Holiday Traditions Bring Comfort and Joy

By Ann Thelen

Special traditions bring comfort, joy and excitement to the holidays. From picking out the perfect tree to making a time-treasured recipe, friends and families gather to celebrate the magic of the season.

Whether it's a memory of baking cookies with grandma, placing favorite ornaments on the tree, going to midnight church services or watching "A Christmas Story," these special moments and traditions bring delight to the bustling season. Watching the wide-eyed wonder of children combined with the joyful expressions of adults bridges one generation to the next and creates memories that live on for decades.

We asked our Iowa Food & Family Project partners to share their favorite traditions, which include many irresistible recipes.

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Alyson Fendrick, RD, LD | Marketing Communications Manager, Midwest Dairy

My family celebrates so many great traditions during the holidays, but my favorite is decorating gingerbread houses with my nieces and nephews.  What started as a fun activity to keep the little kids occupied while they patiently waited to open their gifts has evolved into an eagerly anticipated Christmas Eve event.  While our "houses" change from princess castles and trains to treehouses and barns, I love watching their creativity light up every year.  While excess candy is consumed and fingers full of frosting are licked, this yearly memory maker fills my soul.

Laura Cunningham | Marketing Manager, Latham Hi-Tech Seeds

My favorite tradition (and memory) is visiting local tree farms to pick out “my perfect tree.” As a child, we frequented Lines Tree Farm in Marble Rock, Iowa. I still remember the fresh pine smell of their wreath-making shed and the sweet cinnamon cider ready to warm us after hiking through the farm. As an adult, my husband and I continue the tradition with our son Wyatt, who made his first trek to Carlson Tree Farm in Latimer at just six weeks old! We enjoy the opportunity to support another north Iowa farm family with our holiday purchase. Read more about Laura’s favorite tradition and find a recipe for making homemade Christmas ornaments.

Aaron Putze | Sr. Director Information & Education, Iowa Soybean Association

Christmases as a youth were simple and, thus, exceedingly special. Even though our farmhouse lacked a fireplace and chimney, Santa always managed to find his way inside while we were asleep Christmas Eve. At first light Christmas morning, my siblings and I would jump out of bed and scamper to the living room to take inventory of the brightly wrapped presents nestled under the tree.

One very cherished memory is the festive and delicious ribbon salad that adorned the table for dinner each Christmas Day. The bright red, green, and white layers were as beautiful to the eye as delightful to the taste. Each serving of the salad was placed on a small porcelain plate, shaped and colored like the leaf of a poinsettia plant. I always saved the ribbon salad for last. Every bite was savored, knowing it was around for only a limited time!

All too soon, Christmas Day on the farm came to an end as my siblings and I began celebrating with families of our own. Without missing a beat, I requested the ribbon salad recipe from my mother. To this day, the delectable treat is a staple each Christmas when my wife Crystal, our kids Garrett, Grant and Jaelyn, and I gather around the dinner table to relive and rekindle the special traditions that make the holiday so meaningful. The Christmas Ribbon Salad is a big part of every Christmas Day and always will be!

Christmas Ribbon Salad


1 small package lime Jell-O
1 small package lemon Jell-O
1 small package cherry Jell-O
20-ounce can crushed pineapple, drained (reserve liquid to mix with Jell-O)
3 ounces cream cheese
1 cup Cool Whip


Bottom Layer: Mix one package of lime Jell-O and let it set up firm in a 9x9-inch pan (or 9x13-inch) pan.

Middle Layer: Mix lemon Jell-O according to package but substitute pineapple juice for cold water. Let it set up in refrigeration in separate container until fairly congealed (an hour or so). Then, beat in cream cheese, Cool Whip and pineapple. Pour over the top of the lime Jell-O layer, smooth and refrigerate.

Top layer: Mix one package of cherry Jell-O and let it thicken in separate container in refrigerator for an hour or so and then pour it over the middle layer. Refrigerate and serve.

Linda Funk | Executive Director, The Soyfoods Council

I have many fond Christmas food memories. When I was growing up, my mom and I would make 20 or so different cookies. The Tupperware containers would be overflowing with various types of treats. We distributed them to family, neighbors, the milk hauler and the mailman to say Merry Christmas. I have continued this tradition with a very good friend. We get together every year for several days and bake cookies. It is such a great way to share cookie recipes we each grew up with, as well as try new ones. We then make cookie trays for friends, family and parties. It is a highlight of the holiday season.

When I came to Iowa to start The Soyfoods Council, I took my favorite recipes and "soy-ized" them by substituting some soy ingredients. My all-time favorite recipe is for Toffee Bars. They are easy and delicious and a recipe I make year-round.

Toffee Bars

1 cup butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
1½ cups all purpose flour
½ cup soy flour
1 4.4-ounce ounce bar milk chocolate, melted (can use two bars, if desired
¾ cup chopped soy nuts or chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In large mixing bowl, cream butter until light. Add sugar, egg yolk, vanilla; beat until well blended. Add all-purpose flour and soy flour, mix well. Spread evenly in a lightly greased 10x15x2 inch pan. Bake for 12-15 minutes. (Watch carefully because cookies brown quickly.) Let cool for about 5 minutes. Spread with melted chocolate. Sprinkle with chopped nuts. Cool completely. Cut into bars.

Lydia Zerby | Consumer Insights & Engagement Manager, Iowa Food & Family Project

Christmas has always been my favorite time of the year. As a child, we would get together with extended family members to celebrate, including time with my mom's side of the family. After eating Christmas dinner, we would gather in the living room to open presents. The children would take turns passing out presents until everyone had a couple to start opening. In our family, it’s always been the tradition that we open presents one by one so everyone can see and enjoy the excitement.

When my cousins and I were elementary age, we would make the case that the order of opening presents should go from youngest to oldest. It was such a joy for my parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents to watch as the children opened their gifts. As children, we were always anxious for the adults to open their gifts so the order would come back around to the children.

As my cousins and I got older, the tradition started to change. My grandpa, a man of few words, began to ask that the order start with the oldest! We happily obliged as we knew it was his way of making us all laugh. He would open a present, and then the order would continue to the next oldest and so on. While everyone else was opening gifts, my grandpa would slowly run his fingers under the tape of his next present. He wanted to be sure he was ready when it came to his turn again, and it always made me smile.

One of my grandpa’s favorite Christmas treats was my mom’s mint brownies, which I also love. My grandpa and I were very close, and I look forward to enjoying the brownies each holiday season and savoring the memories they bring.

Mint Brownies

Bottom layer
4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate
1 cup butter
4 eggs
2 cups sugar
1 cup flour

Melt baking chocolate and butter together. Beat eggs and sugar until thick, then add chocolate mixture. Add flour. Mix until smooth. Pour into greased 9x13-inch pan. Bake at 350 degrees F for 22-25 minutes.

Middle layer
3 cups powdered sugar
4 tablespoons milk or until thick frosting consistency
6 tablespoons butter
1½ teaspoons mint extract

Beat butter, add sugar and milk alternately until thick frosting consistency. Add mint extract and any food coloring (ideas – green or red). Spread over bottom layer and chill until firm.

Top layer
9 ounces chocolate chips
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vanilla

Melt chocolate chips and butter, add vanilla. Add a little milk at a time to get a consistency so it can be spread over middle layer. Chill until firm. Mint brownies are easier to cut if they have been out of the refrigerator for a little bit of time.

Brandi Strautman, Public Relations Manager, Iowa Corn Growers Association

Coming from a large family, a house full of people brings me joy. My family and friends traditionally do a potluck-style gathering during the holiday season. Each person brings their favorite dish, appetizer or dessert. There is always enough food to graze all night long. May your bellies be full, and meals be corn-fed this holiday season. Below is my go-to appetizer to please a crowd.

Corn Dip

2 cans whole kernel corn, drained
2 cups grated cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 cup of mayonnaise
1 cup green pepper, chopped
½ cup red onion, diced finely
Corn chips for serving

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl and serve with corn chips.

Kevin Stiles | Executive Director, Iowa Poultry Association and Iowa Egg Council

Our family tradition has involved Christmas morning brunch. While Christmas dinner has varied through the years, our egg, sausage and cheese casserole brunch has remained consistent since our boys were young (now going on for about 25 years!). First on the agenda has been opening presents with our smaller family, and then joined mid-morning by grandparents, aunts and our somewhat larger group.

For our customary breakfast casserole, we haven't always used the same recipe, but eggs, cheese and sausage are a must. Our family seems to look forward to it even more than the meal later in the day. Nothing seems more traditional and welcome mid-morning than combining these comfort foods. This casserole, some fruit and a warm beverage help to carry us over until our Christmas dinner later in the day. 

Anne Hytrek, MSEd, RD, LD, CDE | Registered Dietitian, Ankeny Prairie Trail Hy-Vee

My family always serves soups on Christmas Eve, and we each bring a different appetizer or side dish.  When I first started with Hy-Vee, I found this Pear-Pomegranate Salsa recipe and love to serve it, as the colors just say Christmas. It's always a favorite and is so good, we sometimes just eat it alone as a mini salad.

Pear-Pomegranate Salsa

Yield: About 3 cups

2 pears, cored and diced
Arils of ½ fresh pomegranate
⅓ cup dried cranberries
⅓ of 1 red onion, finely diced
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
Splash of fresh lime juice
Whole-grain pita chips or tortilla chips

Combine pears with pomegranate arils, dried cranberries, onion, cilantro and lime juice in a bowl. Toss until thoroughly combined. Serve with tortilla or pita chips. Enjoy immediately or store in a sealed container for up to 2 days.