It's that time of year again. Sleigh bells are ringing and the sound of carols are drifting through the air. Although Christmas has a habit of getting lost in all the ribbons, bows and pretty paper, there are still quite a few teens that look past the price tags and commercial value of the holiday.
There are countless reasons to love Christmas, especially in Western New York. Besides that the chances of having a white Christmas are usually quite high, everyone seems to have their own special family traditions, often rooted deeply in their ethnicity. Of course, many of these ethnic traditions revolve around cultural food.
"Since my family is mostly Italian, every Christmas Eve my dad and mom make homemade lasagna and braciole," said Stephanie Dragone, a senior at Immaculata Academy. "My favorite food would have to be the lasagna and all the desserts my family makes … like sesame cookies, butterballs and thumbprint cookies."
Or perhaps your family fancies an Irish Christmas meal like Noah Martin, a junior at Global Concepts Charter High School. "We usually open gifts early, then my mom makes cinnamon rolls for breakfast. Then my mom makes cabbage, carrots, potatoes and ham for dinner."
"My whole family is mainly Polish, so when we go to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, we receive a wafer called ‘oplatek' that is blessed by the priest, and we eat it as a family at Christmas dinner," said Laura Rokitka, a senior at Immaculata Academy.
Much like Laura, my entire family celebrates a Polish Christmas Eve dinner, also known as Wigilia. We make pierogi from scratch and serve them for dinner with fish, and we share oplatek as well.
The food is just one part of the festivities though. Family gatherings in almost every family include gift exchanges, caroling and games.
"Even though it's not on Christmas, my mom's side of the family each year has a party at my house for Saint Nick's Day (Dec. 6)," said Bridget Barrett, a senior at Immaculata Academy. "Everyone comes over for dinner, then we all put our shoes on my front porch and sing Christmas carols in my living room while we wait for St. Nick to come. We have a ‘26 Days of Christmas' song that we sing that has all of our names incorporated into it, which is my favorite holiday tradition. Then, when we go out to get our shoes off my porch, there are giant bags of presents for all of us."
Pattie Wojcik, a senior at Lackawanna High School, plays her favorite family holiday game outside. "We play two-hand-touch football in the street, which we call the ‘Sophie Bowl.' It was named after my great-grandmother."
Laura's favorite memory is a heartwarming story. "My favorite holiday memory was when it was around Christmas, about 13 years ago, when my dad brought home a stray puppy he found out by a farm where he was patrolling as a cop. He was very sick, so we took him under our wing and we named him ‘Lucky' because he was lucky to be alive! Sadly, he died last year, and it's weird not giving him our table scraps, but Christmastime was forever changed by him," said Laura.
Andrew Phillips, a sophomore at St. Francis High School, had experienced a surprise a few years ago as well.
"My favorite holiday memory is definitely when I got my first guitar. Before I had a guitar I used to pretend I could play on a cardboard cutout with rubber bands. So on Christmas morning my parents surprised me with a real electric guitar. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I got a mini amp and everything. Who knew that 6 years later I would still be playing?"
Reminiscing on the best presents and memories is a wonderful thing to do. Unfortunately, eventually traditions and situations are sometimes forced to change, leaving nothing but memories. There is often sadness when that happens, but you can almost always find something to be happy about just as Andrew did when his grandfather passed away.
"Usually the day after Christmas, we would visit my mom's parents, but since my grandfather died, my grandmother has come to celebrate with us on Christmas Day," Andrew said. "This isn't really a bad change though, it just brings more people together."
The same goes for Kelly Hider, a sophomore at Immaculata Academy, who found joy even when some of her favorite traditions ceased.
"Most of my cousins have grown out of the gift swapping we used to do," Kelly said. "They either refuse to do so due to financial needs or just because of disinterest, so that idea has faded. However, it's enough to have us all under the same roof and celebrating the Christmas season together."
That's exactly the type of spirit that has gotten Pattie through some very difficult holiday seasons.
"The holidays have been pretty rough ever since my father passed away nine years ago," Pattie said. "He died on the 20th of December and we actually spent Christmas in a funeral home. Every year I still have a flashback to that very day."
The heartbreak didn't end there.
"This year is going to be rough as well with my grandmother's recent passing," she said.
Despite the somber events, Pattie and her family have kept their heads held high.
"It may seem weird, but even though they are gone my family is closer," she said. "We know that we only have each other, so we cherish the time spent with one another."
Daniel Ramirez, a junior at Pioneer Central High School, agrees with Pattie. "My favorite holiday was when we were all just together on Christmas Eve. It was perfect."
Even though Christmastime can become crowded with shopping lists and gift boxes or cookie trays and recipes, it's important to remember why we put so much effort into it all.
"It's funny how as time passes and we lose track of everything, how being grateful for the little things is lost and now expectation takes over," Pattie said. "I truly do wish I could go back to 4-year-old me and just not have a care in the world."
This year, remember to be thankful for the little things, look fondly on the past (even the gloomy times), and remember this from "The Polar Express": "Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can't see."