Bourbon balls, Hanukkah candles and dad jokes: Coloradans share their holiday traditions that honor lost loved ones

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5min 26sec
Courtesy Sandi Ault
Sandi Ault’s Sky Tree honors her grandson, Conner Sky Johnson, who died when he was 19. On it are hundreds of pictures of him — of every year of his life.

In Grand Junction, Rosa Cisneros and her big family spend every Christmas Eve the same way: singing about the plight of the Virgin Mary searching for a place to spend the night. 

The Latin American tradition is called a posada, and while it celebrates Jesus, for them, it’s also for the sister who can’t be there, Maria Guadalupe Cisneros. 

Lupita, they call her. 

“Sometimes I feel like she’s all behind it still,” Cisneros said. 

Lupita loved to dress as Mary for the posada. She got so excited over the holidays, enjoyed baking and spending time with little kids. She was 16 when she died in a car accident 25 years ago, just weeks before Christmas. 

In addition to carrying on the posada tradition, her 10 surviving siblings make sure to tell stories about her to their kids, Lupita’s 49 nieces and nephews. They know all about their aunt, even though most never met her.

The family has also opened two businesses bearing her name.

“I know for some people it might seem weird, but it is our comfort,” Cisneros said. “That's the way we comfort ourselves.”

When someone dies, their absence can be especially painful during the holidays. It can also be a time to remember and honor them. 

From all across Colorado, people shared the traditions that keep their loved ones alive.

In the community of Roxborough Park, south of Denver, Sandi Ault celebrates her only grandchild’s life with a tree. Her “Sky tree” is about 9-feet tall, the top of an aspen that was struck by lightning. Photos of Conner Sky Johnson dangle from its white branches.

“Literally hundreds of tiny little pictures of him at every age he got to be,” Ault said.

The tree is up year-round, and on Sky’s birthday in November, Ault and her husband add little stars, following the beliefs of the Tiwa tribe in New Mexico. They say when people die, they turn into stars.

“But if a life is cut too short but burned really bright, they become a shooting star. And that's how we feel about Sky, that he was our shooting star,” Ault said. “He was bright. He was incredibly vibrant and alive, and I feel that when I’m hanging the stars.” 

Then, every Valentine’s Day, they replace those stars with hearts — to show Sky is always in theirs.

A sweet sadness fills all the stories people shared. And some were also pretty funny, too.

Courtesy Melanie Cypher
Betty Cypher enjoyed making bourbon balls at Christmas — something her daughter, Melanie, still does in her honor.

Melanie Cypher, who lives outside of Westcliffe, still makes her mother’s Christmas bourbon balls. When her mom, Betty, was alive, they’d do it together. One year, as they worked away, giggling and perhaps feeling their sips of bourbon, Cypher got an idea. She wanted to see if she could toss a bourbon ball into her mother’s mouth. Her mom was game.

Suddenly her dad, Richard, who was a little more straight-laced than his wife, appeared in the kitchen. 

The bourbon ball was midair.

“And of course Mom caught it,” Cypher said. “Dad was like, ‘What is going on in here?’ We just started laughing even harder!” 

Then he asked for a bourbon ball for himself — but he was not about to try to catch it the same way his wife had.

Courtesy Heather Wood
This Hanukkah, Heather Wood lit the candles and said the prayer in honor of her husband, Paul Marokus. They were married 33 years. He died in August.

In Denver, Heather Wood described her Jewish husband’s old Christmas tradition with a bit of glee in her voice.

“He would get on a plane and go to Jamaica!”

She won’t be doing that any time soon, but she did take over his Hanukkah duties this year, only a few months after Paul Marokus, “Big Paulie,” died. She lit the candles and got through the prayer, even though it hurt, even though she doesn’t know how to say the words as well as he did. She thinks it made Paul smile. 

“There was a sense of humor about it,” Wood said, imagining her husband watching her and saying “OK, She's trying here!”

When Fruita resident Jose Luis Chavez was a kid, the Chrstimas season meant the return of a long-running dad joke. 

His father, Joe, would ask his kids the same question: Do you know what day it is? 

He'd answer with something like this: “It’s the eve of the eve of the eve of the eve of the eve of the eve of Christmas,” Chavez said.

He did it every year, without fail, even calling his children after they moved away. It still makes Chavez laugh.

“It was just fun to see when he was going to ask,” he said.

Courtesy Jose Luis Chavez
Jose Luis Chavez’s father, Joe, kept up the same Christmas tradition for decades: a dad joke, that Chavez now tells his daughter and grandkids.

Now, Chavez has the same question for his daughter and grandchildren, who play along — just like he did with his dad.

And violinist Kimberly Rieniets of Lakewood continues a tradition that’s beyond words: Christmas recitals for her family. Her mother-in-law, Grand Junction music teacher Della Schneider, started these about 20 years ago. 

“I love that I can honor and remember her in that way,” Rieniets said.

With each song she performs, be it the holiday staple “Carol of the Bells” or the tear-inducing Leonard Cohen tune “Hallelujah,” she hopes to keep Della from fading away.

Maybe that’s why tradition exists at all — and why my kitchen is filled with pounds of butter and sugar, ready to be turned into my mom’s Christmas treats. While my 9-month-old daughter will never get to meet her Grandma Theo, I want her to delight in her grandma’s fudge, cookies and cranberry bars. 

Well, maybe she can next year, when she has some teeth. 

Courtesy Ron Sieg
Theo Sieg, here with her daughter, Stina, had a Christmas tradition of making a trio of fudge, buttery cookies and her own creation: cranberry bars, adapted from one of her many cookbooks.

Betty Cypher’s Bourbon Balls

1 cup vanilla wafer crumbs
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup powdered sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa

¼ cup bourbon
1 ½ tablespoons white corn syrup

Mix all together. Form small balls and roll in powdered sugar. Keep cool until ready to serve.

Theo Sieg’s Cranberry Bars

Bottom crust: 
2 cups flour
1 cup unsalted butter 
1 cup brown sugar
Mix until it’s a crumble. Bake at 300 degrees for 10 minutes. As it’s baking, prepare the topping.

1 ½ cups brown sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking powder 
1 teaspoon vanilla 
2 eggs 
1 cup pecans 
1 bag cranberries (to sure to wash and check for bad ones)
2 tablespoons flour

Mix together in a food processor until thoroughly chopped. Then spread the topping on the crust and bake at 300 degrees for 30-40 minutes, until light brown.