Maybe you spend every Christmas Eve at Denny’s. Maybe your great-aunt sings a strange little song while dishing out a secret rugelach recipe on the third night of Hanukkah. Maybe your family skips the Thanksgiving turkey in favor of a pancake feast. However you spend the holidays, most families cleave to some highly specific food-related ritual. If nothing comes to mind, feel free to create your own—we’ve included a few of ours below.
My mom always makes Pillsbury Orange Cinnamon Rolls on Christmas morning. I’m not sure why; they’re not particularly festive and are literally just cinnamon rolls with orange icing. I’d imagine it has something to do the minimal prep time required—you just pop ’em out of the pressurized tube, bake ’em for a few minutes, and top ’em with orange-flavored icing while your three kids run screaming around the Christmas tree trying to stick decorative bows onto one another’s butts. Now, I’m getting close to 30, but I still can’t imagine a Christmas morning without those sticky-sweet rolls. —Lillian Stone, staff writer
From before I was born right on up through 2021, my parents have hosted Christmas Eve. It’s a great gig, really: on what can often be a bitter, snowy evening, people come straight to us. Our Christmas Eve meal often features typical holiday fare—casseroles, tenderloin, approximately 56 forms of holiday fudge for dessert—but the night before the party, we always went out for American Chinese food. There were a few reasons for this annual Christmas Eve-Eve tradition: for one thing, the house was in pristine condition for the next day’s party and messing it up with crumbs and spills would have required penance beyond what a pair of teenagers could offer. For another, the fridge was too crammed with Pyrex dishes of pretzel Jell-O and punch bowls full of seven-layer salad to fit any everyday inventory from which we would have cobbled together a weeknight meal. So, on December 23, it was a table for four at Magic Wok. We just had to make sure we didn’t order too much, because there was no way we were bringing home any leftovers. —Marnie Shure
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My holiday meals are always a very distinct mix of Mexican food and the more traditional Americana. Starting off with Thanksgiving, for example, there was a time when my grandma would stuff a chicken rather than a turkey and the stuffing was actually a picadillo. In Latinx cultures picadillo is ground beef mixed with onion, peppers, and seasoning. No bread crumbs in sight for that stuffed bird. The mixture varies by culture and family recipe, but the overall star is the ground beef.
Next to this stuffed chicken would be Mexican rice, Pillsbury biscuits, a ham, mashed potatoes, corn, maybe a lasagna or some sort of pasta dish, and a green salad. I know what you’re thinking: “Lasagna is not American, it’s Italian.” You’re absolutely right, and it is completely essential to my holiday. I haven’t even mentioned the stuffing my dad brought into the mix when we transitioned to being traditional turkey roasters. That stuffing has a mix of Italian sausage and Mexican chorizo; you’d think we have some sort of Italian roots, but nope. — Angela L. Pagán
Prior to the pandemic, my massive extended family (one time we counted, it was over 70 people) would all chip in with a giant potluck. Our version of Thanksgiving was one for the ages, since there’d be such a variety of food, from multiple types of kimchi and banchan to ham to mashed potatoes to turkey and lots of gravy. But in the past five years or so, someone’s started bringing White Castle.
Yes. White Castle. I listened carefully once as everyone grumbled about fast food being included in this gorgeous spread, then I watched the sliders disappear, one by one, faster than anything else on the table. I don’t think my uncles and aunts ever eat White Castle in their daily lives, so having it at Thanksgiving is a secret treat for them.
I have to admit, I always take some sliders too, and they have their place on my plate next to some homemade kimchi. And yes, I think the whole thing is hilarious, because the White Castle always upstages all that other shit we put all the work into. —Dennis Lee, staff writer
There’s always been one guarantee on Christmas morning: an apple and an orange in my stocking. Yes, there would always be other goodies too whether in the form of candy or gift cards or other small trinkets, but those would vary year to year. It’s a tradition that culturally is said to have started during the Great Depression when presents were fewer and farther between, and it served a similar purpose in my family when our finances (er rather, Santa’s finances, since he’s the one who deals with the stockings, after all) would be in flux around the holidays. No matter how many gifts are under the tree or how stuffed those stockings are, I can always rely on my trusty Christmas fruit, a nutritious snack to start off the day of indulgence. —Brianna Wellen, associate editor
Since my husband and I have spent most of our professional lives working in the service industry, the holiday season was only ever associated with long hours, aching backs, and crippling exhaustion. Not only that, but as professional recipe developers, we start eating Thanksgiving food (and a lot of it) in May. I’ve been sick of holiday food since before Pumpkin Spice season started back in August. When you don’t fall into everyone else’s traditions, you make your own.
This Thanksgiving, we’ll be having an early Charlie Brown–style supper with popcorn, jelly beans, and buttered toast, followed by a movie marathon with plenty of snacks. Not sure about what we’re doing for Christmas or New Year’s yet, but we know that they, too, will involve a large quantity of snacks. No matter how our holidays pan out from year to year, snacks will always be our constant, and the only tradition we give a damn about. —Allison Robicelli, staff writer