New England New Year Traditions: First Night & First Hikes

New England New Year Traditions: First Night & First Hikes

Many family-friendly New Year’s celebrations offer a range of opportunities to not only celebrate, but also to explore by inviting families to visit many locations or landmarks in their local communities.  These celebrations includes performances, art shows, hands-on activities, ceremonies and sometimes food!  Such events encourage Western Massachusetts residents to engage their local community and experience it from new perspectives.  The exploratory aspect of such events provides a place-based element to the cultural learning that New Year’s celebrations foster.  Participants can solidify their sense of place as they learn about and become a part of a local culture, tradition and heritage.  Moving through the local landscape offers insight and understanding of home, place and the meaning of local identity and culture.

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First Day Hikes for the New Year

Setting Intentions on the First Day of the Year with a First Day Hike

The New Year is often seen as a moment of reflection and intention-setting.  While on your first hike, consider taking your journal with you.  Nature can be inspiring and provides a place for contemplation and meditation.  A few writing prompts to help you get started:

  • What is a new skill you would like to learn this year?
  • Describe one of your favorite memories from last year.
  • Make a list of the favorite places you visited in your community last year.
  • Make a list of places you would like to explore further this year.
  • What is a new skill that you learned last year?

Check our list of Weekly Suggested Events to discover first day hikes to select for the first day of the year!

[Photo credit: (c) Sienna Wildfield]


Museum Explorations of Christmas

Museum Explorations of Christmas

Local museums are an experiential way to explore the history of New England holiday traditions and how our present customs were influenced by the cultural practices of the past. Whether you’re interested in learning about food traditions from the past, historic decorations or customary festivities, museum exhibitions and demonstrations provide us with tangible examples in their exploration of history and culture. Specifically, living history museums and events are engaging ways to witness firsthand how holidays were celebrated in early New England. Hands-on activities and demonstrations create unique experiences for visitors to learn about different holiday festivities. It’s also a great opportunity to see how the season was celebrated in a non-commercial way; many decorations and gifts were handmade!

Download our Nov/Dec issue of Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts to discover winter holiday traditions being celebrated across the region.  Read the rest of this entry »

Community Celebrations of Hanukkah

Celebrate Hanukkah

Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday known as the Festival of Lights. For eight days, Jewish families light one more candle of the eight that create the menorah each evening. In Western Massachusetts there are many places to explore the traditions of Hanukkah and Jewish culture through community events and local museums. Bring your family to celebrate while participating and learning about customs of the holiday.

Here in this video is a brief history of Hanukkah and the origin of many customs:

Find community events for celebrating and discovering the traditions of Hanukkah in our list of Weekly Suggested Events.

Download our Nov/Dec issue of Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts to discover winter holiday traditions being celebrated across the region.







50 Years of Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa: Celebrating 50 Years!

In 1966, Dr. Maulana Karenga established an African American and Pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa, based on traditional African “first fruit” (harvest) celebrations. Organized around seven principles (unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith), Kwanzaa aims to preserve, continually revitalize, and promote African American culture. A week-long celebration observed from December 26 to January 1. During this time, look for annual community-based celebrations in which to participate.

Share this video with your kids, discovering the history and tradition of this celebration:

The Malcolm X Cultural Center at UMass in Amherst hosts an annual Kwanzaa Celebration. Other annual Kwanzaa celebrations take place in Springfield and Pittsfield. Learn more about the symbols, values, and history of Kwanzaa online at

Download our Nov/Dec issue of Learning Ahead: Cultural Itinerary for Western Massachusetts to discover winter holiday traditions being celebrated across the region.

Three Kings Day Customs: Food, Giving & Celebrating

Three Kings Day Customs: Food, Giving & Celebrating

The intersection of food and culture are great ways to make learning connections! Make Rosca de Reyes (Three Kings Bread) at home and discover this delicious food tradition!

On January 6th in many Hispanic countries, the Day of the Three Kings, or Los Reyes, is celebrated. This day marks the biblical adoration of the magi or the three kings that came to visit the newborn baby Jesus. Each king comes bearing a gift. Traditionally on this day gifts are exchanged and, on the island of Puerto Rico, another sweet and interesting tradition occurs with children writing a letter to los reyes asking for gifts. Then, on the night before the Day of the Three Kings, children gather cut grass and place it in a box underneath their bed. The grass is meant for the kings’ camels to eat. In exchange for the grass, and in gratitude, the kings leave a special little gift for the children!

Learn about the extended holiday season and the traditions and celebrations that accompany Three King’s Day through reading, baking, crafting, and celebrating in our post, Three King’s Day Offers Multi-Cultural LearningRead the rest of this entry »

Sense of Place: Holiday Traditions

Holiday Traditions: Old & New

The Good Life: A Year of Thoughtful Seasons by Sarah Mattison Buhl

Something For Your Pocket

My mother was a Christmas magician. She made every holiday candy and cookie known to humankind. She did not shy away from butter, or a good laugh. She wrapped what seemed like mountains of gifts in sparkling paper, and every package had a bow. Sometimes the bows were made by hand. During my mother’s most seriously invested Christmases, she prayed over a candle-lit Advent wreath. Every year my dad located and cut down the perfect tree for her. This was not an easy task (the perfection nor the cutting), and my father took his appointment seriously. He laid old-fashioned tinsel on the tree, branch by painstaking branch. It was a labor of love. A ball of mistletoe hung over their entry door. They forgot to pack it away one year, and it is still up twenty years later never having moved. Maybe the best tradition is to just leave the mistletoe up? My brother Charlie and I kept advent calendars, left rough-looking cookies for Santa, and even left carrots for his reindeer. We read the beautifully illustrated book “Jolly Old Santa Claus” together every Christmas Eve until we were nearly grown-ups.

There is a sadness that sometimes comes with the holidays. Maybe it is the onset of winter, the end of a difficult year, or an unnamed longing that hangs in the air near the rafters. It seems nocturnal, though there is no scientific evidence. This sadness didn’t make its first visit to me until I was seventeen, when by brother Charlie missed his first Christmas home… Read the rest of this entry »

A Look at the History of Holiday Traditions in Western MA

History and Traditions for the Holidays

When did decorating a Christmas tree become a holiday tradition? Where did the practice of giving gifts originate? The Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, MA writes, “During the Victorian Era, Christmas bloomed into a season full of tradition when a London newspaper published a drawing depicting the royal family of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert adorning a Christmas tree with lighted candles, tinsel, ribbon, and paper chains.”

The holiday season is full of opportunities to teach your kids about the origins of holiday traditions, getting a glimpse into history and cultures.  The Historic Deerfield and Old Sturbridge Village offer opportunities throughout December for holiday history lessons that are fun and engaging!


Historical Deerfield has a month long series of traditional festive activities for families to enjoy in December. Visitors can learn about open hearth cooking, holiday traditions, take a horse-drawn wagon ride, and make simple gifts to take home.

Last weekend, silhouette artist and historical actress Lauren Muney was at Historic Deerfield in period dress cutting portraits out of paper.  The art of silhouettes was very popular in the 1800’s, and Lauren’s interpretation of the work of itinerant artists from the past, who cut likenesses of people from black paper using just scissors, was an engaging way to explore the history of folk art.

This weekend visitors of Historic Deerfield can make their own simple gifts to give this holiday season, including woodland figures made from natural materials, paper quillwork ornaments, and spiced hot chocolate mix. There will also be horse-drawn wagon rides through the streets of Historic Deerfield.

Historic Deerfield’s  program has a refreshing lack of the man in red! If you would prefer your family to take in some history without a distracting bearded figure, this is the museum for you. It is delightfully low key and fun, even for families with young children. The programs run from December 1st-30th, excluding December 24th and 25th, from 9:30am-4:30pm. Open Hearth Cooking starts at 10am, and gift-making starts at 12noon. December 15th-16th will be the final days for enjoying horse-drawn wagon rides. You can get all of the details at

OLD STURBRIDGE VILLAGE: Christmas by Candlelight

For an all-engaging sensory experience, check out the Old Sturbridge Village’s “Christmas by Candlelight.” The staff at Old Sturbridge goes all out to create magic for your family. There are carolers, horse-drawn carriages, dances, a bonfire, mulled cider, Santa Claus, a gift-making workshop… the list goes on! True to the mission of the museum, all of the fun is organized to help visitors understand New England in the early 1800s. Visitors will be able to learn about the origins of the Christmas Tree, Poinsettias, and fruit cake, among other things, and have the opportunity to create their own gifts and decorations. You can read more about it at Christmas by Candlelight.

For more learning opportunities this holiday season, check out Hilltown Families Friday column, Learn Local. Play Local.


Theresa Heary-Selah — Theresa is a teacher and a freelance writer, making her home in Greenfield, MA and Wright, NY with her family.  She teaches at S.H.I.N.E. (Students at Home in New England), a social and academic support program for middle school students in the Pioneer Valley, and writes about home-schooling and technology.  Theresa’s interests include home-schooling, gardening, cooking, hiking, and dancing.

[Image credit: (ccl) Royce Bair]

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