time.
The December holidays have generally been a fun time for me, when I have the opportunity to see family and friends that I may not have many chances to connect with throughout the year.
My father’s side of the family are from Poland, with my great grandparents immigrating to the US in the 1920s. I feel grateful that my relatives have kept their Christmas traditions alive through the years; we gather for a Christmas Eve dinner at my babcia’s home and feast on pierogis, fish, sauerkraut, and mushrooms. We spend the evening talking, singing, eating, and exchanging gifts and an opłatek, a thin wafer made of white flour broken into pieces (always done right before dinner).
For me it’s also a time for celebration of and expression of gratitude for the year past and the anticipation and setting my intentions for the year ahead. What are goals I would like to work toward? What are things in my life that it is time to let go of? I fill my home with pine-scented candles, make a few attempts at designing meals based around seasonal and local foods, and stress over what would make the best gifts for family and friends. December in Pittsburgh brings a lot of fun activities: holiday parties, craft shows, and light up night, which is an evening to kick off the holiday season. All of the downtown businesses and residents turn on all of their holiday lights at the same time, accompanied by fireworks, music, and a host of fun activities and holiday shopping.
Light up night in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Holidays Around the World: Conversations with International PAC Friends
Over the past few years through working with PAC International, I’ve had the privilege of meeting a ton of wonderful people and taking every opportunity to learn more about their lives and cultures. Here are some perspectives from PAC-folk around the globe!
Our friends to the north have a variety of ways to celebrate, many of them similar to the things we do here in the US, and some traditions that are shared with the UK.
“Our family keeps Christmas Day low key. We attend a candlelight service at church on Christmas Eve… and then hang out at home Christmas Day – read the Christmas story, open gifts, and relax… maybe go out to see a movie. Something I do for my family, which is passed down from my Mennonite Grandmothers is “buns and candy” for breakfast… I set out “homemade” (well my mom made them homemade) buns, jam, cheese, fruit, assorted chocolate and gummy candies. Excited for the Season this year!”
– Dee, PAC Mentor, Etobicoke, Ontario
“A Christmas tradition that I passed on to my kids from my mom is to buy/make a personalized ornament with the year on it every year so when they move out on their own, they have a nice memorable collection to start their Christmas tree decorating.”
-Dawn, PAC Mentor, Collingwood, Ontario
“That Christmas Eve gift that we were always allowed to open that just happened to be new pajamas each year. I continued with that tradition and believe that my children will do the same with their families! Something about new jammies in the Christmas morning photos…”
-Cheryl, PAC Mentor, Plattsville, Ontario
In Britain and Canada, the holiday celebrations continue into the 26th of December with Boxing Day. In current times, Boxing Day is a day for shopping. In the past, Boxing Day was a day off for servants where they would receive a Christmas Box from their master, and then they would go home to share gifts with their families. While most Canadians and the British don’t have servants these days, they do take the day to hit the malls and stores – similar to Black Friday in the US.
French Canadian holiday perspective:
“I thought I would share my French-Canadian experience. When I think of Christmas especially as a child, I think of the big family get together on Christmas eve. Christmas day has always been a quiet day at home for us. Christmas eve we spend with our huge family. My mom was the oldest of 9 and we all got together and shared Christmas dinner, which consisted of the normal traditional foods, but the variation for French Canadians is the tourtière. It’s not Christmas without the tourtière. My grandmother used to not only make tourtière for Christmas Eve, but everyone went home with a pie to eat later.
I miss this and want to start doing this for my kids. Now we get together with the Aunts and Uncles, cousins, etc. before dinner and then my parents and siblings and kids have dinner and gifts at one of our houses.
My brother brought tourtiere to Christmas last year.. but he bought it.. just not the same. Time to revive my grandmother’s tradition!”
-Sharon, PAC Mentor, Ayr, Ontario
If you’d like to try out a tourtière of your own, you can see the recipe. While the tourtière is traditionally made with pork and beef, for my fellow vegetarian friends, we can just substitute the meat with any meat replacement, and voila!
“(Mari Lwyd)… is an odd tradition that I remember re-enacting in school Christmas services. It sometimes happens down in South Wales in re-enactments at museums.”
– PAC Mentor, Nick - Swansea, UK
While the origins and etymology of Mari Lwyd are up for debate among historians and folklore scholars, the first recorded accounts of Mari Lwyd date back to the early 1800s in South Wales, although it likely began much earlier. The tradition involves a person carrying a horse skull (either real or constructed), with a sheet affixed to the back. The person in costume, accompanied by a group of carolers, approaches a house, wassailing until the resident allows entry. According to Wikipedia, “The householders would be expected to deny them entry, again through song, and the two sides would continue their responses to one another in this manner. If the householders eventually relented, then the team would be permitted entry and given food and drink.”
Mari Lwyd wassailers
You can watch and learn more about the Welsh tradition.
As well, we see Boxing Day in the UK being an important piece to the December holidays:
“In my family/community, we exchange presents and have Christmas dinner (at lunchtime!) on Christmas Day. We also have Boxing Day on the 26th which traditionally was for wealthy British households to pass on their Christmas boxes and leftovers for (servants) to use and celebrate on Boxing day, the servants would then also exchange small presents.
Aside from this, my family just spends Christmas all together in our pajamas! We aim to eat as much food and do as little as humanly possible. Although we often go for a traditional Christmas walk before lunch/dinner (British weather permitting!).”
-Olivia, PAC Trainer, United Kingdom
“Herring, no turkey!”
- Marlena, PAC Mentor-in-Training, Gdansk, Poland
Like many places in the world, the holidays are for spending time with family. The Polish also decorate a tree, traditionally a real tree. In recent years in the interest of being more eco-friendly, it’s common to have a live tree maintained in a pot with soil that people can plant in their gardens following the holiday.
A large portion of the Polish population are Catholic, so most of the celebrations are centered around Christmas traditions, with the most important day being Christmas Eve. On December 24th, before Christmas Eve supper, the family waits together to see the first star in the sky, and then gathers at the Christmas table. Before dinner, the family members exchange the opłatek and wishes one another a Merry Christmas. At dinner, no meat is served; the meals always are herring, fried carp and other fish, pierogi, wild mushroom and sour cabbage, beetroot soup - barszcz, and gingerbread.
Opłatek, a thin wafer shared on Christmas Eve
“On the first and second Christmas Day we visit our families, or they visit us. We wish Merry Christmas to everyone and we try to be more polite to each other than usual.
When we set table, we always put an extra plate and utensils for an unexpected guest- no one should be alone on Christmas Eve.”
– Aneta, PAC Trainer in Poznań, Poland
Fish, pierogi, and barszcz are some of the main Christmas dishes in Poland
Presents are exchanged on Christmas Eve, delivered by Santa, or an angel, or a little star, depending on the region in Poland.
“After supper, we give each other presents…Santa Clause comes over through the chimney to leave presents under the Christmas tree (even if there is no fireplace in house). Nobody is allowed to be in the living room in that moment, so adults get sneaky to redirect kids’ attention to something else (Substitution NOT Subtraction ☺), so that the presents can be put under the Christmas tree by the Santa. After he's done, suddenly somebody shouts ‘look, The Santa was here!’ and the fun part begins.”
-Marlena, Gdansk, Poland
Following the dinner, the families head to church for midnight mass, called Pasterka (etymologically it comes from shepherd). It ends around 1:30 am.
Many of us associate the December holidays with giant sweaters, cozy fires, maybe even some snow. Not in Australia! In the southern hemisphere, they are enjoying summer weather, beaches, barbeques, cricket, and surfing Santas.
Surfing Santas in Australia
In 2015, the Guinness World Record for largest surfing group was broken when 250 Santas took to the waters in Bondi, Sydney.
Amidst all of the gatherings, celebrations, and fun, we must be mindful and proactive of the challenges that come along with the season. The holidays can deliver many triggers and difficult feelings, and we must ask ourselves, how can we be sapphire for those who are experiencing these challenges?
“As the summer approaches and the festive season nears, we find that family starts visiting more and worrying more… will this be Mum’s last Christmas? Reminiscing about past Christmases and the difference this year... it brings in a sadness and a genuine sense of loss. What we have tried at GHA (Group Homes Australia) is to support and minimize the anxiety around this time of year. We decorate the homes, invite families to join in several gatherings, barbeques, morning tea, and of course a big Christmas party.
Because it is summer and school vacation, we encourage the grandchildren to visit and take part in the house activities.
We also recognize for our staff, they come from many countries around the world and the holiday season is very difficult to be away from family.
So, at GHA we ensure staff are included in all the festivities.
Being together and having the support for staff, families, and for the residents is something we keep front of mind.”
– Tamar, PAC Coach in training, Sydney, Australia
As we continue onward into the season, I invite you to maintain awareness of GEMS states; your own and those of the people around you as the normal patterns of our days are shaken up and new triggers and stressors may be introduced. Take some time to breathe and check in with yourself and others. Ask for help when you need it. Offer help when you can.
I wish all of you a pleasant time of reflection, connection with loved ones, strength, and good health and happiness into the new year.
Did you know there are some PAC materials in other languages? Have a look at our translations page to find Spanish, French, and Polish translated materials! And stay tuned as we will soon be adding more languages!
Courtney works with the PAC team as the International Certifications and Events Coordinator, as well as a navigator for continuing education processes for professionals completing PAC courses where applicable. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Master of Public Health from the University of Pittsburgh. Courtney finds inspiration in travel, people, music, art and books, and stays balanced through yoga, meditation, and running.