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Merry Christmas From The Dispatch
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Merry Christmas From The Dispatch

Our writers share their holiday traditions.

(Stock photo via Getty Images.)

Happy Friday! We hope all our readers celebrating Christmas this weekend have a wonderful time with family and friends. Stay safe in your travels; we’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Senate voted 68-29 Thursday to pass the $1.7 trillion government funding omnibus after failing to pass two immigration amendments which would have kept Title 42 in place and affected Department of Homeland Security funding. Lawmakers did pass amendments strengthening workplace protections for pregnant and nursing mothers. The House is expected to pass the bill today, averting a government shutdown that would go into effect at midnight.
  • The January 6th Select Committee released its 845-page final report last night, days before Republicans are set to take back the House and almost assuredly dissolve the panel. The report includes 11 recommendations to prevent a similar event from happening again, including reforms to the Electoral Count Act, additional oversight for Capitol Police, and harsher punishments for attempting to impede the transfer of power. House Republicans released a 141-page counter-report of their own earlier this week, focused primarily on security failures at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 rather than the reasons the U.S. Capitol required additional security in the first place.
  • Chinese health officials narrowed their definition of what is considered a COVID-19 death this week, further depressing what is already a significant undercount. A recent analysis from London-based research firm Airfinity Ltd. estimates that, since the Chinese Communist Party eased its COVID-Zero policies earlier this month, the country is averaging about one million new cases and 5,000 new deaths every day. Despite evidence of overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums in cities across the country, China has officially reported fewer than 10 total COVID-19 deaths this month. 
  • Benjamin Netanyahu called Israeli President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday to inform him he’d cobbled together enough support from various right-wing parties to form a government, though he did not specify the various coalition agreements he made. Netanyahu will have a little over a week to formally swear in the new government with a vote in Parliament.
  • Bruno Kahl, head of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, said Thursday that a German intelligence official had been arrested this week on treason charges for allegedly leaking classified information to Russia. It’s the first such arrest since 2014, when a spy was arrested and later convicted of leaking information to U.S. intelligence.
  • Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said Thursday China had sent 39 aircraft and three warships on drills toward southeastern Taiwan, and that 30 aircraft had crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait—the largest such drill since the large exercises conducted after Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit in August. Several countries have begun reacting to China’s increasing shows of force in the region, with the Philippine defense ministry on Thursday ordering a larger military presence in the South China Sea.
  • The average number of weekly confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States increased about 4 percent over the past two weeks according to CDC data, while the average number of weekly deaths attributed to the virus—a lagging indicator—increased 5 percent. About 32,800 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, up from about 29,700 two weeks ago.
  • The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial jobless claims—a proxy for layoffs—rose by 2,000 week-over-week to a seasonally adjusted 216,000 last week, near pre-pandemic levels. The Commerce Department also revised its third quarter economic growth estimate up Thursday from 2.9 percent to 3.2 percent, highlighting that the economy remains strong despite the Federal Reserve’s rate hikes.

Dispatchers’ Holiday Traditions

It took a little longer than usual, but the news is finally starting to slow down a bit ahead of the holidays—allowing us to take a breather and share some of our families’ favorite holiday rituals. Let us know yours in the comments below!

Victoria Holmes, Associate Podcast Producer: I like to dub our family’s holiday traditions as “tejano spirituality.” With my mother’s Mexican practices (such as posadas) combined with my dad’s Texan practices (such as praying for the Cowboys to win during Christmas Eve mass), I have experienced a unique blend of Christmas practices that change yearly, depending on who we celebrate the holidays with and where. Even with the annual shuffle of holiday traditions, the food and good times remain the same.

Price St. Clair, Reporter: One of my favorite family holiday traditions is our Christmas breakfast, usually enjoyed between the emptying of stockings and the opening of other gifts. The menu of a “turkey wreath,” grits, monkey bread, and frozen fruit salad was first assembled by my late grandmother years before I was born and has been refined by my mom in the years since. In addition to being delicious, the annual meal is associated in my mind with memories of both the lighthearted fun and the deep significance of celebrating Christmas. The idea that the God who created the world actually entered into it as a human being himself is mysterious and hard to wrap one’s head around and worthy of our feasting.

And new traditions may yet emerge: This year, with grandparents in town and a Traeger grill at the ready, we will also be smoking a turkey on Christmas Eve. Good eats will abound!

Rachael Larimore, Managing Editor: As our kids have gotten older, a few of our holiday traditions have fallen by the wayside (no more trips to see the lights at the zoo or the model trains at the children’s museum, and—wow—Rudolph really doesn’t stand the test of time) but one that I won’t let go of is making them wait at the top of the stairs until we’re ready for them to come down to the family room and open presents.

This was a tradition my parents established, and it served a legitimate purpose. My dad wanted time to build a fire in the fireplace and put on a pot of coffee before dealing with the madness. Our fireplace is gas and just needs a flip of the switch, but I still like maintaining the practice. When the kids were little, it was fun (for us!) to make them sweat a little. It built anticipation. As they got a little older, I didn’t entirely trust them not to snoop in the middle of the night, so I “enhanced” the tradition by taking a roll of curling ribbon and zig-zagging it between the spindles at the top of the stairs, making it look like laser anti-theft device like you’d see in a museum (or heist movie).

These days, we’re as likely to wake them up as have them wake us up on Christmas morning, but the tradition continues. And here’s why: The runup to Christmas can be chaotic—the shopping, the parties, the preparations—and then the big morning itself can pass in a flash. When I was a kid, it was mildly tortuous to sit upstairs, listening to my dad loudly describe what he was seeing. “Well, I am not sure what THAT gift from Santa is” or “Well, it looks like Santa enjoyed the Bud Light more than the milk and cookies.” Now that I’m the parent, what I cherish is those last few moments of reflection. One last check to make sure all the gifts have tags, that first sip of coffee, maybe a cookie. It takes a bit of work to pull off a successful Christmas, and spending a moment to take in everything before the family room is a sea of wrapping paper and cardboard boxes is my little gift to myself.

Adaam James Levin-Arredy, Podcast Producer: We usually find ourselves flying to see family on the holidays proper, so before leaving the city, my New York household sets aside an evening to decorate a tree that will be left alone in an empty apartment for most of December. Being a moth for kitschy lights, I’m in charge of flooding the house with festive effulgence while the others labor on cluttering the tree with no-less tacky ornaments (a Jane Jacobs woodcarving is usually the topper, with a plastic Lincoln head tucked next to it). To complete the ambience: scotch for smokiness and the congested purrs of Lil Bub for soundtrack. I would also consider delinquency in taking out the tree in January to be part of our cherished tradition.

Ryan Brown, Community Manager: Christmas isn’t complete without a well-decorated (real) Christmas tree in my family. Typically, after Thanksgiving, we all drive out to Hart’s Tree Farm in Rockford, Michigan to pick out the best tree we can find in the 120 acres they have to explore. We always bring a football to toss around (even if it’s so cold you can’t properly throw the ball) and inevitably someone will point at a tree that’s no more than 2 feet high and jokingly say, “How about this one?” It gets a laugh every time. Once the tree is picked out we load it on the car, drive home, and place it in the family room to be decorated. Decorating the tree is a task the whole family is involved in. As tradition goes, my mom prepares a feast of appetizers for us to pick away at as we decorate. My siblings and I then don our Santa hats and get to work. 

This year is my first Christmas away from home. We’re celebrating with my wife’s family in the beautiful, frozen tundra of Minnesota. And decorating the tree with her family is just as much of a group effort as it was with my family. Being a part of this tradition with family—new and old—has me nostalgic for Christmases of the past, excited about Christmases of the future, and grateful for the Christmas of the present. 

Audrey Fahlberg, Reporter: Merry Christmas to our members! We are eternally grateful for your readership and support this holiday season. My favorite Christmas tradition is attending the National Cathedral’s lessons and carols service with my family. We lucked out this year as it’ll be on Christmas Eve, the same night we play the Charlie Brown Christmas album 800 million times, eat our giant Christmas dinner, and join our neighbors in lighting our driveway with luminaries (filled with candles and cat litter to keep them standing…hopefully none catch fire this year!).

Cameron Hilditch, Fact Checker: I’m from the United Kingdom, and while many of our Christmas traditions overlap with those common in the U.S., there are others that—as far as I know—remain unique to the U.K. For instance, our children do not mail their letters to Santa at the North Pole, but scrunch them up in a ball and throw them up the chimney. To this day, I do not know how my letters did not fall straight back down, but I suppose that’s one of Santa Claus’s trade secrets. Probably the most fun difference to contemplate is the whole panoply of Christmas pop songs by British artists that are considered classics back home but most of which never made it across the Atlantic. The most successful songs made the voyage successfully, of course, “Last Christmas” by Wham being the most notable. But there are other songs considered immortal classics (by cheesy ‘80s pop standards, you must understand) that some of you might get a kick out of listening to for the first time. Cliff Richard’s “Savior’s Day” and his “Mistletoe and Wine” would fall into this category, as would Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” and Wizzard’s “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.” The piece de resistance of the cheesy British Christmas canon is The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” which, though charming and excellent in all respects, has some profanity, so be forewarned if there are children around! Lastly, an interesting quirk of British Christmas pop is the longstanding tradition that whichever song is number 1 on the charts on Christmas day is accorded the status of a Christmas classic, even if the song in question has nothing whatsoever to do with Christmas. This is how “Stay Another Day,” a 1994 ballad by the otherwise totally forgotten boy band East 17 became a seasonal standard, along with Paul McCartney’s typically marvelous ode to the Scottish countryside “Mull of Kintyre,” which remains one of my favorite “Christmas” songs to this day.           

Jonathan Chew, Social Media Manager: Music has been a big part of my family’s Christmas tradition for as long as I can remember. My mum is a violin teacher, so whenever I’m home in the fall, I get to enjoy all kinds of instrumental Christmas carol arrangements in the background as her students prepare for her winter recital. I’ve played the piano since I was 4 (a credit to my grandma, who used to have a huge studio herself), so in recent years, I’ve been able to provide piano accompaniment for several of these violin carols. Two of my favorite arrangements from this year were adaptations of Jethro Tull’s awesome 5/4 version of We Three Kings and Richard Saucedo’s Ukrainian Bell Carol, which sound great no matter what instruments they’re played on.

Adam O’Neal, Executive Editor: Despite growing up in southern California, I was never much of a beach person. The appeal of spending a day in the sand—it gets everywhere—has always eluded me. But Christmas Day was an exception. My family would always attend Midnight Mass, wake up a few hours later, and drive to the beach. As tough Californians, we were even willing to brave light rain and temperatures as low as 60 degrees. We simply wouldn’t let the harsh elements stop us from enjoying a walk and beach barbecue on that special day. I left the Golden State nearly a decade ago and since then have been blessed to celebrate Christmas in different corners of the world, but nothing has come close to those morning strolls with family along the coast.

Haley Byrd Wilt, Associate Editor: Each Christmas morning, our family will light all of the advent candles and then read the Christmas story in Luke. Then we’ll sing “Joy to the World,” followed by a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday To You.”

Alec Dent, Culture Editor: My favorite Christmas traditions are all fairly tame. Watching It’s a Wonderful Life, baking gingerbread cookies, Chinese food for dinner on Christmas Eve, and my mother’s breakfast casserole for breakfast on Christmas morning. As I’ve gotten older, and especially since my conversion to Catholicism three years ago, the stand-out to me each year has become the Christmas Eve mass. The beauty of the church all adorned in Christmas decorations, the retelling of the nativity, the hymns—especially the hymns. Christmas has inspired the greatest hymns in Christianity, and I always appreciate the opportunity to experience them. There is nothing quite like singing “Silent Night” by candlelight to close out the night. It is a powerful moment, and a moving reminder of the reason for the season.

Nick Catoggio, Staff Writer: My favorite holiday tradition as a child growing up in a working-class family was getting scratch-off lottery tickets in my stocking from “Santa.” Each Christmas morning my brother and I would bust out some nickels and start scratching away, filling the air with foil shavings and suspense. My parents watched intently, a twinkle of hope in their eyes that a Christmas miracle might occur. Their thoughts were as clear as the brisk winter air.

“Will either of these kids win enough to recoup the 50 bucks we blew on these dumb lottery tickets?”

We never did. I think my most impressive haul was six dollars.

You know what they say about the lottery being a tax on stupid people? It’s also a tax on parents who lack creative ideas for stocking stuffers.

Still, the experience taught me an important lesson which blue-collar children the world over will be learning again this Christmas morning: However low your expectations from life are, they’re probably not low enough.

And that’s why it’s my favorite holiday tradition.

Esther Eaton, Deputy Editor of The Morning Dispatch: The Eaton clan had many traditions that we let go as we grew up—seeing how much wax you could drip on your hand during the candlelight Christmas Eve service; sleeping Christmas Eve night on the floor beside the tree so we could all spend Christmas stiff and groggy; cracking Mom’s ciphers to find out which presents were whose; drinking cider and listening to Andrew Peterson’s Behold the Lamb of God. I’m most grateful to have abandoned the tradition I had for a few years of waking up with a stomach bug on Christmas—knock wood that I don’t break the puke-free streak this year.

But other traditions have stuck around—a pile of new books and boardgames to enjoy while we’re home; nachos for Christmas dinner; squabbling over who has to store the ugliest ornaments in their box for next year; and best of all, pausing to look up after a busy year and remember that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, for unto us a Child is born.

Declan Garvey, Editor of The Morning Dispatch: In this newsletter last year I wrote about watching Arthur’s Perfect Christmas and heading from Christmas Eve Mass to the legendary Garvey party, where all 26 grandkids and 16 aunts and uncles would get together to eat my Grandma’s world-famous Chex Mix and hear my Grandpa’s harmonica rendition of “Christmas in Killarney.” (The Garvey clan traces its roots back to Cork, but that city’s Christmas song is decidedly less catchy.)

This is my fiancée’s and my favorite time of the year, and we’re looking forward to building on our respective families’ traditions and forging ahead with some of our own: Cramming an 8-foot-tall Christmas tree into a one-bedroom apartment clearly not big enough for one, driving up to New York for a weekend to see Rockefeller Center all decked out, buying Trader Joe’s Mini Gingerbread Men with White Fudge Icing and eating the whole box in one night while watching “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” or “Elf.” 

We don’t yet have an actual mantle on which to hang the custom stockings I ordered off of Etsy (they’re currently strung up over the handlebars of an exercise bike), but that purchase felt like a down payment on a lifetime of Christmas joy I can’t wait to experience as our family grows.

Steve Hayes, Chief Executive Officer: There is no stronger Christmas tradition in the Hayes family than The Stairs. There are other contenders, to be sure. A capella candlelight “Silent Night” at church. Luminaria in the neighborhood. Ham and cheese potatoes. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas—out loud. One present on Christmas Eve. New Christmas jammies. But nothing is as constant as The Stairs.

For as long as I can remember, every Christmas morning has involved a pause—often a very long pause—on the stairs. It started with a simple purpose: my Dad wanted to take a picture of us kids before we opened presents. So we waited on the stairs descending from our second floor to the first, with the Christmas tree and all of the presents scattered around it, just out of sight. But it felt like that reality—we couldn’t see the gifts and desperately wanted to—soon became the main thing. The more we complained about having to wait, the longer my Dad delayed. He’d pretend he lost the camera and then fiddle with it when he found it, just to make us wait. Then, make frozen OJ, start the oven for coffee cake, prep the bacon—all while we sat on the stairs for the picture.

Waiting as a young child was almost physically painful. You’d already waited for weeks for the big day—writing Santa letters, reading Christmas books, even being extra kind to your siblings to lock in your place on the nice list. You’d waited to fall asleep the night before, waited as your parents held you in bed for a morning cuddle before the excitement, and now you had to wait some more.

Waiting as a teenager was just annoying. You were exhausted—you were always exhausted—and could have slept until noon if they hadn’t roused you early. You didn’t find your parents terribly funny in general and they certainly weren’t funny playing their delay games. Waiting on the stairs was the only thing between sleeping in your bed and sleeping on the couch.

Why, then, given this torturous history, would I subject my own kids to the same treatment? It started almost out of habit. My new family did it because it’s what my family had always done. I will admit I took some joy in watching kids squirm and, in this era of instant gratification, putting the fun off a bit. But I’d come to love the pictures, too, and the memories they captured—the year my sister wouldn’t smile, the year my brother had a horrendous mullet (okay, might have been me.) The photos captured the changes in our looks and in our lives, on the same day every year and, save for one year in Mexico, almost always at home. (Yes, we had to take a picture on the stairs, in public, at the resort in Mexico when our family gift was a trip—so embarrassing.) 

And then, one by one, we began to disappear from those pictures. There’s a gap of a few years from the last time I sat on the stairs with my siblings to the first one we took of our nine-month old daughter. Two years later, she held her baby brother and they waited together. A few years later another sister joined them on the stairs, and one more a few years after that. I made them wait together—in anticipation and annoyance—just as I had, experiencing for a while the perverse joy my own Dad had for so many years.

I’ll make them wait again on Sunday, of course, and the young ones will fidget and the older ones will complain. I’ll make the coffee and fry some hash browns while they sit on the stairs and when I finally return to take the picture, I’ll mistakenly take a video for a while, too, just to draw it out a bit, and a video of the whining adds something new to the tradition.

I still find the whole thing hilarious and I know I always will. But with our oldest heading to college next year and her siblings soon to follow, each year brings my wife and I closer to the Christmas Day when someone will be missing from our picture. So when I make them wait this year, they’ll figure I’m just being playful or annoying, as always, and they’ll be right. But I’ll probably make them wait on The Stairs for an extra beat or two, just because I can.

Worth Your Time

  • If you’ve seen a drawing of the expecting Virgin Mary consoling Eve, you’ve seen the work of Sister Grace Remington, an Iowa nun. For Plough, Joy Clarkson asked Sr. Grace about life in the monastery and the meaning of this drawing during Advent. “The picture is of Mary and Eve, but Jesus is there too,” Sr. Grace told Clarkson. “He is, in fact, at the very center. If it was just a picture of an un-pregnant Mary with Eve, it might be lovely, but the presence of Jesus in that picture is what gives it real meaning. … I always think of this during Advent: even before his birth, Christ was already among us within Mary. So many Advent texts talk about ‘awaiting the coming of the Savior’ and we sing ‘O come, O come Emmanuel,’ but he was there for nine months before that Christmas night. And now, too, we live in the ‘now but not yet’ of the coming of God’s kingdom.”
  • This essay for Christianity Today by two Ukrainian writers begins as a history of carols in Ukraine—particularly the “Carol of the Bells”—and becomes a meditation on the meaning of Christmas amid occupation and war. “Ukrainian Christmas traditions, music, and culture are deeply rooted in the country’s history of sorrow, courage, and resistance,” they write. “This is not so different from the very first Christmas. Then, Judea was under occupation and the emperor’s myrmidon, Herod, was a terrorist and mass murderer, hunting innocent children to secure his own throne. … Christmas is a time that reminds us that justice and love prevail, even when it seems that both are slowly dying. It ensures the indestructibility of hope in times of the greatest hopelessness. For as long as we celebrate Christmas, we can neither be defeated nor destroyed. This is the message that Ukraine is trying to convey to the world.”
  • After losing his wife to illness and later rediscovering joy, Frantz Laroche—an Uber driver in St. Petersburg, Florida—is on a mission to bring off-the-charts levels of holiday cheer to each ride, Gabrielle Calise reports for the Tampa Bay Times. “He wears a festive headband and a glowing string of Christmas lights around his neck,” Calise writes. “His sleigh is a black Honda Odyssey complete with glossy leather seats. Each person who enters it during the holiday season will be quizzed on classic Christmas music as they zip through the streets of St. Pete.” Laroche plans to keep driving for the rest of his life. “Because of politics, because people hurt each other for no reason, somebody’s got to drive his butt all over Florida to spread the positivity to others,” Laroche told Calise. “You are among 30,000 passengers I’ve entertained just to put a smile on their face. And I intend to entertain 30,000 more.”

Presented Without Comment

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Toeing the Company Line

  • Nick’s latest edition of Boiling Frogs (🔒) focuses on the right-wing criticism of Volodymyr Zelensky’s fashion choices. “The bizarre, disproportionate anger displayed by Benny Johnson toward Zelensky’s attire reeks of someone who’s less concerned with the White House dress code than with impressing other members of his political ‘tribe’ with the sheer contempt he can muster for Ukraine’s president,” he writes.
  • On Wednesday’s episode of The Dispatch Podcast, Esther talks to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council about the latest twists and turns in the Title 42 saga. Will the Supreme Court allow the pandemic-era immigration policy to remain in place? What can we expect if it doesn’t?
  • And on today’s episode of The Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Steve, Jonah, and David discuss what they consider the best and worst stories of 2022. What will make the list? The Russian invasion? The Artemis launch? Asteroid nudging? The Ye-Fuentes summit? The resurgence of COVID in China? The unveiling of Donald Trump’s NFT? Stick around for their predictions for 2023.
  • On the site today, Arthur Herman offers a defense of ongoing U.S. support for Ukraine’s defense against Russia, “a crucial stress test for our defense industrial base.”

Let Us Know

You’ve now read about some of our favorite holiday traditions, let’s hear yours!

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.