By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Pointer: The rich tapestry of holiday traditions

This is the 20th year Starla Pointer has written about holiday traditions that area residents grew up with. A News-Register reporter since 1982, she believes stories like these, and the Stopping By features she writes year-round, help us get to know and understand our neighbors. The more we try to understand each other, the better, she says. 


I’m somewhat envious of Rick Steves, the public broadcasting host and travel guide. He gets to visit many other countries, meeting the people, seeing the sights, tasting the food and learning about the holidays and other traditions.

I’m only slightly envious, though, because I get to do almost the same thing without ever leaving Yamhill County.

Each December, I talk with local residents who grew up in other countries for my “Holiday Traditions” series. I hear about, and share with you, what their childhoods were like in Brazil the Netherlands or other places — about 70 countries, thus far, from every continent, plus the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico and the states of Alaska and Hawaii.

They tell me what they ate for Christmas dinner, whether it was fish or goose; how they decorated their homes with lights and trees and nativity scenes; which songs they sang, such as “Stille Nacht” in the original German and other songs in other languages. And they describe who filled their Christmas wishes.
Many countries welcome Santa, like we do, or a similar jolly soul who stuffs stockings and piles presents under the tree. But in some places, Baby Jesus makes sure children have something special on Christmas. And in other areas, a witch or an grumpy man arrives instead.

Guilherme Brandao told me this year how he always knew his parents were responsible for the gifts he and his brother received at family gatherings held on Christmas Eve in São Paulo, Brazil.

And many people I’ve talked to in past years agreed they had things figured out. But they kept the secret so their younger siblings would be starry-eyed at Christmas.

Christmas is a deeply religious holiday in some countries. In others, it is less about religion and more about bonding. And in fact, extended family gatherings represent one of the greatest Christmas gifts in virtually every country.

Some places don’t celebrate Christmas at all, though. People there mark other holidays, from New Year’s Eve to the Diwali festival of lights in India.
Kate Miller, another of this year’s subjects, grew up celebrating Buddhist festivals in Bangkok, Thailand.

The grandest, held in April, is the new year’s tradition of Songkran. Miller and others threw water on each other, refreshing felt good in the hot climate.
These days, Miller attends the LDS Church and celebrates American holidays. She closes her food truck on Thanksgiving and Christmas, so she can spend those days with her family, but opens on New Year’s Day, as pleasing customers on the first day portends a lucky year.

For many people, Christmas dessert, whether it’s cake, fudge or lavishly decorated cookies, is the highlight of the holiday. They feel free to indulge in these once-a-year specialties.

Sam Aldridge, minister at the Willamina Free Methodist Church, told me he looks forward to receiving Christmas puddings shipped from England by his mother.When he was growing up in Yorkshire, he watching the brandy-soaked fruitcake ignite in the middle of the table.

He’s pretty sure American’s don’t fully appreciate this British tradition. “It’s an acquired taste,” he said.

Aldridge also introduced me to Christingle, which in his village was an orange containing a candle and decorated with red ribbon and small fruits. The orange represented the world; the ribbon, Christ’s blood; the fruit within, God’s creations, including the seasons.

The minister grew up marking Advent, as people do in many countries and religions. They light an Advent candle each Sunday leading up to Christmas.
The candles not only indicate the days of waiting, but they also represent hope, love, joy and peace — gifts everyone wants for themselves and others at Christmas. 

In Latin America and many other places around the world, including Aldridge’s England, the Christmas season lasts well into January. The “12 days of Christmas” lead up to the Epiphany Jan. 6, when the Wise Men were said to arrive at the manger bearing gifts for Baby Jesus.

Ignacio Veles of Noah’s Bakery in McMinnville told me, for a 2017 story, how he bakes special “Three Kings’ Day” cakes for that day. A little plastic baby is embedded in each cake, and the person who discovers it will be lucky in the coming year.

The Christmas season also starts well before Dec. 24/25 for residents of European countries and other parts of the world. On Dec. 5 or 6, children hope for a visit from a saint.

Joka-Elisabeth Moree, featured in this week’s Holiday Traditions story, recalled setting out her shoes in anticipation of the arrival of St. Nicholas at her home in The Hague, Holland. She left him cookies, too, plus carrots for his horse. 

She was a well-behaved girl, she said, so she didn’t fear being kidnapped by St. Nic’s crew of helpers. Rather, she expected — and received — candies and small gifts the next morning.

Her family didn’t exchange presents on Christmas itself, said Moree, who now runs the Carlton Inn. But a few days before the holiday, she and her mother walked to the drugstore to buy a small, living tree, which she covered with decorations.

One of the most interesting traditions, the Mexican Catholic celebration of Las Posadas, replicates Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethleham. It happens over several nights, Dec. 16 to 24, building to the joyous celebration of the birth of Christ.

Families in McMinnville and other parts of Yamhill County have organized Las Posadas some years, going from house to house on consecutive nights. I’ve attended several — with help from generous translators — at the San Martin de Porres Catholic Mission in Dayton. And I’ve interviewed many people who fondly recalled the special feeling of the Posadas of their childhood.

Youngsters and adults gathered in the chilly darkness, holding candles and singing as they walked from one place to another. At each night’s destination, they shared hot chocolate, cinnamon-dusted pastries and games, including the breaking of a piñata filled with candies. 

And they listened to the message of Christmas: the miracle of Christ’s arrival and the hope for salvation he represents.

Starla Pointer grew up in the ‘60s with an aluminum foil Christmas tree lit on one side by a color wheel and the other by the glow of a television set rolling news footage of the Vietnam War. Her favorite family tradition was driving down every street in her hometown of Reedsport marveling at the colorful decorations. Upon visiting Santa to field the inevitable, “So what do you want for Christmas, she would respond, “Whatever you think I deserve, Santa.” And it worked wonders with parents.


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