Durhamites Rethink Family Traditions This Holiday Season

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Four families share how their seasonal plans and holiday traditions change amid COVID-19

Santibanez family – holiday plans 2020
Amber Santibanez and Jose Santibanez with son Ayo Yamir and daughter Noelani, who was born just before Christmas last year.

By Hannah Lee | Photography by Cornell Watson

Amber Santibanez and Jose Santibanez celebrate two holidays every December: Christmas, to pay homage to her and José’s Hispanic roots, and Kwanzaa, to honor her African American heritage. They spend Christmas Eve with Jose’s side of the family, and when the clock strikes 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 25, they open presents together with their two kids – Ayo Yamir, 3, and Noelani, nearly 1. It’s a ritual that’s followed by tamales and champurrado – a thick hot chocolate with a corn base – from their favorite food truck, Lonchería San Pablito, on Christmas Day. Later in the day, the Santibanezes set up a seven-point star piñata, which represents the seven deadly sins, with Amber’s family. The breaking of the piñata symbolizes the triumph of good over evil. 

The celebration doesn’t end there. For another week, the family reflects on the seven principles of Kwanzaa by lighting one candle every day. “Since I can remember, I’ve always done Kwanzaa and New Year’s Day at the Durham Armory, celebrating with Baba Chuck Davis, the founder of the African American Dance Ensemble,” Amber says. “Noelani was born on Dec. 21, and we still went last year. That was her first experience with a major crowd. It was really cool, because she got blessed by the ancestors and the elders. I think that’s the thing I’m most sad about missing.”

Amber doesn’t know how they’ll go about celebrating Kwanzaa otherwise. Her and Jose both stay busy: She’s a visual arts teacher at Durham School of the Arts, and he’s a founder and coach at Bull City Futsal Academy

“We live a day-to-day lifestyle,” Amber says. “The plan is to probably just have smaller gatherings, probably just the immediate family. My mom is involved in our quarantine, because she is the main child care person during the day while we’re working. [There will be] less pressure to prepare for such large gatherings.”

Constantinou family – holiday plans 2020
Catherine Constantinou says that their family is looking forward to the car caroling event taking place at St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church on Dec. 18.

‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way

Let the record show: “Greek School Dance Moms” mean serious business. The pandemic put a pause on annual plans, but these St. Barbara’s Greek Orthodox Church parishioners made an unofficial pact to stay connected to one another, especially for one of their biggest events of the year – the children’s Christmas concert.

“We have about 15 to 20 ‘Greek School Dance Moms’ who are deeply involved with their kids and keeping it up culturally, and they do this Hope Joy [youth group],” Catherine Constantinou, one of the mothers, says. “They’re very much looking forward to this.”

Christmas is one of the most – if not the most – celebrated holidays of the year for Catherine and many others in the church. Catherine says she’s “not overly religious,” but St. Barbara’s has always been culturally important to her household. Transitioning this pivotal performance – and the rehearsals that come with it – to Zoom was immensely important to all involved.

Her son, John Michael Platt Constantinou, 7, misses his friends, and her daughter, Athena Barbara Constaninou, who turns 3 in January, is getting to the age where she might remember this holiday. Along with John Michael’s virtual performance in the annual holiday show, Catherine and her husband, Wes Platt, are doing their best to make the season special, like finding a way that their children can safely say hello to Santa. There’s a drive-thru car caroling event at the church on Dec. 18 where the kids can see Santa outside and receive a gift bag. 

On Christmas Day, Catherine will cook her usual prime rib and baked goods, and prepare drinks for extended family. The question this year is whether her brother, John Constantinou, will join them. Catherine’s concerned about his blood disorder, thalassemia. And Wes’ mother, who they usually visit in Florida the day after Christmas, has a pacemaker. “[These are] things you would have never thought about.

“But there is hope,” Catherine says. “We’ve modified. In our house of worship, in our Greek American house. We, the ‘Greek School Dance Moms,’ modified Halloween. We’ve modified Thanksgiving. We’ve got a plan once a month. We’ve got a plan for Christmas. And you know, where there’s a will, there’s a way, when you try to take a positive from this situation.”

Shabu family – holiday plans 2020
Funmi, Teli, DeLacey and Aya are a “very musical” family. While they won’t be attending any Kwanzaa celebrations at the Hayti Heritage Center, where this photo was taken, this year, Aya says there will be plenty of drumming and dancing at home.

‘Drumming and dancing more at home

Mid-December hits, and it’s time for Aya Shabu, Teli Shabu and their kids, DeLacey Hope, 15, and Funmi Shabu, 10, to prepare for Kwanzaa. They dress their kitchen table with African fabric and a bendera ya taifa (flag). “For us, it is a symbol of Black pride and a commitment to Black people,” Aya says. “It goes on the table first under everything. [The color] black is for the people, red for the struggle and blood shed in that struggle; green is for the struggle’s promise of a liberated tomorrow.” There’s also eye-catching yellow and green woven mkeka (mats), a wooden kinara (candle holder) adorned with adinkra (a philosophical message) and a goblet-like kikombe cha umoja (unity cup). Every year, they buy new mishumaa saba (the seven candles representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa). Then, on Dec. 26, Funmi and DeLacey race through the house to meet their mom and dad at the table. The children squabble over who lights the first candle. The family laughs. They sing.

Those timeless memories-turned-tradition will carry on this year, even among the many changes in their lives. There’s obviously the coronavirus to consider, which will prevent the them from celebrating with any extended family and friends. But beyond that, renovations to the family’s home were delayed – mainly due to setbacks with deliveries and other imports – and they were forced to temporarily move into an Airbnb. It will be the first time in more than five years that they celebrate the seven-day holiday at home. Aya and Teli are both major contributors to the annual Hayti Legacy Kwanzaa, among other Kwanzaa events. Last year, they partnered with Exotique and Pittsboro-based Clapping Hands Farm to offer a zawadi (gift)-making workshop for kids and their families. 

“I would like to continue the tradition of making zawadi with my family,” Aya says. “The pride that comes from making something with our hands to then give as a gift is so satisfying.” Bringing together and celebrating community has been important to Aya since she moved to North Carolina in 2003 to be a touring dancer with the African American Dance Ensemble. The pandemic has put that on hold, but Aya says that Funmi and DeLacey are grateful to spend a more relaxing holiday with their parents this year.

“I’ll miss drumming and dancing with my community, but I also look forward to drumming and dancing more at home with my family,” Aya says. “We have been wanting to give our community a new Kwanzaa song for many years. Our family is very musical. My daughter composes songs on her ukulele, and my son drums. It will be interesting to see what song we add to our repertoire.”

Langsam family – holiday plans 2020
The Langsams celebrate Hanukkah every year with foods like jelly doughnuts and by competing in a few rounds of gaga, a variant of dogdeball played in an octagonal pit.

‘Nothing could ever stop the enjoyment’

Kim Langsam, mom to Leo, 8, and Maya, 6, strives to make Hanukkah celebrations special every year for her family. Along with sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts) and latkes (potato pancakes) – “Nothing could ever stop the enjoyment of traditional Hanukkah foods!” – Kim plans to continue with themed games, movies and volunteering over the eight days of the Jewish holiday. She prefers to take the emphasis away from presents and focus on creating memories of togetherness instead.

In a normal year, Kim, her husband, Drew Langsam, and their kids celebrate at some of Durham’s Jewish institutions, including Lerner Jewish Community Day School, where Leo and Maya learn about the miracle of Hanukkah, the history behind its traditions and the songs of the holiday, and where they also create “the awesome art that makes our house feel festive!” Kim says.

This year, the family will opt out of all of the community components – which are inarguably the most important to them – “and, to be honest, takes so much of the burden off of me to create all aspects of a meaningful holiday,” Kim says. “With young kids and so many distractions, celebrations by Zoom haven’t worked for us.” 

While the family won’t host its annual backyard party, they’ll have a smaller gathering with one other family, and continue their tradition of playing “ChanuGaga,” a family dodgeball tournament (with masks this year). They’ll also connect with their fellow congregants through virtual programming put on by Beth El Synagogue and Jewish for Good.

“Overall, I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself this year for super meaningful celebrations,” Kim says. “We will do what we can reasonably do, given the pandemic and our low tolerance for Zoom, and hope that this year is just an anomaly.”  

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Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee is the assistant editor at Durham Magazine. Born and raised in Winston-Salem, she attended UNC-Chapel Hill and double majored in broadcast journalism and German.

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