December Holiday Traditions on Staten Island

Whether Staten Island parents accent their Christmas trees with an angel and attend midnight mass to celebrate Jesus’ birth; remember the miracle of Hanukkah and light nine candles on a Menorah; or participate in the week-long Kwanzaa feast, a gift-giving celebration of African heritage, families are dedicated and enthusiastic about their longtime holiday traditions and memories.

Christmas is an annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world.

Popular modern customs of the holiday include gift giving, completing an Advent calendar or Advent wreath, Christmas music and caroling, and church services.

It is definitely a family affair at Christmastime around the Island.

“We always opened gifts late Christmas Eve with all of us in our matching PJs and in the morning we have breakfast and relax before preparing dinner,” recalled Kristen Anna Steidell of Dongan Hills.

“We are Catholic and always celebrate both the Eve and the day,” she explained. “Many times we are running back and forth to other family members’ homes to visit them. We are also Ukrainian, so we celebrate on January 7 as well, because my Baba [grandmother] always made sure the family stuck together and had a Ukrainian meal for our other Christmas celebration as well.”

Cynthia Aponte Leitner of Arden Heights celebrates Christmas Eve and Christmas day. “On the eve we open gifts after midnight mass or prayers depending on the weather, followed by tamales — Guatemalan style — then on Christmas we celebrate as well,” Ms. Leitner said. “We celebrate Three King’s Day January 6, by leaving a letter for the Kings and grass for the camels the night before.”

Michelle Squarciafico spends Christmas eve with her parents and brothers, as well as their wives and girlfriends that gather to open gifts and “eat like crazy.”

“Then we play some fun games,” explained. “Christmas day we open Santa’s presents and go to my uncle’s where my entire family– over 25 of us –get together for a big game of secret Santa, and lots of great memories.”

Cooking and baking are on the menu for Lillian Roslokken-Cipoletti who grew up in New Dorp and now resides in Oakwood.

“We still use my mom’s recipes, and a lot of the serving dishes we use were my mom’s and Grandmother’s,” she explained. “My sisters and our daughters, as well as my cousin and her daughters, get together and make Struffoli,” she recalled.

Ms. Cipoletti hosts Christmas Eve for her husband’s family. “We do pajamas on the day so everyone is comfortable. We play games after desserts. We both come from close knit Italian Catholic families, so we keep the traditions going,” she added. “All the kids help from cooking to decorating.”

Traditions exemplify other parents’ holidays.

Krystal Lynn Bergmann of New Dorp Beach said said she cherishes a tradition where her aunt put her on her shoulders to put the star on the Christmas tree.

Now, she continues that tradition with her own daughter.

“We even did it the year I was pregnant — with the help of a ladder!” she joked.

Another popular holiday is Hanukkah, a Jewish festival commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, also known as the Festival of Lights. Hanukkah is celebrated with a series of rituals that are performed every day throughout the 8-day holiday, some are family-based and others communal. There are special additions to the daily prayer service, and a section is added to the blessing after meals.

Hanukkah is observed for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev, according to the Hebrew calendar, which may occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian calendar. The festival is observed by lighting the candles of a candelabrum with nine branches, called a menorah.

Families celebrating Kwanzaa decorate their households with objects of art, colorful African cloth such as kente, especially the wearing of kaftans by women, and fresh fruits that represent African idealism. It is customary to include children in Kwanzaa ceremonies and to give respect and gratitude to ancestors.

Some parents and families use the holidays as a means of being charitable.

“We include charity in our Christmas budget,” said Lauryn Melissa of Charleston.

“My mom started doing this years ago, giving to kids less fortunate, and me and my daughter donate to animals in need.”

Christine Albano, a Staten Island-based writer, who reports on education, health care, social media, and lifestyle issues, remembers spending her Christmas holiday with her cousins and extended family members — and now enjoys the same with her three children, ages 21, 17, and 16.