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How My Latino Family Does Christmas Differently

12/11/2014 12:00 am ET | Updated Dec 11, 2015
Daniel A Ruiz via Getty Images

Something happened the December my Cuban parents divorced and my dad remarried a white, American woman. The holidays, which had always been celebrated in the Latino tradition, began to take on dual-personalities, teetering towards the American version of stockings and casseroles that I had seen on television. As we were ushered from Noche Buena to Christmas morning, exhausted from staying up past midnight to open presents and attend mass, it felt like the only things keeping everything together were my brother and I.

It was obvious to me that my Latino and American families did things differently - especially Christmas.

From the perspective of a self-centered kid, the Americans got the holiday right. Christmas morning promised a flurry of excitement unparalleled to anything my Latino family did. There was the dream of Santa with hard-working elves delivering perfectly wrapped gifts. (Santa even had beautiful penmanship - suspiciously like my step-mom.) I felt adored and loved as a child, even if the obligatory show of gratitude for present after present exhausted me as much as midnight mass did.

Not surprisingly, I increasingly grew up feeling like my Latino Christmas was the weird one. And it wasn't just what I heard from my new family, but from all the families in my life. Latino Christmas traditions weren't depicted in mainstream media. My friends were amazed that we roasted pork and ate congri on Christmas Eve. And try explaining platanitos fritos to a group of 10-year-olds. ("Fried bananas?!? What's THAT?") Discussing the nuances of flavors between tamales that had been gifted us by friends seemed out of the question.

The most bizarre thing to my peers was that I was still awake at midnight -- didn't I know Santa wouldn't come until I was in bed?! - and that my Latino family members stayed asleep until noon on Christmas morning, tired from celebrating both their year and their faith. To save face and not anger their parents, I kept Santa's true identity concealed from my sweet American friends. During those years, I had to learn my identity as a bicultural Latina navigating two holidays, two languages and two families.

Now, from the perspective of a parent raising biracial children to value all parts of their unique identities, I yearn to share my Latino Christmas traditions. La Navidad for Latinos is not solely a child-centered occasion designed to shock and awe all the senses. Like the entirety of Latino cultures, Christmas celebrations are rooted in family. They assume that children should contribute, too. It's a beautiful thing to grow up with the feeling of having purpose; that, even as a child, you influence the collective happiness of your family.

Just last month, my husband and I sold our house in Vegas, packed up our stuff and moved back to Southern California to raise our mixed Latino children closer to our families. Even though I've been hosting Noche Buena in our home since our oldest was two years old, this will be the kids' first Christmas with their Latino family. I'm excited for them to feel the richness of my Cuban culture during the holidays - the family, the music, the savory food - but their Christmas will also be different and as unique as they are.

With influence and heritage abound, my mixed Latino family continues to redefine what Christmas is like for us. The day after Thanksgiving, my daughter and I decorated my Cuban mother's house with reams of ribbon and strings of lights unlike anything her home has seen before. We hung stockings, set up two Christmas trees, made DIY decor and created a home that would delight any holiday guest - a skill I learned solely from my American step-mom - all while listening to classic Spanish music that my grandfather loved. After that, my husband and I planned out when we would attend his mother's traditional African-American Baptist church to ensure our young children also understood the true meaning of the season. This is our Christmas.

Yes, my Latino family does Christmas different. Each year and generation seems to massage how the rituals look and feel, but I hope the essence of our holiday season always remain intact: a celebration of heritage and tradition, of family (however that word is defined) and a collective obligation to each other that transcends self and materialism.

If that's different, then I embrace it.

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