Like many, Starbucks partners are adapting and shifting their traditions as we approach a most unusual holiday season.
After a difficult and unprecedented year on a global scale, some holiday traditions may look much different. As families and friends err on the side of safety in a global pandemic, other traditions may be canceled entirely.
But these Starbucks partners from around the world say that with a little creativity and perseverance, the light and spirit behind favorite holiday traditions can still shine on this year.
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Family, chosen family
Every holiday season, Luca Micieli makes the rounds. He calls all of the partners at the Starbucks he manages – the store right outside the Tower of London. He also makes a few calls to people who haven’t worked at Starbucks for years. “Hello! Happy holidays! What are your plans?” he will say.
“Even if they are no longer working with me, I just want to let them hear a friendly voice. To make them know that no matter what, they are not alone,” Luca said.
Growing up in the Northern Italian town of Brescia, Luca was rarely alone, especially during the holidays.
“As you can expect, we do have a very large family, and Christmas is the only time of the year when we manage to gather all together. My auntie cooks the best dumplings in the world, and like every proper Italian dinner we start eating on December 24 and we don’t stop until December 26,” Luca said. “It’s 20, sometimes 25 people all together eating, singing and opening gifts – and then the dogs start barking.”
Luca paused, and grinned. “And then the police come and ask you to tone it down a notch.”
He moved to London and started working at Starbucks in 2012, the same year the city hosted the Olympic Games. Since then, he’s traveled home to Italy as often as he could, but he missed what turned out to be his father’s last Christmas. It’s likely he will not be able to travel home this year either.
“I know what it means to be far away. I am not trying to be cheesy, but the fact is, when you are a foreigner, a stranger in a strange land, you realize the people you work with are way more than colleagues. They become your family,” Luca said. “When I hear people say, ‘I have nobody here,’ that really gets my heart beating. I will always be there for them, and I know they will always be there for me. You call it chosen family, I call it surrogate family, but after all, isn’t this what families are for? To let us know we are never alone?”
And it’s not just at holiday time. Luca said five out of six people in his Friday night Dungeons and Dragons group are Starbucks partners.
“Another tradition!” he said. “At Starbucks, the company makes this easier. There’s this sense of responsibility, of taking care of each other. Sometimes we forget what it means and how important it is to work for a company that calls people partners, not employees.”
Let the holiday good times roll
It can be hard, finding a venue big enough to fit the whole extended family for the annual holiday party – unless your family also happens to own a roller-skating rink.
“My great grandmother had three boys, and all of those boys had families,” said Kristina Valerio, a five-year Starbucks partner who works in procurement. “The family got too big to eat at any one person’s house. Luckily, Great Uncle Eric owns a skating rink.”
And thus, a party was born that married traditional American holiday fare (trays of sugar cookies, Crockpot meatballs, Aunt Kathy’s rolls, a “12 Days of Christmas” sing-along) with somewhat less traditional holiday fare (The Chicken Dance, shelves of brown rental skates, unlimited slushies from the rink concession stand). Kristina’s cousin by marriage Gina Englund, a 14-year Starbucks partner who works in store design, has been attending the party since high school.
“It was kind of shocking at first, then it just becomes very normal,” Gina said. “I also come from a pretty big family, so it wasn’t necessarily the size, but the fact that we were at a rink, free to grab a pair of skates or wander behind the concession stand for soda or play all the games and win tickets we can exchange for prizes. We all look forward to it.”
Ready to roll
After the family enjoys a potluck dinner spread across the skate rental counter comes the official announcement: “Please make your way onto the rink.”
Kristina: That means it’s time for the Hokey Pokey. We make a big circle, because we do the full-body Hokey Pokey. Last year I was pregnant at the party but hadn’t told many people. I’m not big for announcements, but my sister was dying to tell everyone.
Gina: So, Uncle Eric …
Kristina: Older Uncle Eric, not younger Uncle Eric …
Gina: Older Uncle Eric walks around and asks people to sing into the microphone at different parts of the song, like, “Put your right hand in …”
Kristina: And when Uncle Eric put the microphone next to my sister, instead of yelling, “You put your right hand in,” she yelled, “Kristina and Brian are having a baby!” And everyone kept doing the Hokey Pokey. That’s my favorite part. That’s how serious we are. Then, once we finished, everyone ran over excited.
Gina: You can’t mess with the Hokey Pokey.
Like so many holiday traditions around the world, this one is most likely on hold this year, the pandemic disrupting it’s 50-year roll.
“I think it’s really sad, but there’s not really a safe way to make this happen,” Kristina said. “I now have a seven-month-old son and I’m a little bit glad he won’t remember this year. We’re going to cook really good food and put up the tree and all the decorations. It will be cozy this year. We’ll focus on each other and knowing that we really hope next year we get to take him to the roller-skating rink. People laugh, but this is my normal. Before Santa comes, you go roller skating.”
Different city, same star
New York City, New York
Growing up in the Philippines, life was simple for Jenna Krystel Villegas. She went to school and hung out with friends. No one gave a thought to things like video games or mobile phones. Instead, they played street games until the sun set. “My grandmother used to tell me that to be healthy, you needed to get dirty,” Jenna said.
Her favorite time of year was Christmas, when the entire community of Pampanga came together for holiday parties, celebrations and parades, some beginning as early as September.
“We celebrate the longest because we don’t want the happy moments to end, and because we want to make up for lost time with friends and family,” Jenna said.
One of the central symbols of this celebration is the parol, an ornamental lantern. It comes in all shapes and sizes – neighbors and family members frequently have contests to see who can display the biggest or the most ornate – but the parol is typically a five-pointed star made with bamboo and Japanese paper. As a child, Jenna remembers learning to craft a parol from found and recycled materials.
“As a little kid, you would make a recycled parol so you would have something to show everyone watching the parade,” Jenna said. “I can still remember when I made my very first parole in grade school, and I will never forget my grandma telling me what each of the five points stands for – kindness, joy, hospitality, warmth and love. It especially makes sense to me now.”
There’s no way that parol-making little girl in the Philippines could have known life would take her about as far away as she could get – to midtown Manhattan, where she manages a bustling Starbucks store a few blocks from the Chrysler Building and Grand Central Station. In the window of her store hangs a parol nearly as tall as she is – a homemade one, constructed of colored paper and Starbucks holiday cups.
A Starbucks partner of 15 years, Jenna loves to talk to partners and customers about the parol and its symbolism, and has assigned new meaning to the star’s five points to coincide with what she and her team have decided are the pillars of their store’s pandemic purpose: kindness, inspiration, optimism, resilience and to be uplifting.
“As a simple kid back then, this was something we did yearly. Now, living in a different country, those simple things become the things we miss the most,” Jenna said. “My partners may not have the same Filipino traditions, but they bring their own and we share. Traditions are how we represent where we’re from. It’s something I really do love about this country, the different perspectives. You don’t know people until you know their story, and that’s how you learn to respect other cultures.”
Hot (and heart) tamales
Every year since Jose Rivas was born, his large, Mexican family gathers the afternoon of December 24. For the first couple of hours – as beans and rice simmer and his grandmother, Lupe, wraps chicken, pork and raisin tamale filling in hundreds of corn husks – his uncles, aunts and cousins eat appetizers, visit and pitch in where they can.
“Grandma’s the lead, and we’re her sous chefs, there to help and clean up and support her,” Jose said. “When the food is ready, we all hold hands and someone will reflect on the year and what we have to be grateful for and remember people who are no longer with us and we take a minute as a family to connect. It’s one of my favorite times, because my dad died 10 years ago of cancer, and to take even those few seconds to remember him means so much. I don’t know if my family even knows that. That little time is huge.”
The family, about 60 strong, then scatters to various parts of his grandparents’ house and yard to eat, talk and play dominoes until just before midnight, when they gather by the tree to open presents. It’s a something the entire family looks forward to all year.
“It’s a really long evening, but food is a huge part of it, and just being together. Tradition is important to me,” said Jose, who works on the Starbucks partner experiences and events at the company’s Seattle Support Center.
Two years ago, Jose took his boyfriend (also a Starbucks partner) to the family party for the first time.
“He was like, ‘What is going on? Why are there so many people? Why is there so much food? And are you really drinking tequila with your grandma?’” Jose said.
“We do this every year,” Jose told him. “This is the norm. This is our clockwork.”
Gathering around the (virtual) table
Now, what to do with this lifelong holiday tradition in a year when being together isn’t possible? Jose’s grandma has some thoughts.
“She informed me, ‘You will get your tamales, come hell or high water,’ so that feels good,” Jose said, laughing. “I know my grandma goes back and forth – she wants to see us, but also knows it’s not the safe thing to do this year. Maybe people can pick the tamales up from her garage, or she can mail them. We set her up with an iPad, so we’re trying to figure out ways to still be together. This year is going to be really tough. We’re trying to make it as normal and as traditional as possible. The food part is not going anywhere, that’s for sure.”
Celebrating the ‘Hygge’ of Hanukkah
December can be the busiest time of year, but during the eight days of Hanukkah, Becca Rosencrans’s whole family slowed down together. At the end of each day, they gathered around the kitchen counter, where the menorah was set, and lit one of the menorah’s candles and said a few Jewish prayers. They enjoyed beverages and snacks and talked and laughed.
“Like happy hour, but non-alcoholic when we were younger. That kind of vibe,” said Becca, a social media planner who started working at Starbucks in March. “It was always an intimate family moment.”
She loved the warmth and festiveness of the holiday season. Not only did her family take time to celebrate together each of the eight nights with traditional Hanukkah revelry, including gifts, latkes, matzo soup, dreidel games and twinkling, blue lights, but her parents also hosted a whiz-banger-of-an annual holiday party.
As a college student studying abroad in Copenhagen, Becca met Peter, who in time would become her husband. She remembers well the first time he joined she and her family for Hanukkah, when he had the honor of lighting the shamash, the center and tallest candle on the family menorah, on the first night of Hanukkah.
“It seems simple, but it’s very symbolic, the candle lighting,” she said.
Blending cultural traditions
Over the next five years, as she and Peter built a life together, they found ways to blend the holiday traditions they grew up with – her Hanukkah and his Christmas – as well as to create new ones together. Like her parents, they host a big holiday party each year. But the night the couple decorate their home together has become her favorite part of the holidays.
They drink hot chocolate and listen to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” by Vince Guaraldi Trio on vinyl. They hang Hanukkah and Christmas-themed ornaments on a tree, and place a Star of David on top.
“The Star of David Christmas tree topper is a conversation starter,” Becca said, laughing. “People love it, and it’s very us. We’re flexible and fluid and I love being able to blend everything together. In my closet, I have a Hanukkah sweater and a Christmas sweater. I like having the mix.”
They make latkes and sometimes matzo ball soup. They light candles and bake and wear comfortable clothes to create a sense of coziness they call “hygge,” a concept they learned about together while studying in Copenhagen.
“It’s simple and cozy and comfortable and nice. It’s finding ourselves as adults but bringing that nostalgia and playfulness of childhood and our families with us,” Becca said. “This year in particular, we won’t be with family or going to holiday parties, and I look forward to our traditions as a couple to bring a sense of familiarity to a really weird season.”
In 2007, Kumiko Uriuda started work as a part-time barista at the Starbucks inside Japan’s Nagoya City University Hospital. Could it be a coincidence that is the same year a jolly, bearded elf dressed in red, a herd of reindeer and a handful of Starbucks baristas in green aprons started delivering books to hundreds of children spending the holidays in hospital rooms?
“These children usually have little connection to the outside world of the hospital,” said Kumiko, now a shift supervisor. “The children's glittering smiles bring us energy and courage. It is very important and meaningful tradition for us and reaffirms why we are here.”
The tradition, which Starbucks partners call “Play Santa,” works like this: Starbucks partners in central Japan collect hundreds of children’s books and take them to the hospital store, where the books are gift wrapped and a personal message is added for each child. Then, on delivery day, doctors and nurses dress as Santa Claus and reindeer and, trailed by Starbucks partners with arms full of books, they deliver the presents and some much-needed cheer to about 200 hospitalized children – even to the babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.
“I truly think (Starbucks) stores inside hospitals are special, and my store is, too,” Kumiko said. “Partners are truly compassionate, and they provide great experiences by listening to our customers’ voices and hearts. We often hear comments from patients who say it’s easier to go through their painful treatment because of our coffee and partners.”
“Play Santa” has become an important and memorable tradition, not just for Starbucks partners and hospital staff, but for the children. Last December, a teenage girl came into the store with her mother, and there happened to be a book donation in the stack for a high school-age student. Kumiko gave the girl the wrapped book started to explain the annual tradition of “Play Santa.” Turns out the teen was already very familiar.
“Her mother told me that she had received a picture book from us while she was in the hospital when she was little,” Kumiko said. “I was delighted.”
After 13 years, the “Play Santa” tradition must pause this holiday to ensure the safety of hospital staff and children in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Kumiko said book deliveries will resume next year. Meanwhile, Kumiko and her teammates continue to look for safe ways to bring joy to the medical staff and children at the hospital.
“Even before I joined this company, I felt Starbucks partners were always full of smiles and ideas, and they continue being so,” Kumiko said.
One thing that brings her joy? Her daughter, Maho, who was an elementary school student when Kumiko started working at Starbucks is now a Starbucks partner as well. She is working at another store in the city while studying to become a pharmacist. Kumiko said she believes the things her daughter has learned at Starbucks, “staying close to people’s feelings and contributing to society and community,” will also serve her well as a pharmacist.
“I believe that our mission and values of Starbucks will be the foundation for my daughter's future,” Kumiko said.