Including Your Heritage During the Holidays

During the holiday season, many homeschool families like to take a break from the formal lessons and instead include a lot of wonderful ideas that will encourage your children in the heritage that you have: in different cultural areas and just the great ideas of the holiday season. Let’s give you some of those ideas for including your heritage today. Joining me in our discussion today is Amber O’Neal Johnston.

Sonya: We want to talk about incorporating some good ideas during the holiday seasons for including your heritage and cultural encouragement and the atmosphere that we like to set for our children. Give us some ideas on that, would you? 

Amber: Yeah, definitely. When I think about culture during the holidays, or anytime, but especially when we have a little downtime, when things are slower and we’re being more intentional, I think of culture in three areas: I think about our ethnic culture. Being an African-American family, there are a lot of things we do during the holidays that are very joyful and enriching. And then we have our American culture that sometimes we don’t even recognize. I didn’t understand, until spending Christmas outside of the United States, that a lot of the things we do are specific to our nation. And then we also have our family cultures, and our family cultures may be pulling in aspects and elements from who-knows-where that are traditions that we do within our own home. So I start out thinking from those three areas. 

Sonya: That seems to widen the perspective, rather than just, “We’re only going to do these things.” It gives us permission to pull from a lot of different areas that fit our family. 

Amber: Definitely, and sometimes, it’s the actual activity that you’re doing that makes it cultural, but a lot of times it’s the way that you’re doing it. 

Sonya: Give me an example. 

Amber: Well, for us, we listen to a lot of music during the holidays, and we read even more poetry. We pull back on some of our other lessons. We’re not doing our formal lessons, but we’re still reading a lot of poetry and a lot of books and stories that we annually read at holiday time, but they are rooted in African-American culture. So, our Christmas music doesn’t always sound the same as what I might hear in a department store or at someone else’s home. We use a lot of really soulful carols and hymns and songs and poets who have written a lot of holiday-specific poetry, or even just wintertime poetry. One of our favorite books is called Christmas Gift and it has a bunch of small, short stories in it from long-ago traditions in the African-American community, and I think that’s something we read every year. We’re still reading beautiful books, we’re still listening to wonderful music, and we’re reading poetry and reciting poetry, but the source of those things comes directly from our cultural heritage. 

Sonya: That makes total sense, because we do the same thing. We have certain books that we read at Christmas time and holiday time. We have certain poetry that we like to go back to and revisit. We have certain music that, you know, you put it on when you start setting up the Christmas tree, and it flips that switch in your head. So, it’s the same thing, but it’s tailored to our different families. But, also, I think it doesn’t have to be only that and nothing else. 

Amber: Oh, definitely. That’s just a part of it. And for me, I sometimes forget that starting some of these ideas and traditions was intentional. It didn’t just happen naturally. A lot of times people feel like they’ll just naturally have this home filled with all this beauty. And I think it is now, because it’s become habit, right? But in the beginning, I remember making a choice that there were going to be these things that the Johnston family would always do. Some of them were things I inherited from my family and melded with things my husband had grown up with, or that my mother-in-law taught me. But a lot of them were just brand new and I said, “We’ll do these things this way.” So people who haven’t had as much of this type of cultural experience, or encouragement during the holidays, don’t have to feel like, “Oh, it didn’t come naturally to me,” or, “We don’t have that.” You can create it. 

People who haven’t had as much of this type of cultural experience, or encouragement during the holidays, don’t have to feel like, “Oh, it didn’t come naturally to me,” or, “We don’t have that.” You can create it. 

Sonya: Yes, and you don’t have to create it perfectly from the beginning. Because I remember thinking, “The Shafer family is going to do this during the holidays,” and I tried it and it fell flat. It was like, “Okay, we’re not going to do that, but we can tweak it a little bit, and come up with something that does work well.” 

Amber: Yeah, and that works even with the atmosphere—the visual atmosphere—of the home. So, I imagined that our home would be fully decked out, but as an adult I’m like, the decking is expensive! (laughs) I didn’t quite realize that my parents had collected so many wonderful things over a lifetime of parenting. I took a step back and decided instead of always feeling that I’m lacking in holiday decor, or the pretty dishes that I want, we’ll make a big deal of how each year we add one thing. So, it’s become that we’ve embraced our brokenness and decided to say, “Okay, well, there’s one thing that we’re going to add to our holiday collection this year,” and we get excited about it. And it feels like, changing this idea of lack, the “I wish I could do all of these things,” to an anticipation of our growing collection. 

Sonya: I love that idea. What are some other ways that you incorporate the different multi-dimensional cultural aspects into your holiday season? 

Amber: Well, I think “food” right away, you know. And there have been years where food was our handicraft also. So, that was really interesting. It was a double-layered thing.

Sonya: So like, cake decorating? 

Amber: Yes, cake decorating, but even just baking in general, or learning to cook. We used that as a life skill, and so we hadn’t been necessarily making craft-type things. We had been focused on life skills, so to be able to integrate that in but with holiday cooking, holiday baking, was different because we’re often baking for a crowd, and we also have our special dishes. So, that’s where our family recipe book comes out. My grandmother always made a chocolate pie, and no one can make a pie just like that, not even me after all these years of practicing. But we try, right? Year after year we have certain dishes that our family eats on Christmas morning that are prepped the night before. There are these traditions around food. For us some of it is cultural, because some of the foods are foods that you find commonly in an African-American kitchen, but they’re not all; some of them are just our family foods that we eat. We have our music playing and we’re using these different foods and we’re preparing and enjoying these different foods, having family over, or friends that are like family. “Our framily,” which is what we have locally. 

Sonya: “Framily,” I like that! 

Amber: Yeah, that’s what we have more than family nearby. And that becomes a part of our tradition as well—even the way we give gifts. An important part to point out is that your traditions can change. Even if you decide that this is what you’re going to do, they don’t have to change because it didn’t work, but just because you’re in a different season. Maybe that was right for that season. I remember when my kids were little, we would give just a few things. It was something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read. So four things, and I loved that. I was like, “We’re going to do this forever,” then they got older, and I was like, “Well, you need two things to wear and you definitely don’t need another book,” and I was like, “Oh no. It’s not working.” 

Sonya: You broke the formula. (laughs) 

Amber: Yeah. So I thought, “Amber, this is silly. Just choose the things that you know will make that child’s heart sing, that you know is the right thing for them, and you don’t have to feel that it has to remain formulaic, which was easier for you to do, and now it’s hard.” Sometimes there are those ideas, too, that we can have as a tradition, and we can release them and start something new. Whatever reduces stress is a good way to go, whether it’s something you had planned or not. 

Choose the things that you know will make that child’s heart sing.

Sonya: Yeah, and I think Charlotte even talks about Mother making time to get more rest during these holiday seasons, because it can be extra stress. You’re out of your routine, and the kids can go bonkers because they don’t have their routines, and that just adds to the stress. So extra rest should be a good tradition for all of us. 

Amber: I think so too. I can understand the wisdom in that for sure. 

Sonya: I love how you said you had all of these different plans and different cultural things you could have brought in, with the presents and everything, but then you were able to simplify it to say, “What will bring this child the most joy?” I think if we can keep an overarching idea like that in mind as we enter the holiday season, it will help us keep our equilibrium, keep our balance better. So what would be that overarching idea for you? 

Amber: For us, it’s the idea that we’re celebrating and commemorating the birth of our Lord and Savior, and so everything that points us toward that mode should be something that we consider. And you can do extra other things too, just for fun. But the reason we’re having fun is because we’re celebrating. There’s something huge to celebrate here, and the other things, the musts, the have-tos, the things that get us really feeling a lot of angst are some of the things to examine. Is this part of the main idea of this season, or are these outside things that I’m bringing in that aren’t necessarily needed here?

Sonya: And also, consider the season of life. Because there could be something that one year brings us great joy, but maybe the next year we’re just not able to include that. We’ve got the new baby, and we just don’t have the energy to do it this year, but that doesn’t mean it’s a forever decision. 

Amber: Right, that’s definitely true. That was true for us last year, because I was not doing well health-wise, and I realized all the things we didn’t do. Before, we had these candles we lit all the time, and we had our special devotional books that we were going through, and we were listening to this music and studying this, and we couldn’t do any of that last year. And my kids were like, “This is so nice, Mom!” and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this is my desperate, I-can’t-do-any-better Christmas holiday season and my kids love it.” And that was very informative to me, very encouraging in a lot of ways. And I realized I really need to be careful about the doing and going and making and creating. Even though they’re all beautiful things, sometimes it’s the sitting and being, the contemplation and the time spent together, that our families may need more of. It depends, like you said, on the season. 

Sonya: So this coming season? 

Amber: It’s going to be slow for us. 

Sonya: Are you adding everything else back in? 

Amber: No, I’m not. Because I have to listen to that and I have to think, “Wow, it was so much less stressful for me.” Here I was, sick as a dog, but I wasn’t stressed. So, I think that I want to evaluate each thing. My plan is to ask the children, “Of our traditions, which ones mean the most to you?” We can talk through that, and I’ll ask my husband. I know I have a few things that are really simple that mean a lot to me; even the scent in our home is important to me. My mom would cook the oranges and cinnamon and all that on the stove. And that feels important to me for whatever reason so I’ll still do that. It’s a give-and-take in thinking about it and remaining flexible, which I feel like we say about everything. But it’s true, right? 

Sonya: Yeah, about this as well. Right. Thanks so much. 

Amber: You’re welcome. 

Sonya: We wish you a wonderful holiday season of joy and simplicity so you can focus on the joy. Thanks for joining me.