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My Family’s Holiday Mosaic

The author's childhood holiday celebrations with her sister. Photos courtesy of Olivia McDougall.

By Olivia McDougall

Growing up in a Connecticut home without religious wintertime festivities, I always felt left out. I wanted to have sleepovers on Saturday nights but none of my friends ever could because they had to get up the next morning for church. The weekly Sunday school gatherings that started at age seven, forged friendships and memories of which I was never a part. I think my mom and dad noticed this and wanted to compensate for our lack of tradition. Like Chrismukkah or Festivus, we created our own entertainment. But instead of just melding menorahs and candy canes, we decided to honor a little something from every hiemal celebration and create our own.

My dad was an artist and welder whose Instagram consisted of slow motion videos of him chopping up fruit with swords he made. He was forty-eight years old with a personality that matched a teenage boy’s. When he wasn’t working in his shop, he was most likely riding our Icelandic horses, getting breakfast at a new hole-in-the-wall diner, or mountain biking on the trails behind our house. My mother, who was in marketing and the breadwinner, was fourteen years older than my father. She was raised in Woodbury under a strict Catholic roof and forced to accompany her family to a service every day before school; she didn’t want the same for her daughters. To oppose her restrictive upbringing, she adopted a lifestyle of zodiac signs and essential oils, believing in positivity and aligned chakras, things her mother never taught.

My parents’ creative tendencies and lack of tradition resulted in us building our own mosaic of holidays after my sister Georgia and I caught on to the fact that the presents from the North Pole matched the wrapping paper in our mom’s room. With our new convention, no longer believing in eight reindeer didn’t matter because the only part we took from Christmas was the gift of candy. We bought chocolates from the health food store in the center of town and dark salted caramels instead of candy canes.

In addition to Noel, we started getting to know a little bit about every religion and borrowed traditions from each. From Hanukkah, we adopted the eight nights of presents. Starting the same night as the Hebrew calendar, my mom wrapped small gifts like notebooks or five dollar Starbucks gift cards.

Dad welded together a candelabrum from blocks of his scrap metal. The sequential lighting of candles were inspired by the customs of winter solstice and of Hanukkah. Like a traditional menorah, my dad’s creation consisted of nine candle holders that we took turns lighting each night.

In this candlelight we gathered together on the floor of my parents bedroom and shared three things we were thankful for. This was our nod toward Kwanzaa, a week that honored family life and unity. For Diwali, which symbolized victory of light over darkness, we played card games. Our take was a bit different, as our cards read yoga poses, in recognition of Hinduism, that we would draw and then practice.

Turns out my childhood feelings of neglect were not because I felt left out from my friends or that my family needed to commit to an established religion or holiday in order to attain what I was jealous of. By embracing our family’s peculiarity we were able to discover something more than my seven year old self could have dreamed of.

In the end our accolades of rituals heightened our understanding of the celebratory occasions. As we maneuvered our way through the season, these calendar marked days were really just a vehicle for spending time together. Our mixed melee led me to a new appreciation for my parents and sister, who made me feel safe and cared for, a feeling worth celebrating.

The author and her sister with one of the family’s Icelandic horses.

Olivia McDougall is a 19 year old writer and artist based in New York City attending Parsons School of Design for photography. You can follow her Instagram @oliviamcdougall.

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