Hugging by the tree

12 of 25
Mercedes C.
Every year, getting everyone to sit down at the same table for our traditional Thanksgiving dinner nearly sends me into a teenage funk until the tryptophan from the turkey kicks in. But Christmas, ah Christmas, now that's my holiday.

I was born on my dad's birthday, December 27, so Christmastime has always meant sharing a weeklong celebration with family and friends...and two cakes. It's hard growing up as a Christmas baby not to feel slighted when only a handful of friends are in town, let alone can trudge through the snow to your party, but I quickly learned there's a difference between quantity and quality and to be thankful for those who were able to celebrate with me. As family has grown up and out, juggling the festivities has become more of a carefully orchestrated dance between departure time and bar time (this year, my challenge is to make it from my nephew's christening in Toledo to my party in Chicago in under five hours), but the Capricorn in me wouldn't miss the food and family bonding for the world.

On Christmas Eve, my family does a crazy late-night buffet of everyone's favorite finger foods. The smorgasbord including shrimp cocktail, herring (for the brave of heart like my Grandma Stella), spicy pizza squares (Velveeta and spicy Italian sausage baked on cocktail rye bread), cheese fondue (my specialty that I perfected in college), Russian tea balls rolled in powdered sugar, wreathe cookies (the ones with cornflakes, marshmallows and Red Hots) and apricot-filled Horns (a family tradition my little sister and I have spent years in the kitchen learning from Grandma Edith and Mom, yet I still can only make under supervision). There are veggies and dip, too, for the health conscious. Then, once the plates are cleared away, we each get to open one present—a bribe my parents made when we were little to get us to go to bed so they could wrap the gifts from "Santa" that we've never let go.

On Christmas morning, we all pile into the living room, and if you're lucky enough to be chosen as an "elf," you get to wear a special hat while you pass out everyone's gifts. The tricky part is making sure the littlest elves leave a few presents under the tree for me to open with my birthday cake.

What holiday tradition will you celebrate this year?