Every holiday season, the trappings of merry Christmases, happy Hanukkahs and Thanksgiving feasts take over at our grocery stores, on our TVs and in conversations with co-workers. Images of holiday lights, happy Santas and warm family gatherings dominate the months of November and December, but while these may be the ingredients of a well-celebrated holiday for many, there are many holiday traditions that deviate from these well-worn and heavily commercialized formulas. 

The fall and winter months have a more diverse offering of holidays than advertising would have you believe. Instead of celebrating the myths that gave rise to Thanksgiving, some observe a day of mourning. Instead of Christmas, some celebrate the changing of the seasons. Even within the more popular fall and winter holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, many have carved out fun, charitable and even haunting ways to celebrate that are all their own. 

The coldest months of the year have arrived. Whether you’re staying cozy indoors or heading out to enjoy the festivities of the region, here’s our guide to Seattle-area movies, performances, light displays, concerts and more this winter.

2021 Holiday Mix

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This year, four Seattleites shared with us the holiday traditions that make the season special to their friends and families. 

60 years of football and service 

Charles Sampson was 10 in November 1959 when he first arranged a touch football game between his neighbors to the east and his neighbors to the west in his hometown of West Monroe, Louisiana.

“The honor was for bragging rights,” he said, channeling his 10-year-old self. 

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The next year for Thanksgiving, the neighborhood kids came out again, and again the year after that. The kids played every year until most of them, including Sampson, went off to the military. Sampson restarted the tradition in 1977 after he moved to Seattle. This time the competition was between the Sampsons and the Mannings (Sampson’s wife’s family). Both he and his wife boast large families. They called the event the “Turkey Bowl.” 

This time it came with a bigger purpose: The teams collected canned goods to donate to Northwest Harvest, a hunger relief agency in Washington. 

“The Turkey Bowl is more than a game,” said Sampson. “Because it teaches us that life is more than a game.”

Over the years, Sampson estimates, they donated thousands of pounds of canned goods, especially as the Turkey Bowl grew to include more community members, including city council members, professional football players and local police officers with whom Sampson worked as a community service officer.

“I always tried to help people,” said Sampson. “That’s my nature.”

Still, the tradition petered out again in 1999. Why? 

“We got old!” Sampson said with a laugh. 

Sixteen years later, the tradition got the injection of youth it needed when Sampson’s nephew Cortez Charles asked for his uncle’s blessing and restarted the tradition in 2015, becoming the founder and organizer of the Annual Turkey Bowl Week in Washington.

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“[My uncle] let me know we were writing our own history,” said Charles.

That year, Charles was emerging from some of the darkest years of his life, in which he experienced homelessness with his two young children and realized that actions in his youth had damaged his community.

“I needed to start rebuilding our community after helping tear it down,” Charles said. “You want to be known for doing something good for your community.” 

Now in its seventh year since the relaunch, the Turkey Bowl is a weeklong celebration and service project that brings youth to the Rainier Beach Community Center to make and give out food to those in need. It hosts vaccine clinics and services other community needs, and, of course, ends with a celebratory flag football game for the kids. 

Although he’s now mostly a spectator at the football game, Sampson, 72, helps by sharing the history of the tradition and helping however he can.

“[My nephew] carried it to a whole different level. I’m so proud of him,” said Sampson. “I see the same excitement and enthusiasm as I did when I was 10 years old.” 

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A Krampus Christmas

Krampus is a well-known name in several European countries, where folklore tells of a scary horned creature who visits children on Christmas night alongside Santa Claus or St. Nicholas. If a child is good, Santa offers a treat; if they’re naughty, they have to face Krampus. The folklore varies across the Alpine region in Europe, but the bottom line is that Krampus is terrifying and you should probably just be nice for the holiday season. 

When John Hurst first heard about Krampus, he didn’t know much about the folklore and traditions, but when he dressed up as the character for a Christmas-themed set at the local haunted house where he works, it was a huge hit. So, he dived into researching the history and identified an opportunity to not only extend his haunting days beyond October and Halloween, but to share a rich tradition with others. 

In 2017, Hurst received a traditional wood-carved Krampus mask from a master mask maker in Europe (a maskenschnitzer) and the next year, he started Krampus Seattle with two fellow haunted house workers. For the first few years they portrayed Krampus at Nile Nightmares, a Christmas-themed haunted house, but they wanted to do something closer to tradition. 

Modern Krampus traditions include a parade of Krampuses or a Krampuslauf on Krampus night (Krampusnacht) in which people dress up as the scary creature and “haunt” through the streets, occasionally marking paradegoers as naughty with a smudge of ash on their hands. Last year, the group rented a house in Leavenworth and walked around the holiday festival in their masks and costumes. They were such a big hit that Leavenworth asked them to come back this year for Krampusnacht weekend Dec. 4. (Krampusnacht is traditionally Dec. 5.) Hurst hopes Krampus parades at Leavenworth and other places throughout the state become an annual tradition. 

Although the folkloric Krampus is meant to terrify children into good behavior, Krampus Seattle aims to teach about the tradition and donates its profits to children’s organizations. Of course, a good scare doesn’t hurt either. 

“A lot of people in the U.S. have dark markets or anti-Christmas markets or oddity markets [with Krampus]. That’s not the tradition,” said Hurst. “Some people see a devil form and don’t understand and just sort of assume the worst. … To us, it’s the intent behind it that matters. We care about our community and our kids in the communities and helping out those that are less fortunate than us.” 

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A Vermillion Friendsgiving

Diana Adams, owner of Vermillion, a gallery and bar on Capitol Hill in Seattle, has always been a big fan of Thanksgiving. She comes from a small family and has been cooking Thanksgiving dinner by herself since she was a kid. In her adulthood, her family has always lived far apart.

A little over a decade ago, she decided to have a potluck at the gallery the day before Thanksgiving, inviting friends and community members who don’t have big family gatherings every year, or have nowhere to go at all. It’s open to anyone.

“I want to provide a place for other people that are in the same position I’m in. I’ve always felt like I’ve wanted to create my own family,” she said. “I feel like it’s the most satisfying and wholesome holiday.

“It’s kind of a way for me to have the chosen family that I’m not able to physically have.”

Adams takes care of the big-ticket items — the turkey, the stuffing, the potatoes — and about 25 to 50 people show up every year bringing side dishes and desserts. Adams cooks three or four turkeys and brings them out one at a time as people wander in at different times of the night. 

“I just create a platform and let people express themselves. It doesn’t get really formal,” Adams said. “I still don’t really think of it as a tradition because I hope I’m able to still roll with the punches.” 

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That has meant some rethinking as awareness about the history of the holiday rises. 

“There’s more to be conscientious about with respect to Indigenous people and how we’ve colonized this country,” she said. “It’s something I like to look at positively; even though the definition is changing, I don’t think we need to abandon it as a concept, it’s good to redefine it because we really need it right now. It sows a sense of community and belonging and acknowledgment of ourselves, our families and the land.” 

The gallery has hosted “Friendsgiving” every year. Last year, at the height of the pandemic, was the only time the potluck was canceled. The celebration has even gone on without Adams when, one year, she had to fly to New York to take care of her mother in the hospital.

Another year, her father had a massive heart attack, and when he got ahold of her from the hospital, she was in the middle of the potluck. Surrounded by friends and community, she thought, “I’m actually in the best possible place I could possibly be right now with all these people.” 

Adams says her favorite part every year is seeing people return. Some of those returning faces were at the very first potluck. 

Embracing change for winter solstice

Janice Van Cleve was Catholic for most of her life. But in the 1980s and ’90s, when the Catholic Church spoke out against LGBTQ+ identities, Van Cleve felt she had to choose between her faith or her integrity. 

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“I chose my integrity,” she said. She left the church and found a Catholic theologian at Seattle University who was teaching a course about women in the Bible.  

The professor, says Van Cleve, started each class with a small ritual, like lighting a candle. After the course, Van Cleve and a few other women started a book club, and at their meetings in parks and cafes, they too began their discussions with little rituals. They each chose a stone to symbolize their presence at the meeting and lit incense and candles. 

These discussions and rituals eventually led Van Cleve to a Wiccan women’s group, a modern pagan religion. The religion made sense to her and she joined the Women of the Goddess Circle, a feminist pagan spiritual community of women in the Dianic tradition of Wicca, which focuses on women’s empowerment.

Every year they mark the eight Sabbats or seasonal cycles of the year. December is the time of the winter solstice. Their ritual marks the changing of the seasons and the renewal of the year. 

“[At winter solstice] we do what nature does,” said Van Cleve. “Nature quiets down. Nature renews itself in the dark time of the year. So, that’s what we do, too.” 

So what does that look like? It changes every year. 

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One year, they built a tiny Stonehenge out of bricks. Another year they did a meditation where they pretended to be snow-covered branches laying on the ground. Then there was the year they made a huge spiral on the ground out of holiday lights and each woman walked the spiral to the center, where they spoke about their hopes; everyone applauded as each woman exited the spiral. 

The circle has held rituals for 31 years, and their rituals change and adapt as the group changes and adapts. One consistent thing is that the group meets two weeks before each ritual to plan, and they always welcome new people.

“We do a check-in and ask people where they are, what’s going on in people’s lives,” said Van Cleve. “Then we weave that into the ritual. It makes a richer ritual and helps people feel ownership over the ritual.”

Adaptability and change is at the core of the tradition and ritual of the circle. “Our tradition is alive. It’s not dead,” said Van Cleve. “We have a structure that you can pour into whatever you need to pour into it. There’s a reason we’ve gone on for 31 years.”