More Than Serving Tea


Our Christmas Stories

It’s December 3, and it’s 61 degrees in the northern burbs of Chicago. I have the urge to empty the compost bin and start planting carrot seeds and dreaming about tomatoes. But it’s December. Surely the ground will eventually freeze, and everything that triggers my seasonal allergies will die. Right?

It doesn’t “feel” like Christmas. I grew up in Chicagoland, which means it should be cold. Freezing cold. I should be able to use my walk-in freezer – my garage. I should be able to see my breath in the air, and I should be wearing my winter coat, mittens, hat and scarf. I feel like I’m in SoCal, my fake Uggs daring my feet to combine spring and winter into one.

Instead, we spent last night summoning all of our Christmas anticipation and decorated our Christmas tree. Through the years, Peter and I have tried to build in some traditions into our Christmas as part of our family’s story – the things, the smells, the tastes that will last beyond the five of us decorating a tree. Our ornaments have become one of my favorite parts.

The fake tree was fully decorated when Peter and I bought it from Menards. I didn’t come with a box but it came loaded with lights, glass globe ornaments and other sparkly, shiny things. As the years have passed, some faster than others, fewer glass globes make their way onto the tree, replaced by preschool creations, school photos placed into frames, ornaments based on family members’ favorite things, and now two mini trees with ornaments collected from places we have visited as a family.

We will hear and probably say over and over how commercialized this sacred season has become, and it’s true. When Christmas music and decorations of red and green get up in Halloween’s orange and black, and Black Friday takes over Thanksgiving night, it’s enough to do….what?

I’m certain my oldest’s journey towards college is making this mommy a bit sentimental, but it was a sight to see when each child (including me and Peter) unpacked each ornament and shared a sentence or two about their fondest memories and helped piece together our Christmas story.

For me, the tradition I most remember is going to church Christmas Eve where the Korean Santa came to give each kid a gift based on Sunday School class. We would head home late in the night, my parents transferring us from the car to our rooms. And then we would wake up to presents that the Korean Santa would leave under our tree. I remember the just-my-size African American Barbie. The Barbie Dream House and furniture. The flannel sheets.

Our kids don’t remember seeing a Korean Santa, but they did. Instead, I hope they will remember the bits and pieces of memory each ornament carries, because, as I tell them every year, when they move out and have a place of their own and a tree of their own my housewarming gift will be “their” ornaments wrapped with the love and expectation only a savior can bring to cover their trees and lives (“…while my tree stands all naked and lonely,” I tell them each year).

What traditions have you continued from your childhood or built new into your family?


Thanksgiving Turkey and Kimchee/Kimchi

Of all of the American holidays we adopted as we became a hyphenated family (Korean-American), Thanksgiving is the one that has evolved into a part of our family tradition. We have gathered for the occasional 4th of July, Memorial Day or Labor Day barbecue, days off of work making it possible but not locked into a tradition requiring scheduling around extended family and in-laws.

There is the story about  Mom roasting a duck because all birds wrapped in plastic look the same or memories of opening a can of cranberries but not having the foggiest idea of what to do with that ruby-colored gelatinous cylinder on a plate. We tried to set an American Thanksgiving table as best we could and then added the real fixings – white rice, kimchee, mandoo, jjapchae, bulgogi and smaller plates of more banchan. Sometimes there was water or sparkling apple cider or barley tea. We learned about pumpkin pie but didn’t complain if there was an unexpected plate of dduk.

Learning about “Pilgrims and Indians” was a part of my childhood experience though I don’t remember much except visiting my second grade classroom. We were moving to the suburbs and Miss Thompson was my teacher. Her classroom was decorated with turkeys made with pantyhose wrapped around wire hangers decorated with construction paper feathers. Moving from Chicago’s Northside to the western burbs was culture shock enough. Walking into a room full of stocking turkeys…well, I think I was just surprised to see pantyhose used as decoration. (Was I the only kid who grew up seeing her mother darn holes in pantyhose with some thread and seal the repair with nail polish?) What I would only later take in was that the feathers included written descriptions of the things my future classmates were thankful for. Turkeys=thankfulness. I get it!

Since then I’ve also learned turkeys=trots, bowls, platters, carving and a whole heckuvalotta work. Our family has never trotted or played football on Thanksgiving, but we know about embracing tryptophans. I have become the Thanksgiving host, and while I haven’t yet mastered the perfect gravy or dressing recipe I’ve tried brining and glazing my turkey (brining, definitely brining). The number of people at our table or tables changes from year to year, the amount of Korean food fluctuates (this year my kids are asking for mandoo, odaeng and curry to accompany the turkey) but there is a comforting and familiar rhythm to the afternoon and evening, starting with a crescendo of voices as family arrive and ending with a turkey-induced quiet and dessert over Black Friday strategies and lists.

We’ve never talked about the pilgrims or the Wampanoag Indians at our Thanksgiving table, but as I have spent quite a bit of time this year sharing bits and pieces of my family’s story – our journey from Korea to America and my journey from Korean infant to Korean American adult – I am reminded that there is a part of our family’s story and that of my Christian faith that resonates with being both the “other” and becoming and being the “hosts”, reluctant or not.

I suppose the way our dinner table looks, expressed on the faces, in the names and in the food, is a reflection of that American history  – “others” alongside the “hosts” trying to to understand one another and find a place at the table or a way to reconfigure the table to include both the turkey and the kimchee and the older American history alongside a more recent history.

It’s not a perfect history, nor is it a perfect turkey, but I am incredibly thankful.



%d bloggers like this: