Brown Paper Packages

Week 2/2 where my brain cannot handle more Harvard. I’ll give you a quick run down of my first two finals though:

The Good – they’re over. Also, someone in my section brought us all earplugs! You’re the best Dinan.

The Bad – uh…they were.

The Ugly – my panicked, riddled-with-typos, word vomit answers. I’ve never been more excited that something is anonymous in my LIFE.

The Good Again -I’ve got Property today at 2, a Leg&Reg take-home on Wed, and then I AM 1/6 OF THE WAY THROUGH HARVARD LAW SCHOOL!!!!! Absolute madness.

But like I said…let’s ignore school, shall we?

Because I really can’t describe how much I LOVE December. Christmas decorations, gifting your friends, holiday parties, cookies (so many cookies), family traditions, wine, fun activities everywhere…I can’t get enough. I come from a crazy, holiday-to-the-max, DO-NOT-GET-OUT-OF-BED-UNTIL-6-AM-ON-CHRISTMAS-OR-I-WILL-END-YOU family, so this obsession was instilled at a young age.

I’m about to share all of my favorite holiday things, but first I have a request for you guys! Please comment or message me, and tell me about your favorite holiday traditions!! The only thing better than doing my own Christmas stuff is hearing about other people’s, so I’m missing a chance to question you all.

The Lead-Up

Actually…if you’re about to message me and say you put your tree up before Thanksgiving, KEEP THAT ISH TO YOURSELF. November is for turkeys, December is for trees. Period.

The Vanns are Real Tree People and Big Tree People. The emphasis was never on the “picking-out-the-tree” part – in fact, I only have one recollection about cutting down a tree and it was for my own apartment, post-college. Nah, we were allllLLL about the decorations – and did I mention we’re not Perfect Tree People either?

If you know, you know – if you don’t, let me tell you.

Welcome to the Chaos Tree Club.

Multi-colored lights – if they all work, we don’t want ’em. You brought home a string of popcorn from class? Gross, but throw it on. Homemade ornaments, glitter, macaroni jewelry, cottonball snowmen, tinsel, plaster preschool hands…there’s room, squeeze it in there. An Ariel ornament right next to the Millennium Falcon (complete with Star Wars noises and flashing lights?) Yep, that’s where she goes. Where’s Flounder???

This leads to our first tradition…

Tradition #1: Dated Ornaments

Every year, my mom would replace a few gift tags with ornaments that represented our year as a whole. I distinctly remember getting a skiier after I went for the first time; a gymnast and a fairy, for those respective obsessions; and a soldier my first year at the Academy. She’d write our name and the year on the back, so every Christmas we’d pull them out and fight briefly about ownership before the Sharpie would clear things up. When I got my first apartment in 2016, my mom sent ALL my old ornaments for my tree and…it was the absolute greatest thing.

I love them all because they each have a story, but my favorites are Ariel (who has broken at least three different times, and had random objects placed in her hand each time), Barbie (because duh), a bell that I’m STILL convinced actually came from Santa’s Sleigh (go 7-yr-old-me, really putting Santa to the test), and the Russian Angel on top of the tree.

The ornament tradition has definitely rubbed off, but I really need to take it easy. This year alone, I think we accrued 7 new ornaments (granted, we had our ‘fun’ wedding this year, so several are from Napa). AND I still need a Harvard Law one, obviously. Check them out!!

Tradition #2: Chicago Trip

There was one other, pre-Christmas ‘thing’ that I looked forward to more than ANYTHING else, and that was our annual trip to Chicago. We would go downtown to see the Macy’s holiday window display, go to the annual German Market at Daley plaza, and eat deep dish pizza at Chicago Pizza & Ovengrinder. If you have never done one (or any) of these things, YOU HAVE TO GO!!!!!!!!!!! The huge, themed windows of Macy’s told a different story each year, which wrapped around two sides of a giant building. They were absolutely gorgeous and MOVED – I just couldn’t believe real people designed them!

Vann Fam takes Christkrindlmarket ❤

The German Market (also known as Christkrindlmarket, check it out here: is set up from December 1 through the New Year, and it’s a ton of tiny wooden stands that sell EVERYTHING classic German. There were booths that sold German knickknacks, ornaments, and clothes; one dedicated entirely to huge flavored pretzels; others with schnitzel and potato pancakes and hot chocolate; a giant beer garden, and a gourmet candy house. Everything was cash only, and we would just walk around and eat for a few hours. It was SO much fun, and one of my favorite childhood memories.

Tradition #3: Candlelight Service

On Christmas Eve we would go to church service – the 7:30 kid’s version when we were young, and the 11 pm candlelight service when we got older. This was also a special tradition – getting all dressed up and having to be half an hour early so we could get Our Seats in the Front Row (thanks mom). My favorite part was always the lighting of the candles, and the endless struggle to play it cool when the wax inevitably dripped onto your hand.

All dressed up for church. The year my bid for Congress began.

We were NOT open-one-gift-the-night-before people, so we went to bed and suffered until 6 am when the real fun began 💃💃💃

Tradition #4: Brown Paper Packages

Tied up with string! And stockings, and Boring Bags. Each of us had (has!) a beautiful, personalized stocking that my mom decorated when we were little; mine was a quilted dark green with pink lining, an embroidered angel, and a tiny ballerina bunny (UPDATE: my mom just sent a picture! See below). Everything in the stockings was wrapped in plain brown packaging paper and white string – I don’t know if it was inspired by Julie Andrews or not, but it’s come to represent peace and simplicity in a time of pure excitement.

My mom also gave us one big bag each, the only gift we knew ahead of time and – jokingly – LOATHED.

The Boring Bag.

I wish I had pictures of them…they were giant, department store bags that were BEAUITFULLY decorated and re-used every year. But there were no toys in that bag. Nothing fun, or exciting or surprising – just socks and towels and newwww underwear. My brothers were DUMB and always left the Boring Bag for last – I, a true visionary, got the pain over with and opened the Boring Bag first.

In truth, we loved seeing those big decorated bags every year because it was something fun that only our family did. And my mom is a GENIUS for making something boring so fun!!

Tradition #5: The Pickle

When the last gift had been opened, the three of us would scramble to our ready positions because IT WAS PICKLE TIME.

My mom says she got this from a German tradition of hiding a pickle in the Christmas tree; whoever finds the pickle gets the last gift of Christmas. Even when my brothers and I were older – probably too old to be pushing each other around a tree – we still would. Rivals 4ever. It was also the last active moment of Christmas before we would sit around, watch Christmas movies, and eat my dad’s biscuits and gravy all day.

I don’t think I EVER found the pickle (and staunchly maintain that the boys were cheaters), and therefore never got an extra trip to the movies, or brought a friend to a play, or any extra cash that was sometimes the pickle gift. But now I have a little pickle ornament on my tree, so I can NEVER lose again.

To wrap it up, here are just a few of my Other Favorites of the holiday season:


Rom Com – The Holiday & Love Actually. I’m a SUCKER for British men (@colin firth @alan rickman (RIP) @hugh grant @jude law)

Comedy – A Christmas Story. Raaaaaaalphiiiieeeeeeeeeeeee

Classic – White Christmas, hands down, forever.


Sweaters. All day, every day, since ’98 ✌


Cookie – Peanut butter kiss. My mom makes these cookies that are peanut butter sugar, with a chocolate chip kiss in the middle – those are probably number 1. But scotcharoos are a CLOSE second.

Drink – Bubbly babyyyyyy. I’ll take a little champagne any day – mixed with OJ, ANY morning.

Meal – My dad’s B&Gs, or pizza – preferably cheese, sausage, or (I might get couple un-subscribes over this) Hawaiian. Mele kalikimaka is the thing to say, on a bright, Hawaiian Christmas day…

Favorite Song

YOU’RE A MEAN ONE, MR GRINCH! And Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” which I could hear 1000x in a row and still love.

Anyway, that’s enough rambling for one week…but holy cow, the memories just came flooding back! I don’t think I even mentioned half of them…I have a feeling next week will be more of the same ❤ In the meantime, shoot me your holiday favorites and traditions – because Christmas is coming, it’s practically here!

2 thoughts on “Brown Paper Packages”

  1. Merry Christmas, Riley! (And, Vann family!! I miss you all!) I love reading your posts, and I am SO PROUD of you!
    If you haven’t been to Neptune Oyster yet, you must go and treat yourself -it’s one of my favorite stops in Boston. 🙂

    1. Happy New Year, I hope you and your family are doing well! Neptune Oyster is now on our ‘short list’ for dinner – and if you’re ever in town, you have to let me know!

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