Holiday traditions out of eastern Iowa, from conventional to crab legs

Everyone celebrates the holidays differently. — illustration by Jordan Sellergren

The holiday season comes on us in a hurry: travel, shopping, social obligations. Some thrive on the hustle and bustle, some find it overwhelming — but no matter our traditions or beliefs, it’s hard to avoid the inevitable feeling of encroachment. It can come in the form of crowded stores or in the incessant bell ringing near a red kettle. Even when it’s unseasonably warm, we can feel that cold creep in.

Love the season or hate it, sooner or later we want to crawl into our caves, stare into the fireplace and sit, slow down, warm up and ruminate. All the days of the year have blurred past, for good or ill. We each have our own personal collection of presents and presence. Holidays can be bittersweet — especially for those who have lost family or live far from the family they have.

Of course, distance and loss during the “most wonderful time of the year” can draw us to dwell in nostalgia, fond memories or — sometimes — doubt or remorse.

Why does this time of year have so much power to grant us joy and sorrow? How do our experiences change our holiday celebrations? What part of our psyche can mine so much joy and so much anguish from the same time of year, the same source?

In ancient times, when Yule and Solstice celebrations were the common European festivals, these were times of reclaiming hope. The festivals to celebrate the dead were over, the harvest was in, the world was darkening. The cold of winter had settled in, and people needed to be reminded that something new would come: warmth, growth, light. Spring.

Later, Christianity would make this time into its own celebration of light coming back into the world, built on the existing traditions of local folk. But the essence of this period of every year, the way in which we mark the season, remains largely the same.

In some ways, this is the time of endings. Of reflection, which can be as cozy as sitting in front of a warm fire while a gentle snow falls outside a frosty window, or as cold as a blizzard wind.

For some, the winter holidays are a time of gratitude, close family and feasting. Of tradition. Yet others see it as an opportunity to celebrate and reflect with one’s chosen family, rather than the biological one. For some, just an excuse for a day or two off from work, to watch favorite holiday movies, or football.

No matter our family or personal tradition, we look at the holidays through the lens we choose. We celebrate, we mourn, we do a little of both. I asked four eastern Iowa residents what this holiday season means to them, how they celebrate, what home means. This is what they said:

My family’s holidays are about as traditional as you can imagine. We always make enough cookies and candy to last the entire season. The house is decorated with all the traditional elements: giant blue spruce tree, stockings over the fireplace and garland around the staircase. The same funny movies are watched every year, and the same beautiful hymns are sung in church. Our holiday celebrations are similar to millions of other Americans, but I appreciate them now more than ever. Our family is still young enough that my siblings and I don’t have many holiday traditions separate from our parents and the home we grew up in. Soon that will change, and our lives and families will diverge. But I know that even if we can’t be there in person, the holiday season will always cause us to remember home.

–– Leah VanDenBosch

Coming from a Korean American family, the winter holiday season wasn’t celebrated in a conventional manner. We rarely ate turkey during Thanksgiving and Christmas presents weren’t given due to our family financial woes. I never received any toys as a child and the earliest memory of receiving presents was when my parents used Christmas as an excuse to buy me dress clothes to be worn for church. In my 20s I celebrated holidays with friends. Some holidays were spent in solitude, perhaps isolation, just waiting for the day to end, so the hustle and bustle of everyday life could resume. Other holiday seasons were spent going out to bars and drinking, if the bar was open. This past decade we have started a new Christmas tradition. With both of my sisters getting married, we have been going to Minnesota or spending time in the Chicago area with my family and nieces.

–– Paul Rim

When my grandmother lost mobility and entered assisted living, our family took our holiday celebrations to a nearby casino. It was a bit of an experiment. Would we miss grandma’s pie? A fridge full of leftovers? As it turned out, we loved it. Traditional foods plus crab legs, 30 kinds of pie, a chocolate fountain and the cacophony of slot machines in the background: A little excessive and surreal, but fun. We returned yearly, crafting new traditions, like watching the dog shows and football on giant TVs, and each losing $20 at the slots following dessert (except for my grandma, who had unfailing luck). When she passed on, we resumed home-cooked holidays — but this year, we’ve decided to return to the casino. Frankly, we missed our new traditions, remembering how much grandma enjoyed getting out in her scooter, surrounded by family. Plus, no dishes to clean up! Jackpot.

–– Angie Toomsen

Friends. Family. Framily! That’s not a new word, but it’s one we use around our house often. When we (Jordan and Tim) found one another a few years ago, we almost simultaneously found a large group of friends that seamlessly blended family and friendship. It was a wonderful surprise and has resulted in countless happy memories. This year, we decided to start a new tradition, based around Thanksgiving. Framsgiving! We hashed out everyone’s schedules and decided who was going to bring what, progressed to just enough cooks in the kitchen as timers dinged and things came out of the oven and ended with 16 people sitting around a giant homemade table in our kitchen, filling ourselves with food and laughter and more happiness than any reasonable person could ever expect. Traditions are built around comfort and there is nothing more comforting than friends who are family — who also bring pie!

–– Tim & Jordan Arnold

K Michael Moore is, by day, a not-so mild-mannered employee of a faceless small business. By night, he’s an actor, writer, stage violence choreographer and theater director in the Iowa City area. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 233.