December Flashback: Christmas Traditions and Pigging Out on New Year’s Eve


I don’t even know where to start. We are already over one week into the New Year and life is moving fast. The holidays came and went so quickly I didn’t have the time or will to blog.  I’ll do a quick recap here.

We spent the first part of December getting ready to get ready. Right after Thanksgiving Juan went into the attic and brought down our 12 crates of holiday decorations and the artificial tree we purchased last year.  I thought it would be a great idea to have an artificial tree so we could put it up early and enjoy it all month long.

The tree stood in the living room, and the boxes lined the hallway untouched for two full weeks. I kept wishing the tree would decorate itself and trying to find the motivation to hang a few decorations. My advent wreath was set out on the dining room table and the first two candles stayed unlit. Then Olivia came home from her first semester at college, Diego continued to ask about the decorations and I got tired of running into boxes in the hallway. Finally, mid-December we decorated and started our Christmas shopping. Bam! It was Christmas in my house!

The weekend before Christmas my family got together to make tamales. I grew up eating tamales at Christmas and for many years I would get together with my mom and grandma to make them.  Since my grandmother died two years ago we have not made tamales.  This year it was time to start our tradition again.  Olivia wanted to participate so we went to my mom’s house and learned the craft of tamale making while the men “helped” by drinking Coronas, watching football and taste testing. I guess some traditions die hard.

Spreading the masa.

My sister-in-law and I spread the masa.

Olivia earns her stripes with her first tamale making experience.

Olivia earns her stripes with her first tamale making experience.

Tamale Tasters? Traditions?

Tamale Tasters? Traditions?

Another one of our Christmas traditions involve debating how we will spend Christmas. Juan and I have celebrated a dozen Christmases together and I can safely say that we have probably spent three of them in our own house, waking up in our own bed.  That’s because every year when the kids were younger, we would have to share Christmas morning with the other parents and divide our family time between my extended family and Juan’s extended family.  That usually meant Christmas Eve dinner with my parents followed by a sleep-over at my sister-in-law’s house for Christmas morning and then driving back to our side of town for the custody exchange, mid-day. It was hectic but that became our routine. Now that the kids are older and there is more flexibility with the custody exchange we have been able to cut down on some of the Christmas day driving.

Every year I try to eliminate the Christmas Eve sleepover, and this year was no different. Juan and I wanted a nice, relaxing Christmas morning in our own house, but we were completely out-voted. The kids protested, arguing that part of the fun and “tradition” was staying up late and sleeping over to celebrate Christmas with their cousins. So, that’s what we did.  In our annual tradition, we went to an early Christmas Eve service and then returned home to hurriedly load our van with presents for both our families, and our kids, overnight clothes and sleeping bags and then drove to Orange County to celebrate Colombian style with my in-laws. The celebration involved a late night meal, dancing and a hilarious gift exchange where my mother-in-law was the big winner! The kids were right. It was really fun! I guess part of our tradition is that every year I have to complain about our “tradition.” At least this year I didn’t have to rush through Christmas Eve dinner with my parents since everyone in my family was willing to have that part of the celebration on Christmas day. Maybe that’s a new tradition.

Juan and I take a selfie in church while we wait for the Christmas Eve service to start.

Juan and I take a selfie in church while we wait for the Christmas Eve service to start.

Cousins at the annual Christmas sleepover.

Cousins at the annual Christmas sleepover.

Silliness and laughs for the White Elephant gift exchange.

Silliness and laughs for the White Elephant gift exchange.

My mother-in-law was the big winner with the knit cap and gloves. She added the pan-flute!

My mother-in-law was the big winner with the knit cap and gloves. She added the pan-flute!

Part of our Christmas eve is waiting until all the partying ends and the kids finally fall asleep so we can play Santa. Here, it's 3:30 a.m.

Part of our Christmas eve is waiting until all the partying ends and the kids finally fall asleep so we can play Santa. We’re still waiting and it’s 3:30 a.m!

Christmas day on the patio at my parent's house and relaxing family celebration.

Christmas day on the patio at my parent’s house and relaxing family celebration. Thank goodness.

New Year’s Eve was also the start of something different.  For a couple of years now I have spent New Year’s Day hosting an open house and serving black-eyed peas and posole. The black eyed peas are for good luck and the posole is because I like it.  This year we decided we wanted to host a party and switched it up for New Year’s Eve. We got together with another local family who are Colombian and combined forces. They brought over a 65 pound female pig to roast and 30 of their closest friends.

Part of our new tradition? A 65 pound pig to roast.

Part of our new tradition? A 65 pound pig to roast.

We supplied the house, the black beans, rice, platanos, along with a few other appetizers, a whole lot of left over alcohol from my 50th birthday party, and about 20 friends.  We danced, lit fireworks, and finally ate at 1:00 a.m! It was a good time for all!  So good that the party turned into a sleep-over and carried over the next day as we all sat around in my kitchen eating leftover tamales and the posole I made for New Year’s Day.

New Year's Rockin' Eve in my family room!

New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in my family room!

My mother-in-law and nephew getting ready to limbo. Who knew she was such a party animal?

My mother-in-law and nephew getting ready to limbo. Who knew she was such a party animal?

Several hours later and the pig is done. We ate at 1:30 a.m!

Several hours later and the pig is done. We ate at 1:30 a.m!

It may not be known for its curative effects for a hangover but it was still good!

Posole  may not be known for its curative effects for a hangover but it was still good!

I guess looking back at how busy we were for the the holidays, I can understand why I didn’t blog much. Remembering how wiped out I was after my New Year’s party, I can also forgive myself for waiting over a week into the New Year for my first blog post.  I have some intentions for this New Year which I hope to share with you in posts ahead.

In the meantime, I have some black-eyed peas I need to eat. Happy New Year!

A traditional New Year's food.

Our other traditional New Year’s food. 

Yes, There is a Santa Claus: Enabling My Son’s Belief Even When I’m Over It

I expected this to happen sooner or later.  After all, Diego is 9 years old and how much longer could I really expect him to buy into the Santa Claus thing? He really wants to be a believer in all the holiday fantasies.  He enjoys the magic of all of it. He even had me enabling his beliefs when I ran out on St. Patrick’s Day and bought him green gifts so he would think the leprechauns really did visit.

This year it’s not even Thanksgiving and he’s already asking about Christmas, and Santa. Honestly, I was just hoping that his belief would just fade away and this year he would admit to me that he didn’t believe in Santa anymore. Last year Juan and I drove over an hour to Filmore so that we could have what I thought would be our last “Santa Experience” and Diego could ride a Polar Express train. I figured 8 years old was really the end of the Santa fantasy.  I thought that by now he would stop believing and I wouldn’t have to do the whole leaving cookies and milk thing or sneak around and pretend Santa paid us a visit. My three teenagers stopped believing long ago, and frankly I am kind of over it.  I certainly didn’t expect Diego to ask about Santa this year, much less today. I was caught completely off guard.

On the way to school this morning Diego started asking a lot of Santa questions. He asked, “Why don’t parents get anything from Santa on Christmas? What would I want Santa to bring me?” I was not prepared to have this discussion before I had my first full cup of coffee. I just couldn’t be that creative that early in the morning. I quickly detoured that conversation by saying I had to concentrate on driving in traffic.

On the way home from work this afternoon, in the pre-holiday rush hour traffic we had a lot of time to kill.  We started talking about Thanksgiving which led to a discussion of how many days until Christmas, which of course led into another conversation about Santa.  It was dark and I couldn’t see his expression as he sat in the back seat, but he sounded sincere.

Diego: Do you believe in Santa? Be honest.

Me: Do you believe?

Diego: Yes, I believe.

Me: (Thinking) He’s still a believer?! How could I crush his belief? Even if he really just wants to believe in the magic, but doesn’t truly buy into the whole Santa thing, how could I tell him the truth? I don’t want to lie. But I don’t have the heart to ruin his fantasy. Especially now, when I am driving in traffic, and when I can’t see how he’ll handle the truth. And I’m tired. Can’t he just stop believing without me having to be the bad guy and ruin it for him? 

So, I kind of lied.

Me:   Yes,  there was a man named St. Nicolas. He would give presents to kids.

Diego:  (Not missing a beat). You mean used to be? What about now?

Me:  (Using my lawyer tactics) Well, what do you think?

Diego: I think he’s real. My friend Nelly told me she saw him once with his elf. I think his toy bag is magic and refills itself with the toys for the kids. How else could he have toys for all the kids?

Me: Yeah. (Seriously? This kid has quite an imagination. Either that or he is really playing me.)

Me:  Well, it sounds like you have it all figured out.  Oh look, a traffic accident!

Crisis averted. For now. Damn.

Christmas 2012. I thought it was the last year for Santa. I guess not.

Christmas 2012. I thought it was the last year for Santa. I guess not.


The Gift to Myself the Day After Christmas

 Now that we’ve made the last stop on our Christmas Tour 2012 (details to come), I get to do what I have been looking forward to for a long time. I get to see Les Miserables, the movie!  It opened yesterday. As you may already know from my list of 50 Things to Do Before my 50th Birthday, I absolutely love this show. I was happy to learn they were making it into a movie but didn’t hold out much hope that it would be actually good since I didn’t know that any of the lead roles would be played by actors who could sing. Javert played by Russell Crowe? Ann Hathaway as Fantine? Jan Valjean played by Wolverine? I mean Hugh Jackman.

Then I saw an interview on 60 Minutes with Hugh Jackman and I started to read all the press and even saw a couple of trailers, and I began to think this could be good. It seems I am not the only one who thinks it may be good. A lot of the reviews are really favorable too. So, I am now looking forward to seeing it really soon. Maybe even tonight, if I can get my teen girls to stay home long enough to babysit their little brother. My husband, who does not enjoy musicals, is less enthusiastic, but has agreed to come along. I know he’s looking forward to it too, because this was his Facebook status this morning:

Juan's Facebook Status

On second thought, maybe he’ll stay home with Diego, and I’ll take my teen girls with me instead.

What about you, do you like musicals? Will you be seeing Les Miserables?


Capturing a Christmas Miracle

Every year, like many families, we try to send out a holiday card. I’ve been doing this since Nico’s first Christmas, 14 years ago. Each year, my holiday card includes a photo (or several photos) and a newsletter. Yes, I am that kind of mom. The one who writes about her family in a yearly recap, although I like to think my recaps are kind of cleaver, since I try to write them in prose or to the tune of a Christmas carol.

I enjoy writing so the newsletter part of my Christmas card is usually pretty easy. However, no one in our family, or extended family, is a photographer, so the picture part of our Christmas card is a much more difficult task. This year was no exception. In fact, this year’s Christmas card photo was probably even more complicated since Erica now spends the majority of her days at her mom’s house, and it felt like we would need a Christmas miracle to get the entire family in one location, looking camera-ready.

On Sunday afternoon, Erica and Nico had to attend Confirmation class at our church. Then they had to meet with Olivia and the rest of their acolyte team to practice for the Sunday evening Advent church service. There was about a 15 minute window of opportunity to get a photo. Luckily, our church is directly across the street from a beautiful photo spot, the Pasadena City Hall courtyard. We all met at the courtyard about 2:30 in the afternoon. It was not the “Golden Hour” for photography, but the light was still really nice. In fact, when we arrived we realized we were not the only ones who wanted to take pictures. There was a fashion shoot in one area, two wedding parties, and about three other families all taking photos. We wanted to take a picture in front of the city’s Christmas tree but it was in a shaded area and would have been too dark. We opted for a spot in front of a beautiful fountain in the center of the courtyard.

Olivia offered to let us use an SLR camera that her mom had loaned her. Olivia was confident she knew how to use the timer. Juan told me I didn’t need to learn how to use the timer on my own camera since Olivia had it under control. Juan brought along his new iPhone 5. He also brought along a couple of TV trays, tripods and a cardboard box since we were going to need to set the shot up and then run into the picture. Talk about Amateur Hour. All around us there were professionals taking nicely staged family photos, and wedding pictures. Not us. Nope, we take our family Christmas photos using high-end equipment like this:

The photo "equipment" used to take our family photo.

Just to make it more interesting, we gave ourselves only 15 minutes to take a family portrait. As if that wasn’t enough pressure, the girls started bickering, Juan started stressing, and then Olivia realized she really didn’t know how to use the camera timer after all. Good thing Juan brought along his iPhone 5. He took a couple of pictures, one which was useable, but Erica didn’t like herself in it. At the last minute, and in an act of desperation, we asked a complete stranger walking through to courtyard if he wouldn’t mind taking our picture. Olivia set the camera focus, handed the camera to the stranger, and got herself into position. Then we all tried to look like we were in good cheer, and I said a silent prayer that our “photographer” would not run off with the camera. The stranger snapped two shots. One of them made it to the Christmas card. A Christmas Miracle.

Christmas Photo 2012

 How do you take family portraits? Do you send Christmas newsletters?

Wrapping up Christmas

Another year, another Christmas all wrapped. up. This year we shook things up a bit by spreading out our Christmas celebrations and gathered with family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Yeah we’re crazy like that. Usually, we do the Christmas Eve tour by going to church early, driving to my parents, where my mom hosts a Christmas Eve dinner and then heading to Juan’s sister’s house, to celebrate Colombian style, with a very late Christmas Eve dinner, and dancing into the early morning hours. Sometimes we even spend the night. Yeah, I know, we are pretty intense with all that Christmas, but that’s the way we roll. This year, we had to split up Christmas into an entire weekend event. Our Christmas Eve plate was pretty full already since Diego had to sing with his choir at the 3:00 family service, and had to be at church before 2:00 in order to robe and rehearse.

Waiting for the family service and the children's choir with my friend Julie and her daughter Ty.

It was a beautiful and fun service, very family friendly, complete with a warm-up round of carols, and an entire Christmas pageant. Every year, one of the church families with a baby, is selected to play the Holy Family. The year that Diego was born, our family was the Holy Family. Diego was just 4 months old and the girls played angels. Nico had too much stage fright to be the shepheard boy that year, but we all had a great time assuming our divine roles.

The Holy Family, Christmas 2004.

After this year’s pageant, Olivia and Erica had to acolyte at the 5:30 service, so Juan and I got to sit together and enjoy this beautiful ceremony. The church was all decked out in holiday splendor.

The church altar decorated for Christmas.

After we finally left church at 7:00 p.m. we raced home to finish packing our sleigh minivan, with overnight clothes, sleeping bags, and the posole, cheese plate, brussel sprouts, cookies and french toast casserole I had spent the morning preparing, along with all the presents we had spent the last two days frantically wapping. Santa’s sleigh had nothing on us. We were packed to the gills. I was very sad not to have Nico with us since it was his father’s year for Christmas, but I think he would have had to sit on the roof rack if he had been here.

We made it to Juan’s sister’s house by 9:00 p.m., and the party was just getting started. They like to enjoy Christmas Colombian style. Let me tell you, if you have never celebrated Navidad with the Colombians you haven’t celebrated. We graze on pan de bono, and pan de queso, delicious balls of cheese, and bread, which are fried or baked. Drinks are served, including Aguardiente, an anise flavored drink served with lime slices. It’s kind of the Colombian equivalent to tequila, both which I enjoy, although definately not at the same time! We eat really late, and then the music gets louder, the furniture and rugs get pushed aside, and the dancing and the music begins. This year, even the kids participated!

You can watch it here: Christmas Colombian Style

This year, with so many young kids in the family, we enjoyed dancing to salsa music and my brother-in-law’s own dance party mix.

Watch us getting footloose here: Footloose

The dancing didn’t even start until shortly before midnight, and somehow these little guys had the energy to keep moving.

Diego and cousin cut some rug: Diego and his cousin dancing.

Around 1:00 a.m. Diego started getting frantic. I told him it was time to quit dancing and head upstairs to bed. He was so distressed that Santa would not come because everyone was still up dancing. He tired to sleep, but between the music vibrations and all the activity he had a really hard time. This made him even more upset because he was sure Santa wouldn’t make it to his aunt’s house. I knew Diego was still a believer, but I guess I didn’t realize he was a True Believer. He made all kinds of preparations for Santa’s visit, sending Santa his wish list, setting out the milk and cookies for him, and Diego even wrapped up a couple of his old stuffed animals to give to Santa and Mrs. Claus for Christmas. While we were in church Diego asked me to write this letter for him to leave for Santa that night.

A Christmas letter to Santa.

Finally, Diego fell asleep and Santa could work her his magic.

Santa's first stop at my sister-in-law's house.

Santa even left a footprint in the fireplace after he ate the cookies and milk and fed a carrot to his reindeer.

Santa stepped here.


Santa did not disappoint.  He even left Diego a thank you note and Diego is still a believer.

Santa remembered to leave a thank you note.

After the massive gift opening, that was over in all of 30 minutes, we had a delicous breakfast and then packed up the sleigh minivan again and headed our next stop, Pasadena, via a brief stop at my parents house. This year, the girls were with us for Christmas Eve but Juan had to get them back to their mother by noon on Christmas Day. This is one of the many difficulties of having a blended family with shared custody. Over the years we have had to learn to make adjustments, and be flexible in our scheduling, but it still doesn’t make it any easier for everyone when we can’t be all together on the holidays, and our celebrations get cut short to accomodate all the different schedules. So, we made a brief stop at my my parent’s house so the girls could say hello, and then Juan drove them to meet their mom, while Diego and I stayed behind to help with Christmas day dinner preparations and wait for more cousins to arrive. A few hours later, the cousins started arriving and we were set for Round Two of Christmas.

We had our traditional Mexican American version of Christmas dinner– prime rib and tamales on the side. Every year we make tamales with the family and my grandmother supervises mixing the masa and spreading and filling the meat. This year, perhaps because it was the tirst time she wasn’t here to do it with us, or perhaps because Christmas came too quickly, we didn’t make our own tamales. Instead, my dad and mom made a trip out to La Mascota Bakery in East LA and bought tamales. They were good, but I still prefer our homemade tamales.

My parents supervise my brother carving the prime rib roast. Tamales on the side.

After dinner, when we couldn’t put off the kids any longer, we exchanged gifts. Thank goodness that we have the sense to draw names in both sides of the families, so our Christmas gift giving has been pared down. Even though we select names, with so many in my side of the family, the Christmas tree still looks like this.

...but wait, there's more! Santa's second stop, my parents' house.

I have been to Christmas celebrations where everyone opens gifts one at a time, and each person has the opportunity to ooh and ahh over each gift and thank each person individually. It is all very civilized and refined. Yeah, we don’t do that. It is more of a Christmas gift unleashing in my family. I have tried to quell the frenzy, asking my kids to tell me who gave them the gift before they open it, but I am not always successful. I guess, after I have asked Diego to sit through the entire day of Christmas day meal preparations and the meal itself, he is more than ready to get through his presents.

Just so we don’t lose the true meaning of Christmas in all the gift giving, Santa believing, and tamale eating, we do to celebrate, my family has one more ritual we do every year, singing happy birthday to Jesus. We’ve been doing it since I was little with my own cousins and grandmother.

My cousins and I singing Happy Birthday to Jesus, circa, 1969.

We did it this year, with Diego and his cousins.

Happy Birthday Jesus

So, even though we did do things a bit different this year, spreading out Christmas over two FULL days, and not sharing the holiday with all my kids in the same place at the same time, and adding the cha cha cha, to Happy Birthday to Jesus song, it was still a very good time.

Merry Christmas everyone!