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Jessica Devenyns

Renewing those ties that bind for the next 365 days – three perspectives on being home for the holidays.

For centuries we have simultaneously welcomed and warded off the change of the seasons with rituals that center around familiar faces and good times. As we gather together, a banquet of emotions often bubbles to the surface. Our differing experiences of being home for the holidays are united by a common challenge: how will we strengthen, repair, and bind our ties for the next 365 days?

Making a home: a Texan Italian winter solstice
At 15, Sonya Cote left her big, Italian family in New England and hitchhiked down to Texas to search for her estranged mother. Eventually she found her, and life resumed a conventional sort of rhythm. But Sonya’s mother ultimately returned north. At 20, newly married and with a young son, Sonya had found something even more important in Texas: a community. She stayed south and set up a five-acre urban farm.

It wasn’t always easy. Every December, Sonya felt like a holiday orphan – hundreds of miles from her roots in the north, and from large gatherings and easy conversation.

So she decided to recreate these gatherings in Texas. She began with her family’s tradition of cooking outside over the open fire to celebrate the shortest day of the year. Quickly, this became a local tradition, where those who didn’t have a place to go for the holidays could join the community that Sonya had created. Today, the Winter Solstice party has grown into a festival in which neighbors, employees, friends, and local business partners take part.

Having a livelihood that depends utterly on a farm – even if it is in the middle of the city – has given Sonya a deep appreciation of the preparations and the community required to weather winter. To celebrate the success of making it through another season, she picked the Winter Solstice to open up her farm and celebrate because it is a natural event that everyone can identify with. “It’s for everyone. It’s the shortest day of the year and you can’t really deny that,” she remarks. Besides offering a banquet for her community, Sonya also builds a large bonfire – the centerpiece of the festivities. “We’re kind of burning away what’s been collected and freeing the air and space,” she explains.

Texan Solstice Party © Eden East

“We’re kind of burning away what’s been collected and freeing the air and space.”

Returning home: the last supper

Imagine the holidays in Ukraine: the long winter nights with snow swirling around your nose, little lights guiding you toward the stove in the kitchen where families gather, and, of course, lots and lots of meat on the table. This scene, while tempting for some, does not fit well with a vegetarian lifestyle. For Ukrainian born Olia Rettel, who has lived all over the world and currently resides on the outskirts of Paris, it means that family ties become strained at this time of year.

The defining holiday for Olia’s family is New Year, for which she always tries to return home to Ukraine. The holiday is a homecoming where families gather around the table, their hands stained beet red from the hours spent making pots of borscht, shuba (herring) salad, and pirozhkis – all things, she explains, that are now off limits unless adapted to be meat free. That was not an easy concept for her family to accept.

When Olia first returned to her family home after embarking on a Buddhist-inspired vegetarian lifestyle, she met disapproval. “My grandmother could not understand!” she says. Her Russian mother-in-law was similarly unconvinced of the virtues of foregoing traditional holiday fare. “On the one hand I can understand because sometimes it can just be a whim,” she explains, but tensions increased year on year.

Olia and her grandmother in the Ukraine © Olia Rettel

"My grandmother could not understand my vegetarian lifestyle!"

Olia hopes to show her entire family that her choice doesn’t mean giving up on tradition. “I can bring change. No one is preventing me from coming with some prepared dishes,” she states simply. This year she is preparing individual gift baskets for her family that she will fill until they’re brimming with French-inspired vegetarian delights like homemade tapenade, pâte de fruit, and a couple of recipes to encourage her close entourage to gain a deeper understanding of her culinary choices and Parisian lifestyle.

Re-creating home: snails in New York
“It feels like I haven’t really celebrated Christmas since I left France six years ago,” shares Magali Meunier. From Austin to New York City, Magali has weathered the holidays with friends and the occasional Skype session with her parents overseas, always missing family, traditions, cuisines, and bonds that were lost when she left France. The familial chaos that accompanies the season is, on reflection, what she misses most: those unpredictable storms of emotion so often unleashed when families reunite.

It wasn’t until Magali moved into a cozy Brooklyn loft with her partner and their Boston Terrier that she found the spirit of Christmas again. Her partner is Canadian and there were new traditions that needed to be swapped in and tested for their longevity in their budding family. Magali discovered the delights of Canadian beer as an accompaniment to family meals.

Now the couple have moved into their new house in the woods of New York, Magali finds herself indulging in “those teeny tiny traditions” of her own past back in France. She is recreating familiar scenes step by step: sipping mulled wine in the brisk countryside air, searching for local Christmas markets to wander in the evenings, and preparing escargots with butter and herbs. “I actually wouldn’t mind spending Christmas just us by the fire,” she says.

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