Different traditions: How four Howard County families celebrate the holidays

Gerry Maxwell-Jones has been celebrating Kwanzaa with her family since 1977.
Gerry Maxwell-Jones has been celebrating Kwanzaa with her family since 1977. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Forty-one years ago, Gerry Maxwell-Jones wanted to bring more meaning to her family during the winter holidays.

She turned to Kwanzaa, a weeklong celebration of African-American culture.


“I thought it was a more Afrocentric way of looking at the holiday,” says the 72-year-old Columbia resident, a retired Howard County School System employee. “Christmas had kind of lost its religious meaning.”

Three years later, she converted to Buddhism. “I moved here because of Jim Rouse’s vision for ethnic and cultural diversity. To be able to practice Buddhism in this community, with people all over the place, is really a pleasure.”


Maxwell-Jones says she never felt uncomfortable celebrating a holiday other than Christmas in Howard County.

Though Symphony of Lights has grown into one of the county’s most anticipated holiday events, there have been hiccups along the way. One year, a woman gave birth during a drive-through. Another time, three runaway reindeer crashed through several displays. Then there was the car that caught fire.

“There were so many religions here in Howard County,” she explains. “I didn’t feel that I could not. Religion is a personal preference. And my friends and my family were accepting of it.”

She’s not alone in feeling safe to celebrate other religious and cultural holidays.

Rev. Paige Getty, senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, is not surprised by the number of different faiths practiced within Howard County.


“Columbia, in particular, was founded with a vision of intentional diversity of race, ethnicity, religion and socio-economic status,” says Getty, who is also co-chair of PATH (People Acting Together in Howard), a multi-racial, multi-faith, non-partisan, citizens’ organization that develops community leaders. “We are really deliberate about acknowledging and celebrating those differences. It goes beyond mere tolerance and acceptance.”

We interviewed four residents who celebrate the winter holidays in different ways, religious or cultural.

Adapting Kwanzaa

As the years went on and her two children became adults, Maxwell-Jones and her family adjusted the ways they celebrated Kwanzaa , a seven-day observance for African Americans centered around seven principles that include Maxwell-Jones’ favorites: Kuumba (creativity), Imani (faith) and Umoja (unity).

She started celebrating year-round by incorporating the principles of the holiday into everyday life. She also started throwing a celebration the day after Kwanzaa begins instead of celebrating each night of the holiday.

Traditions: Maxwell-Jones, her two sons and their families light all the candles on the Kinara at the same time during their Kwanzaa celebration, rather than lighting one each night. During the celebration, they have a showcase where each attendee is allowed to share a talent of some type. They also pick a principle out of a bowl and read how it manifests in their lives throughout the year. They share new goals and say whether or not they completed their goals from the previous year. Handmade gifts are also exchanged. Maxwell-Jones also sets up a craft table for guests to be able to make gifts.

Foods: Maxwell-Jones serves a groundnut stew made with peanut butter, onions, celery and seasoned chicken and served over rice, with collard greens, green beans or broccoli (the color green represents wealth in African American culture, she says). She also serves plantains, cornbread and a rum cake.

Sharing Hindu celebrations

Because the Hindu faith has no holiday during the month of December, many Hindus in Howard County celebrate Christmas, according to Ellicott City resident Gopi Suri.

But in November, they observe Diwali, a five-day celebration of lights.

“It’s a celebration of good over evil,” Suri says.

Traditions: Suri and his family observe the holiday by decorating their Ellicott City home with hanging lights along the entranceway and inside. They also dress in ornate — often shimmery — Indian garb.

Suri, a parent of a Mt. Hebron High School student and president of the school’s Indian PTA, hosted the school’s first-ever Diwali celebration in November. The three-hour Sunday event featured dancing, singing and vendors displaying Henna, authentic garb and jewelry.

“The primary objective is to share the culture,” he says.

Foods: Diwali sweets include kaju katli, a sugary cashew-based dish, according to Suri. Savory dishes made with lentils, rice and peas are served, too.

In January, Suri and other Hindus observe Pongal, a three-day celebration that honors the new harvest. On the first day, observers sing and dance around a fire pit and feast on sweets and drinks. On the second, observers eat foods that represent new crops — primarily wheat and rice-based dishes that are mostly vegetarian, according to Suri. The third day is filled with chicken and goat dishes.

American holidays with a Korean twist

For Grace Chang, 52, a program assistant at the Columbia Association’s International Exchange and Multicultural Programs, the holidays are a mix of cultural and religious traditions.

“We [Koreans] will generally celebrate Christmas like most Americans,” says Chang. “The way our family celebrates Christmas looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.”

During Thanksgiving and Christmas — many Koreans in Howard County are Christians, according to Chang — meals would be similar to other American households’.

“Most Korean Americans have adopted Western holidays. During the holidays, we would have the Thanksgiving turkey or ham, but there’s always a side of kimchi at the table. There’s always kimchi on the table,” she says.

Traditions: New Year’s Day is a big day for Korean families, according to Chang. Her entire immediate family gathers at her husband’s parents’ home. Korean families traditionally gather at the patriarch’s family’s home, she explains.

There, children and grandchildren show honor to their elders by bowing or curtseying toward them.

“They wish them many new blessings for the next year,” she says.

Young Ran Smith serves as president of the Howard County chapter of the League of Korean Americans of Maryland, a Silver Spring-based association.

In return, the children are “showered” with money by the elders, according to Chang.

Chang’s three children — ages 15, 17 and 19 — look forward to this day, she says.“It’s a time that they get a lot of cash,” she says with a laugh. “From their grandparents, uncles, anyone they have to bow to.”

In addition to the cash gifts, the day is filled with food and games, including a six-player Parcheesi-style game called yut nori.

Food: Rice cake soup — a large bowl of savory beef broth filled with pieces of chewy rice cakes and topped with seaweed and strips of fried egg — is the main course on New Year’s Day.

Personalizing Hanukkah

Clarksville resident Craig Axler says that Hanukkah is one of his favorite Jewish holidays — even though he's not supposed to choose.


“As a rabbi, you're not supposed to have favorites. But Hanukkah is well up there,” says Axler, who is the rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Fulton. “For me, it’s about being able to have a holiday that is equally celebrated in the synagogue and the home.”


Traditions: Hanukkah revolves around light. Each night of the holiday, Jews gather to light the menorah’s candles as the sun goes down.

Each member of the Axler family gets their own menorah. Visitors to the home get one too.

“Sometimes we’ll have 45 candles going,” he says with a laugh.

During the evening, the story of the lighting of the menorah in the Temple of Jerusalem is told.

With the opening of Socks Appeal, Howard County native Susannah Siger’s fifth holiday pop-up business, things have come full circle.

“A major point is framing it and telling it from the perspective that this is a story about tolerance and to have respect for the religion of others and to show pride in our religion,” Axler says.

Like other Jewish families, Axler’s typically lights the menorah just outside the front door or in the front window of the house.

“You want to shine light out from the house into the world,” he says. “It’s drawing attention to the miracle of light.”

Food: Because the holiday is associated with oil, many of the foods served are fried in oil, Axler explains. Sufganiyot, a type of jelly-filled doughnut, is served. But potato pancakes, or latkes, are most popular in his home, which is known for having a latkes bar where guests can build their own latkes from a variety of root vegetables and flours.

“It’s kind of a fun way to express culinary creativity,” he says, adding he also has toppings such as applesauce, sour cream and sriracha. “The more creative you are, the better.”

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