season of light

annual fondue feast

That’s a photo of our Advent wreath, taken during our annual raising-of-the-Christmas-tree fondue dinner. Years ago, Chris and I started the tradition of eating fondue on the evening when we put up our Christmas tree. After all the work of decorating the tree, it seemed so easy to slit open a pack of Swiss Knight fondue cheese and squeeze it into the fondue pot. Nowadays we make the fondue from scratch, and there are lots of dippables to cut, so it isn’t particularly easy. But it’s a tradition, and one which H and Lulu almost always mention when questioned about their favorite family traditions. (Mr. T isn’t so sure. He doesn’t like all that cheese–but he does love the fabulously pokey fondue forks.)

So many cultures celebrate with light during the dark of winter. Candles and lights are an important part of Christmas. They’re also central in solstice celebrations, on St. Lucia Day in Sweden, in Posada processions in Mexico, during Hanukkah, on Diwali in India, during Kwanzaa.

Back when I taught school, my classroom was quite diverse. I had many African-American students, as well as students from Mexico, Guatemala, Afghanistan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam–to name just a few. Given that diversity, I didn’t feel I should do a lot of Christmas-y activities during December. Instead of dwelling on Christmas in my classroom, we researched the variety of light-centered celebrations that occur around the world during winter. We looked at how those celebrations differ from each other. And how, in many ways, they’re similar.

I liked to culminate our “Season of Light” study with a big potluck lunch in which the students’ families brought food from their own traditions to share. One of the highlights of my teaching experience was seeing the feast that came together from my students and their wonderfully rich backgrounds. We had cornbread and lumpia and a rice dessert from India, and baklava, and chile verde, and–oh, I can’t remember them all.

I do remember the year we had homemade tamales. These came from the family of a Mexican boy in my class. His family was quite poor–as I recall, they lived in a single room. The parents didn’t speak any English, and although I tried to reach out to my Spanish-speaking families with own shaky Spanish, this family seemed too humble to want to bother me. Nevertheless, on the day of the feast this student and his parents brought in two huge trays of tamales. This kid was always a happy kid, but I wish you could have seen him beam as he carried in his tray of tamales. He told me later that his mother had woken up at four o’clock that morning to make those tamales for us.

It’s one of my favorite teaching memories.

This year I’m reading some of the books I read to my students to Mr. T–and Lulu too. And there are so many new ones, sixteen years later! I couldn’t find books on Diwali and Kwanzaa back then. The kids are making some Season of Light accordion books. We’ll learn again what the characters on the dreidel signify, and we’ll play the dreidel game-although we may not get to making latkes this year, with Hanukkah starting so close to Christmas…

Here are a few of the books we’re reading. This certainly doesn’t list all the wonderful books out there; this is just a sampling based on what we own, and what we found at the library.

Children Just Like Me: Celebrations, by Barbara and Anabel Kindersley–beautiful DK book with photos and stories of real children celebrating all the holidays I’ve mentioned (except Kwanzaa), and many others.

The Whole Earth Holiday Book, by Linda Polon and Aileen Cantwell–overview of many holidays celebrated throughout the world.

Las Posadas:

Las Posadas: An Hispanic Christmas Celebration, by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith–photos and stories of actual families celebrating La Posada.

Pedro, The Angel of Olvera Street, by Leo Politi–sweet picture book about a boy and his Posada. A favorite.

Nine Days to Christmas, A Story of Mexico, by Marie Hall Ets and Aurora Labastida–another classic for younger kids.

The Night of Las Posadas, by Tomie dePaola–nice book which highlights the religious story behind Las Posadas.


The Story of Divaali, retold by Jatinder Verma–beautifully illustrated book retelling the story of Rama and Sita.

(edited to add: After reading this book, Lulu and Mr. T watched the gorgeous 1995 version of A Little Princess, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, which has scenes from the Rama and Sita story interspersed throughout.)


(There are lots and lots of Hanukkah books–we read different ones each year. Here’s a list of ten good ones. The Trees of the Dancing Goats sounds wonderful! I’m ordering it from the library…)

Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, by Eric A. Kimmel–my boys in particular have always loved this one.


(Another list of 10 great books.)

My First Kwanzaa Book, by Deborah M. Newton Chocolate–nice book for younger kids.

Seven Spools of Thread, by Angela Shelf Medearis–I’m looking forward to reading this one.

Are there any other light-filled celebrations that I’m forgetting? Books you’d recommend? Special ways that light figures into your traditions? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

3 comments… add one
  • melissa s. Dec 16, 2008 @ 22:01

    thank you for the list! i will add these to our library list!

  • susan Dec 17, 2008 @ 7:58

    i love your raising of the tree tradition. We have fondue on Christmas Eve. It was Mike’s family’s tradition and for some reason it won out with the kids over my family tradition of seafood. Go figure.

    This recipe has been a huge hit.

    Do you have any recipes to recommend?

    And thanks for all the great book suggestions.

  • patricia Dec 17, 2008 @ 8:12

    Our fondue recipe is pretty traditional, with equal parts gruyere and emmenthaler, white wine and a little kirsch mixed with cornstarch. You rub the pot with a garlic clove first, and then toss the clove in. The recipe is similar to what you find in the old Joy of Cooking, I think.

    I got the recipe from my neighbor, who is an excellent cook. But even using the same recipe, her fondue was always better than mine. The secret? *Good* white wine, not the fridge leftovers that I usually cook with. Use the same good white wine that you’ll drink with the fondue, and everything will be heavenly.

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