Turkey or ham for Thanksgiving? What to cook for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? What hot new toy are the kids begging for this year? There can sometimes be a little drama when attempting to plan the “perfect” holiday. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from the year 2020, it’s that plans can be uncertain.
While the holidays are a time of great joy, the American Psychological Association says that everyday issues are magnified at the holidays by the added expenses, travel, and family dynamics. Throw in a worldwide pandemic and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and it’s easy to see why many people are taking a more simplified approach this year. Four Abilene families are focusing less on the material and turning toward family and faith.
When most children think of the holidays, Santa and his reindeer usually come to mind. However, for Kim and Jonathan Castereno’s children, January 6 is just as special as December 24.
“The kids always look forward to King’s Day,” said Kim, who explained that the day is significant especially in the Latino community and was a special part of her Christmases growing up in Mexico.
For many Christians, particularly those of Catholic and Anglican traditions, the Christmas season doesn’t officially end until the 12th day of Christmas on January 6. Known as the Feast of the Epiphany or the Three King’s Day, the holiday commemorates the culmination of the Wise Men’s journey to meet the baby Jesus, as told in the Gospel of Matthew.
Kim said that in Mexico, boxes are left outside the home’s front door on January 5 to be discovered filled with presents the next morning, symbolizing the gifts the Magi bestowed on the Christ Child.
However, in the spirit of practicality, the Castereno children leave their shoe boxes outside their bedroom doors.
“The Three Wise Men are as important to our kids as Santa,” said Kim, who added that in recognition of Epiphany, the family also keeps their holiday decorations up during this time.
Other traditions run deep in the Castereno household as well.
“Thanksgiving is the time we plan what we are going to do for Christmas and draw for Secret Santa gifts,” said Jonathan. “We have a large extended family who live throughout Texas and California, so it takes some coordination.”
In addition to Secret Santas, Christmas Eve also includes White Elephant gifts, lots of food and a midnight church service.
“The holidays are about being with family. Mass is really important to us and is something we have been doing for years,” Jonathan said. “Also, the kids like to decorate the house and help put up the tree and do the advent calendar.”
For the Castereno family, their Catholic faith informs much of what they hold dear during the holidays – something they feel is important to impart to their children.
“Of course kids are always wanting something, but we try to show them that Christmas isn’t all about gifts, that it’s a time to celebrate the birth of Christ,” Jonathan said.
They will always have something to unwrap, thanks to his grandmother.
“She makes between 15 and 20 dozen tamales herself, so if there aren’t gifts, we will always have tamales to unwrap.”
For Abilene hair stylist, Sara Blackburn, home and traditions are what have – and will continue – to define the holiday season.
“We have a really close family and especially now, the times we have together really mean a lot,” said Blackburn, who has three boys, two of whom attend college out of town.
A single parent, Blackburn said the holidays will be even more significant this year because all three of her children will be under the same roof, after being apart for the past several months.
“It will be really special to me and also to the grandparents and cousins, who I know are looking forward to seeing the boys at the same time,” she said. She is looking forward to seeing how her sons’ relationships with one another evolved as they transition into young adulthood.
“When Conner, who is now a junior at the University of North Texas, left and came back for the holidays, it was fun to see how the boys really enjoyed and appreciated their time together,” she said. “This year, Jackson will be coming home from his first year at Oklahoma State University, so it will be even more special to have them together. I think they’ll both really enjoy seeing Harrison, who is a junior at Abilene High.”
Blackburn describes her home as the “holiday house,” and always enjoys including friends and neighbors in their celebrations, which usually involve helping out with the ever-present jigsaw puzzle.
“We always keep a puzzle going throughout the week leading up to Christmas, and as friends and family come and go, everyone works on it a little bit,” she said.
“Including others has always been really important to us,” she said, adding that another Blackburn family tradition has lived on since her childhood.
“Ever since I was little, my dad always put up the Christmas tree, and even though he’s now in his 70’s, he still puts my tree lights up every year when we decorate the weekend of Thanksgiving,” she said.
Blackburn said that this year especially she and her boyfriend, Eddie White, are trying to keep expectations “realistic,” and focus on the significance of family.
As a hairstylist, Blackburn was out of work for seven weeks, and White, an operations supervisor at United Oil and Grease, was unemployed from February to July.
“We both definitely felt the impact of the shutdown,” she said. As a result, the couple and their extended families plan to focus more on experiences rather than gifts.
“Gifts are secondary – we will try to keep expectations realistic and really value our time together,” said Blackburn, who stressed that Christmas Eve candlelight church services are and will continue to be an important part of the holidays.
While the Blackburn family calls Beltway Park’s North campus their church home, she said they have attended other candlelight services over the years.
And if Christmas Eve services are online?
“Then we will do online church. The main priority is us being together and focusing on why we are all celebrating in the first place.”
For newlyweds Morgan and Nelson Crow, peppermint bark and the Dallas Cowboys are an integral part of the couple’s holiday celebrations.
“There has always been less of an emphasis on gifts and more on family, and that includes lots of cooking and definitely watching the Cowboys after lunch on Thanksgiving,” Morgan said.
The mess aside – “there is flour everywhere” – Morgan enjoys the tradition of making her mother’s peppermint bark recipe to share with friends and family.
Morgan and Nelson, who were married on June 13, are looking forward to their first holiday as a married couple and hope to pass on some of their families’ traditions to their future children.
“My mom would always buy a special ornament for my brother and me, and that’s something Nelson and I have been doing for each other the last couple of years and definitely want to do when we have kids,” she said.
She added that, “my dad would always read the Christmas story from the Bible on Christmas Eve and we kids would always get to open one present. That was always
really fun and special and it’ll be nice to do that with our kids one of these days.”
For the newlyweds, the holidays are a time to connect with extended family that they don’t see on a regular basis.
“It’s like a big reunion,” Morgan said. “My grandparents are divorced, so Thanksgiving and Christmas are the only time we get to see that part of the family.”
This year, however, with the threat of COVID-19 still looming, the Crows don’t know what the holidays will bring, and if they will get to enjoy a face-to-face reunion with their extended family.
“A lot of our relatives are elderly and fall into that vulnerable population, so we don’t know if it will be safe for them to travel,” she said. “It’s a wait and see kind of a deal.”
For Morgan, Nelson and their families, the holidays are and will continue to be about sharing meals and making memories.
“We hang out, eat lots of food and just enjoy being together,” she said. “I think this year, especially, just spending time with family will be even more meaningful.”
Many people may indulge in a little too much stuffing and dessert on the holidays, but Emerald Cassidy and her family don’t have to be concerned with holiday calories, since they will inevitably be worked off with a fun – but competitive – game of soccer.
Cassidy comes from “a huge soccer family,” and said their Thanksgiving game is anything but laid back.
“My dad played for a team in Mexico and is a referee and my brothers all played for Abilene High, so when we get together it’s really competitive,” she said, adding that the group even chooses teams and goalies.
To describe her father, Luis Cardenas, as competitive, would be an understatement, Cassidy said.
“My dad is 69 and loves being out there. Sometimes he’s the referee and sometimes he’s a player. It’s so much fun and all the younger kids especially enjoy these games so much.”
And while who reigns supreme on the soccer field is up for debate, Cassidy said there is no doubt who is in charge in the kitchen during November and December.
“My mom, Juana, is definitely MVP of the holiday menu and she assigns everyone a role and tells them something to bring,” she said, adding that her mom’s meticulous meal planning reflects the spirit in which she was raised.
Cassidy said her mother’s cooking reflects her family’s Mexican heritage, and includes everything from the traditional Spanish appetizer, tapas, to mussels, empanadas and shrimp.
“My mom puts so much of herself into her cooking and we are so lucky to be the recipients of that love,” she said.
Traditions – whether the Dallas Cowboys game around the family meal is coordinated, a soccer game, or enjoying a holiday meal – are the most meaningful part of the season. One tradition on Christmas Eve involves everyone trying to stay up until midnight to officially welcome Christmas Day. Every family member gets “immersed in the moment.” The television is turned off and the family enjoys playing games – except for Monopoly, which they “had to retire because it got too competitive.”
“My parents, who were both born in Mexico, live in the same house they bought when they first moved to Abilene and all of my siblings, except for one brother in San Antonio, all live in Abilene,” said Cassidy, who added that, even though her family is geographically close, the social distancing restrictions for COVID-19 have made it a challenging year.
Although her immediate family kept their jobs during the shutdown, they struggled with only being able to see some relatives through a computer screen.
“My sister had her third child in April and in our family, births are a huge event – we have a big family gathering with lots of food at the hospital – but this year, we didn’t get to see the baby until a month after she was born,” Cassidy said. “My sister and I live less than a mile from one another, so not holding or seeing the baby was hard.”
Even though Cassidy, her husband and their extended family haven’t seen each other face-to-face as much as they normally would, they still found ways to connect, and are looking forward to – and hoping for – a face-to-face holiday season.
“If we had to socially distance ourselves from one another, we would need a football field to maintain six feet apart,” she said.
“If anything this year has taught us, it’s that there’s so much that you can’t predict, which is why just being together during the holidays is so important,” she said. “We are all so much more thankful and more intentional – where it may have been easy to grab a gift card for someone, really putting the personal touch on something and spending time with loved ones is what makes the holidays special.”
By Molly Hill
***Looking for a Family Activity? If you want a fun family activity to do in the cool winter days, visit our website for free printables to color! Go to abilenescene.com/printables to download the free holiday printable!