For many Long Island families, personal traditions make the holiday season special. A certain way of stringing lights or opening presents. A favorite recipe. That hideous sweater worn once a year.
But when the circumstances of life change, so, too, may holiday traditions. A recent marriage bridging different religions and cultures, a new home in a new country or the arrival of children into a once solitary household, for example, can inspire new ways to celebrate.
But the different paths lead to the same destination: a time of warmth, family, continuity and joy.
Christmas in a new land
"I like everything about Christmas," said 8-year-old Victor Romero Zambrano. For the last three years he has lived in an apartment in Glen Cove where, early on Christmas morning, he'll open presents under a tree. "I like when Santa brings the toys."
And he likes it that in this country, Christmas seems to go on and on, from Thanksgiving right up to the new year.
Three years ago, he arrived here from El Salvador with his mother, Clara Zambrano de Romero, to join his father, Paulo Romero, 40. His father has lived here for 22 years.
For Victor, Christmas is a time to build gingerbread houses in school, to eat cookies and candy canes, to see friends and family. For his mother, however, no matter how brightly the colored lights glow on houses around the neighborhood, she is still wistful about Christmas in El Salvador.
"It's a special time in El Salvador, the people sharing with their family. We have a party on Christmas Eve and my mother and I cook typical dishes. We have music, we dance, and also we have fireworks," said Zambrano, 30.
She remembers the elaborate Nativity scenes arranged under tree branches painted silver and decorated with ornaments, the 12 grapes eaten to sweeten each of the months of the year ahead, the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve called the Mass of the Rooster.
Gift-giving isn't a big part of the celebration. "My country is a poor country and a lot of children don't have a present. It's about the birth of Jesus."
Here, the time for preparations and celebration is far less.
"We have to work," said Zambrano, whose schedule as a nursing home housekeeper includes weekends, as does her husband's schedule as a bartender.
The family circle is also smaller. "I think that's why it's different here," she said.
But her husband's uncle and aunt live nearby, whom they plan to visit on Christmas Eve. She'll call her mother and family in El Salvador to wish them a Merry Christmas.
On her first Christmas here, she cried and cried until her husband told her to call home to hear her mother's voice. Now, she said, "I miss my mom but it's getting better. I'm getting used to it."
"I love this country," she said cheerfully. "The music, the Christmas traditions. It's very pretty, and I love to see the houses with many lights. It is very pretty."
And being together on Christmas with her husband is "the best thing I have here, the most important thing. My husband is here, and I have to be here for a new life, not for me, but for my son. A better future for him."
Faith in each other
It was, you could say, a whirlwind romance. Kinga Sliwinska, 26, married Justin Hoffman, 31, in November, five months after they met through mutual friends.
Sliwinska is a Polish Catholic who has lived in the United States for three years; Hoffman, a Long Island representative of an international medical device company, is a Jewish man who grew up in Oceanside.
This is their first holiday season together, celebrated with a Hoffman family Hanukkah party and a big Christmas Eve dinner with Sliwinska's relatives on Staten Island (after a Skype visit with her parents and relatives at their Christmas Eve feast back in Poland).
"When I came here I wasn't thinking I was going to marry someone here, and of a different religion," said Sliwinska, who trained in Poland as a skin care beautician called an aesthetician and is working on her U.S. certification. But, she said, "My parents adore him and for them, it's no problem."
In Poland, Christmas, and especially the Christmas Eve dinner, is the biggest holiday of the year, and it is important for Sliwinska to keep up that tradition.
"We can't have any meat dishes, just fish and vegetables, 12 different dishes. We go to Mass on Christmas Eve," she said.
Voicing uncertainty whether her new husband would be comfortable attending Mass, she added, "I don't know how we're going to do this part, that's going to be the hard part."
"Not for me," said Hoffman. "You know, it's no problem going to Mass."
"OK, if you are going to go . . . ," she said. "If he says he doesn't mind, I would be more than happy."
"My wife is the best thing that has ever happened to me in many ways and our religious differences aren't going to stop me," Hoffman said.
His wife is more religious than he, Hoffman said, and if it was important to her to raise their children as Catholics, "I'm OK with that. But in my mind they also need to know that they are Jewish and respect that. We're going to celebrate Christmas and we're going to celebrate Hanukkah and they're lucky little kids."
For now, they have a little Christmas tree in their apartment in Hewlett Neck with fun ornaments of a bride and groom, and a snowman/snow woman couple in celebration of their recent marriage. Eventually, they will get a menorah.
"My mother kids around that what Jews do on Christmas is go out for Chinese food and a movie. I won't be eating Chinese food this year," he laughed.
My three sons
Joseph Toles knows what it's like to grow up in foster care and feel like "a weed blowing in the wind."
He was lucky. Encouraged by teachers and coaches, he won a full athletic scholarship to Auburn University in Alabama, where he was a track team captain and All-American. He is a high-school guidance counselor in the Half Hollow Hills district and a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice.
He had been engaged once, but marriage wasn't in the cards for him, he said. "It just never happened and one day I woke up and I was 52."
But part of him believed he was meant to experience and fully understand what it was like to have an untraditional family. Two years ago, he decided to adopt a child who, like him, lived in foster care.
Working with You Gotta Believe, an agency that specializes in the adoption of older children, he found Xavier Toles-Morales, then 17 and living in a group home since age 11. "It was seamless," said Toles, of Huntington. "It was like he had always been my son and we were just waiting to meet."
Xavier, 19, is a student at Nassau Community College. A year later came Johnathan, now 16. The day before Thanksgiving, 13-year-old Ronald, mild-mannered and talkative, joined the crew. His adoption isn't finalized yet.
Christmas now is nothing like what it was before, Toles said.
"Because I didn't have a family, I would create my own extended family and either go to someone's house or mine. But I didn't have to make a huge emotional investment in pleasing anybody but myself," he said.
Now? "I can't stop myself from thinking, 'Are they going to like this? Are they going to want this?' . . . That's the real difference. Now I'm living for somebody else."
Last year, he and the two older boys put up the tree together, "which was new for all of us. If I ever did it, it was under my control and I put things where I wanted them to be." Now it's a group decision.
They "bought new ornaments together," he said. "Part of this whole process is trying to figure out what the new traditions will be."
This year, they'll see the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show. He hopes he can get the boys to do community service on Christmas Eve, whether visiting children in hospitals or working in a soup kitchen. He encourages them to be emotionally present and engaged.
"In a way, they never had to do that before. If you are in a temporary home, it doesn't really matter."
Holidays can also bring up blue feelings, a remembrance of things lost or never found. But mostly, Toles said, "I think now there is a huge comfort in knowing we have each other, that although it's not Florence Henderson (star of TV's "The Brady Bunch") walking down the stairs with an armful of gifts, we know that in the morning when we wake up we're all going to be there and that it's really a forever family."
Elf's first Hanukkah
Usually, Trisha Magarie spends part of Christmas Eve on the West Hempstead Fire Department's truck helping Santa toss candy canes to the kids. This year, she won't have time to be an elf.
That's because Hanukkah overlaps with Christmas this year. Magarie, 25, who completed her conversion to Orthodox Judaism in June, will be spending the hours before Christmas Eve with her boyfriend's family celebrating Hanukkah.
"This will be my first Hanukkah as a Jewish person," said Magarie, 25, an insurance company customer service representative who lives with her boyfriend, Yonatan Klein, also 25, and her mother, Kathleen.
You could say this is a transitional year: "It's my mom's house, so I do have a [Christmas] tree, but there's also a menorah," said Magarie. "Because I am Jewish, this year she went out and bought me a menorah . . . She's been 100 percent supportive."
Christmas gatherings with aunts and other relatives will continue as before -- "I changed my religion because I didn't believe in certain things, but I'll keep my traditions with my family so I can celebrate it with them," she said.
Klein, a New York City fire department paramedic instructor, is happy to participate.
"It's about family and enjoying people's family, that's the big picture," he said.
The couple has discussed marriage, and in their own home they won't decorate for Christmas. Magarie's focus is on her new faith. She intends to learn how to cook latkes and jelly doughnuts, traditional Hanukkah foods.
But that doesn't mean she won't be back on Santa's truck flinging candy canes next year.
"Even the Jewish kids love Santa on the fire truck," she said.
Making the thought count more
Spending less. Showing love and care more.
That's how Nancy Zukowski describes the change in her Christmas gift-buying since losing her job at Blue Cross Blue Shield in 2008.
Despite occasional freelance writing work and retraining as a paralegal, money is tight for Zukowski, 46, of Medford and her husband, Michael, 49, a Hamptons Jitney driver.
Money woes won't keep them from their usual Christmas Eve routine: three services at the Lake Ronkonkoma United Methodist Church in Lake Grove where Michael volunteers to run the audiovisual equipment, with time out for a Chinese restaurant buffet dinner. Christmas Day, as usual, will be spent with her sister's family.
But job loss has required changes, a necessity in which the couple has found virtue.
Instead of mall shopping, they search for "treasures" in thrift shops and church fairs that help support not-for-profit organizations. They are choosing gifts for each relative "that have more meaning to them, or making personal cards and finding meaningful things to say to each one," Nancy Zukowski said.
She found a miniature lighthouse to add to her sister's collection, and an antique ceramic doll for a teenage niece. "She's an artist and I'm telling her this will be her muse as she goes on to college. And I found some beautiful candleholders for other members of my family."
Shopping on a shoestring budget takes more effort, but "it's more fun."
"The gift-giving almost got to be like a competition in the past. We almost had this sense of having to top each other once a year," she said. Now, "there's definitely less pressure and a lot more love and care."
Financial pressures have given them a deeper appreciation of other aspects of the holiday. They enjoy drives to see the "over-the-top" Christmas decorations on other people' houses and the music in church: "The little things that lift your spirits, you notice them more," she said.
This year, her church found a way for families to avoid the expense of having to send out cards to their fellow congregants. Instead, it sold sparkly ornamental balls for congregants to sign with holiday greetings for display in the church hall. The $10 goes to support church missions.
"It hurts to not be able to do as much charitable giving," she said. "I'm not on the soup line yet, but I feel like I can identify with those people."
So, "being able to identify myself as one of the poor and needy -- it's made me a lot more sensitive to the needs of others. It's forced me to learn how to emphasize the positive, and not to be so quick to judge people."
"It's forced me," she said, "to think more about the meaning of the holiday."