Christmas and winter traditions change as the US shifts in demographics | The Light Series

The growing diversity in the US contributes to new and revised traditions during Christmas time. Unbeknownst to a southern pastor, his simple question sparked a conversation on the changing landscape.

When Sean Palmer, a Wilmington, North Carolina pastor and director of the Upperman African American Cultural Center at UNC Wilmington, listed some of the things that he has done to create and carry on Christmas traditions, he did not expect to receive overwhelming feedback.

Pastor Palmer posted on Facebook:

Everywhere I’ve ever lived, I have sought to establish Christmas Holiday traditions…

In SC…visiting family on Christmas Day (no less than 3-4 homes replete with plates) in brand new sweatsuits or sweaters was a thing

In Atlanta, it was attending the CAU Philharmonic society concert and the Morehouse/Spelman concert and going to my LBs Holiday party

In Augusta, it was the candlelight service at Tabernacle, my staff party, Christmas movies with friends, and the annual Alpha Christmas Eve outing!

In Durham, it was Christmas Eve dinner with my in-Laws and baking cakes…along with going to see the Black Nativity live!

In Wilmington, it’s been baking cakes, making cookies with my friends kids, and putting Zachary’s gifts together to the early hours with my wife.


His timeline began to fill with ideas and rituals. From both Christians and non-Christians, the replies to his Facebook post detailed what they do for the holiday season.

A flood of responses show how those who celebrate Christmas as either a cultural or a religious holiday, now incorporate their own family traditions and dynamics into the holiday. As well, the evolution demonstrates that as the US becomes more diverse, so do its winter holiday festivities.

Traditions spanning culture, religion and ethnic backgrounds

“The time around Christmas is such a special time because rather you believe in Jesus or not, there is a sense of magic in the air where we all can gain inspiration and frankly, inner power,” explains Rev. A. Todd Jackson, founder of The House of Purpose Spiritual Center located in Houston and Ark Republic’s spiritual adviser. 

“Whether you’re an adult or child, you’re affected by the infectious spirit. That’s why I say that this time of the year is good to embrace the happiness and the inner child we all have that imagines the impossible.”

Added to rediscovering the inner youth is opening up to how traditions have grown and splintered in the US. Respondents talked about combining culinary traditions such as Soulfood and Mexican holiday mainstays, to learning how to celebrate in separate families who carry on radically different customs.

Pajama jams

Pastor Palmer’s network detailed customs that are far removed from the hyper-capital, Christmas promoted for years. For some, something as simple as donning the same clothes showed family togetherness. Several said the following:

Cheryl Sutton On Christmas Eve, everyone in the house goes to bed in new pajamas.

Erin Williamson We did new pjs too. Dad made a big southern breakfast every morning. The works.

Desi Tee Get new pajamas to wear on Christmas Eve before bed. Sometimes my mom would pick for us or we would. If she picked she’d wrap it up. Depending on what we got for Christmas, we’d open one gift on Christmas Eve.

Tiffany C. Graham Open up stockings on Christmas eve. In the stockings are little trinkets and new pjs. We put on our pjs, watch Christmas movies and then go out to eat afterwards we drive around and look at all the houses with lights.

For Stephanie Holloway-Baker, she fuses a pajama party with scripture: Does making the fab four wrap their own Christmas gifts count as a tradition? 🤷🏽‍♀️😂. Seriously on Christmas Eve we read the Bible and pray and do a recap/reflection of the year. Then we watch Twas the Night Before Christmas. We all wear matching pjs. This year Brandon has decided we all have to wear color coordinated silk 🙄. And the fab four all sleep together in the basement and pretty much everyone but Brianna stay up all night waiting for 🎅🏾. Lastly T Baker insists that Carrington yes 20 year old Carrington leave cookies and eggnog out for 🎅🏾.

Dalvonte Howard Open up gifts at 12 o clock am on Christmas Day . . . PJ and NBA

More than just a onesie: Pajamas and American culture

While office parties are notorious for hosting ugly sweater parties, the growing trend of matching pajamas at Christmas Eve soirees, gradually increases. As a form of family bonding and fun, exchanging gifts or performing holiday rituals are done in pajamas. So popular it has become, now families take photos in their flannel onesies. 

Pajamas are one of the more favored gifts for Christmas, but the origin of its popularity as a Yuletide present is obscure. One of the explanations is that for a long time, most of America was working class or poor. New clothes, especially around the time of the Depression, were a very generous gift; and pajamas, which were considered an unnecessary clothing item, were even more of a luxury and a mark of class. Christmas was no exception.

At one point, receiving an orange and candy for the holiday season were rare treats for children. In that, the year’s clothes given, which in some cases were pajamas, was essential nighttime wear for homes during the cold winter months. However, many did not own sleeping wear. Rather they slept in old clothes or underwear and slips. Julian Porter’s work on several families of poor whites in the Appalachians reported that they did not own pajamas.

African Americans relationship to clothes during the holiday point to hundreds of years of being improperly clothed. But, post-Emancipation shows a long history of dressing with stellar fashion that often sets trends. During slavery, on plantations, generous slaveowners rationed clothes on Christmas, according to studies by Shauna Bigham and Robert E. May looking at the Antebellum South and Christmas season. 

The more generous slave masters, though few, gifted shoes. As a result of the lack of clothing, enslaved Blacks repaired and mended clothing on Sunday. This ritual is still seen in some households. From that survival skill, old clothes, if there were any leftover, would become their nighttime wear. 

Yet, after slavery, African Americans, who were now citizens, strutted fashions in the urban metropoles from Atlanta to Harlem with panache and pizzazz. It is out of Chicago that the term, “The Stroll” was born as it indicated Blacks strutting down boulevards with their best clothes during events such as movie night or after church.

The pajamas, a more personal clothing, has been a fashion with little frills, historically; however, recent pajamas pairing in families makes it a family practice with flair and frills.

Food, fun and family

At the center of a lot of traditions are food, beverages and family fun to make the spirits bright. Responded several of Pastor Palmer’s network:

ShaRon Spry Dukes Brunch

Dominique Bryant-Grant We have a Breakfast every Christmas morning since I’ve started my own family.

Lynnecia Curry Hicks Since the childhood years, we have always attended a big family breakfast (lately we have place reference on learning our family history) and host game night and exchange gifts that night.

Kate T. Dembinski Flynn We do the main gifts and the big meal on Christmas Eve. The meal consists of soup (I always request chicken rice soup 🙌🙏❤️), summer sausage, cheeses, and crackers. We usually have some carbonated juice situation, too, as my folks don’t drink. There’s some dessert, too, usually my sister requests something (cheesecake last year, maybe?).

Christmas morning involves stockings from Santa, which include chapstick, chocolates, maybe a CD, always a t-shirt; idk my mother is a gift WIZARD and always Knows what to get (small stuff, though). Then we like, chill I guess? 😂 I’d imagine the initial motivation was for my folks to sleep on Christmas morning, but we’ve persisted with the ritual well into adulthood.

De’Ondra Nicole We usually wrap money in a ring box. We wrap it in a bigger box until the box is the size of a large appliance. We have a dice… 🎲 roll the dice and that’s how many seconds you get to unwrap with mittens 🧤 on. The next person takes the gloves 🧤 rolls dice and has a try. Keep going until the ring box is open and who ever is last gets it.

In some cases, other’s merge home country foods with classic American meetups.

Tamela Adams-Farrar Christmas Eve Italian night dinner with the family. Lots of love and laughter.

In David Johnston’s household, his Southern and Mexican dishes signify a deeper history: Fried corn mush for breakfast and red enchiladas with sauce made from scratch (dried pepper pods ) for dinner . . . The fried corn mush goes back to my great grandfather, who homesteaded in north eastern New Mexico from Georgia. The enchiladas are more recent in my immediate family. I didn’t really like turkey, and we’d just had it at Thanksgiving, so I talked my parents into a meal we all loved: enchiladas, red and green (for Christmas), but now that I have kids… we keep it simpler haha

The combination of two dishes from corn show the cross-cultural culinary influences and roots of African American and Native origins. While enchiladas are a cherished and often-made dish for Christmas in Mexico, corn mush comes from the complex food history of Black folk in the US. Anthropologist and traveling chef, Cassandra Loftlin, says that corn was an essential ration during Colonial America. “As soon as colonists settled (or stole) a plot of land, the planting of corn was almost immediate,” she tells.

Although, millet, a more digestible grain could easily switch out corn, settlers preferred corn’s ease of growing even in distressed soil. As a result, corn quickly became a cash crop.

Corn mush, which is a form of pudding that is a smoother version of grits, traces its lineage to West Africa, points out Loftlin. “Originally, grits were kernels of dried Indian corn hulls grounded and cooked in water. This food is a direct descendant of Nigerian ẹbà, a dried, grated cassava cooked in hot water and stirred with a spoon and often eaten for breakfast,” she tells.

Bring home country to gatherings

For those away from home or whose parents are not together, the holidays are split into two or more wonderful gatherings with varied traditions and culinary favorites.

Kyan Thornton We have a big dinner of seafood at my mom’s house on Christmas Eve with crab legs and escargot. My mom also makes a Dutch dessert called Boterkoek. 😋

On Christmas day we visit with my dad’s rapidly dwindling family and have a traditional Christmas dinner that my dad makes.

Samaiyah Jones Scott In EVERY duty station, state and city, we make hot chocolate thermoses, pack snacks, and drove to local holiday light locations, with the pandora R and B holiday station playing in the car. It’s the best!

Sense of belonging in an unlikely cross-cultural exchange

Christmas tradition has become something more than for Christian practitioners. Alec Greenwald invokes a tradition from the Jewish community that started in the United States: The Greenwald Jews celebrate Isanis birthday with his favorite movie at the theaters and Chinese food.

Chinese food on Christmas has become as American Jewish as apple pie,” said Robert Siegel, a host of, “All Things Considered,” on NPR. 

According to his interview with Joshua Plaut, author of author of, A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis The Season To Be Jewish, the yearly tradition of ordering or eating Chinese food stems from Chinese restaurants being the only eatery open on that day. The tradition starts in 1935 when, Eng Shee Chuck, a Chinese man, brought chow mein on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark, New Jersey. At the time, Newark had a large Jewish population, and a Chinatown right behind its city hall

Since, Jews make their way to a favorite Chinese spot to indulge in East Asian delicacies. However, for Plaut, at the center is belonging. “The Chinese restaurant was a safe haven for American Jews who felt like outsiders on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” he explains. 

“If you go to a Chinese restaurant, you become an insider. You can celebrate somebody else’s birthday and yet be amongst friends and family and members of the tribe, thereby the outsider on Christmas becomes the insider.

What would Christmas be without arts and crafts, another family favorite for some.

Christmas or winter rituals would not be personalized if you did not put your personal stank on something. Along social media timelines are tree decorating and house lighting, but sometimes, the unassuming arts & crafts give other types of meaningful engagement to families and friends.

Shelia Milton McDaniels Personalized Christmas Ornaments; Making “Christmas” cookies. It has now involved into just cookies

Kourtney D. McCormick Since I’ve started my family.. we make new stockings each year.. The current years stocking hanging on fire place.. The rest of the stocking have been added to our Christmas Decor around the house..

Jhaniqua Palmer My favorite… putting together Zachary’s kitchen until I couldn’t speak English 😂😂😂😂 but life with you is always fun and special 💕💕💕

Giving is for the soul

In the 1930s, Ted Gup, a Jewish clothier in Canton, Ohio gave $5 checks to local small businesses and families in need of some financial reprieve. Years later, his grand-daughter read hundreds of notes from townspeople expressing gratitude for her ancestor’s generosity during a holiday he did not even celebrate. This story resonates with Pastor Palmer’s simple post asking other people about their holiday traditions. At the heart of his request was to allow people to share their thoughts and good will to bring in light after a long 2019. 

“People think that giving to someone is a blessing for the other person, when really the blessing is for you. Give a homeless person $3 or $7,” encourages Rev. Todd.

Pastor Palmer posted a follow up thought on the season that summarizes generosity during this time of the year.

-Give to people who you really don’t know

-Do not cook a big meal

-Stay home and rest

-Book that last minute flight

-Put in the application to the thing you want when you should be wrapping gifts

-Bake until you have no more flour and sugar, then give it all a way . . . Do it this way because you deserve a miracle!”

In the words of Palmer, Gup’s acts, like many, “should feed your soul and do the unexpected.


Ark Republic is ending the year with a series of mixed-media stories of hope, empowerment, leadership, courage, brilliance family and affirmation. We want to enter into the New Year with a community collaboration called, “The Light Series.”

The Light Series is a month-long exploration of all things light and love. So, we invite you to walk with us. Even, we ask that you participate in highlighting those in your community who need some shine, or even yourself, your business or your superpower.

Our first week, December 1 to December 7, we will feature stories of innovators in our communities. Next, from December 8 to December 15, we share stories of inspiration from our entrepreneurs. Afterwards, from December 16 to December 25, we explore spiritual, religious and family traditions, as well as, winter rituals. Finally, from December 26 to January 1, we will end the series with stories of affirmation and forward movement in this next cycle, 2020.

If you would like to submit a personal essay, article, video, poem/spoken word or other media presentation of your work, just provide basic information and answer at least five of the questions. Once finished, send your answers and a high resolution picture(s) to the following:  [email protected].

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