Ann Arbor Families’ holiday traditions (other than Christmas)

. December 8, 2015.

Out shopping, watching television, even just taking a stroll around downtown – no matter where you go or what you do this time of year, the holidays are in your face. For most of us, that’s great – between spending time with family and friends, giving and (let’s face it)  receiving presents, and getting some well-deserved time off of work and school – the season is awesome.

But as the lack of reindeer on Starbucks’s red cups has made clear, Christmas is far from the only holiday going on right now. Here’s an inside look at families who celebrate different holiday traditions – because the most important thing about the season is spending time with the ones closest to us.

Russian Orthodox

Father Gregory Joyce

Many of the seasonal activities surrounding the Russian Orthodox faith will seem familiar, but there are some major differences, according to Father Gregory Joyce of St. Vladimir Church, located in Dexter. 

“What many people find most interesting about what we do is that we use a slightly different calendar,” said Father Joyce. “There’s actually a 13-day difference, so we do celebrate on December 25, but for most people, that equals January 7.”

The timing of the celebration isn’t the only difference. Christmas can be loud, with packed shopping malls, blinding decorations, and non-stop jingles – not to mention the in-laws in town. The Russian Orthodox faith places an emphasis on peaceful, quiet reflection. That emphasis is reflected in the Christmas Mass service.

“A lot of services begin with fanfare – singing, bright lights, and so on,” said Father Joyce. “But for ours, the church is dark, lit only by candlelight, and there is just a single person singing hymns. It’s to remind us that Christ was quietly in a manger.” 

Not that there won’t be fun events going on during the season – celebrations just happen after January 7. The highlights include a formal ball that’s open to the public on January 15, and the Nativity Yolka. The Yolka (which means evergreen tree) is a children’s celebration that takes place under a manger tree decorated with lights that represent the lights in heaven on the day Christ was born.

“It’s like a Christmas party but not really,” said Father Joyce of Yolka. “There’s a whole script. Kids have to prepare themselves for Santa Claus to come and then usually have to perform a short song or poem that they have prepared with their parents. And of course they go home with candy and presents.”

For more information about church services visit 


Marla Biederman and family

Chanukah is known as the Festival of Lights. Marla Biederman celebrates with her family based on when it falls on the Hebrew calendar, as the date changes each year. 

“We celebrate the holiday by lighting a menorah and saying prayers each night, eating latkes which are potato pancakes, spinning dreidels and exchanging gifts,” said Biederman.  

Biederman’s aunt and uncle have an annual white elephant exchange each year.  “It is always a lot of fun and we eat traditional Chanukah foods such as latkes and applesauce, open presents and just enjoy each other’s company,” said Biederman. Some families take the time to recount the history of this winter holiday which can add extra significance. 

“The history of Chanukah basically dates back to when the Maccabees fled opression and were able to make a small amount of lamp oil last for 8 days which is why Chanukah lasts for 8 days,” said Biederman. The holiday recognizes the miracle of the oil and not the military victory or a glorification of war. Instead, it is a time of reflection on how far people have come.  

“The meaning of the holiday for my family is the remembrance of what the Maccabees went through to save the oil in order for it to last 8 days, to give back to the community and of course, the togetherness of family and friends,” said Biederman.  

Like all winter holidays, families love Chanukah because it brings them together with family and friends. Some like to sing Ma’Oz Tzur which means Rock of Ages and I Have A Little Dreidel. The letters on the dreidel are the first letter of each word in the statement Neis Gadol Hayah Sham which means A Great Miracle Happened There.  

“I cherish those moments and always hold them close to my heart,” said Biederman.

St. Lucia Celebration

Ingela and Thomas Oginsky

To represent the start of the holiday season in Sweden, St. Lucia’s Day is celebrated on December 13th.  St. Lucia was a young girl who was killed due to her faith for bringing food to oppressed Christians.  She was known for wearing candles on her head so her hands were available to carry things. Lucy means light so the name is fitting. December 13th is conveniently also the winter solstice. Girls wear white dresses and red sashes around their waists with a crown of candles on their head made of evergreen branches. 

Ingela and Thomas Oginsky look forward to this holiday every year.  “We love celebrating Swedish holidays because it strengthens the bond to Sweden for the children,” said Oginsky.  

The Oginsky’s like to tell the story of the holiday. “The history of Lucia is a little mysterious, especially her ties to the Swedish way of celebrating as she was a saint from Syracuse, Italy who supposedly plucked out her own eyes as they tempted a young suitor and she ended up getting killed,” said Oginsky. The holiday, says Oginsky, is essentially a celebration of light returning. 

“At school growing up there would be a pageant with a girl voted to be the Lucia and there would be song performances at the school and at various public places with the Lucia and a whole group of girls and guys singing along.”

There are some unique traditions associated with this day. “Lucia in our home is mostly celebrated by the girls getting up, making coffee, putting out previously baked lussekatter or saffron buns, ginger snaps, cinnamon rolls and then delivering this yummy breakfast to each room in the house, waking the house up with song, coffee and goodies,” said Oginsky, who added that the festivities continue until late. “At night Lucia might be celebrated by having a gloggkvall where you get together drinking glogg or mulled wine and have ginger snaps and other munchies.”