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A New Home for the Holidays

Dec 22, 2020

This Christmas will be sophomore middle blocker Aleksandra Gryka's first holiday season without her family. She knew it would happen, but not this soon. 
"There comes a point where you won't spend Christmas with your family," Gryka said. "For me, it came early. I'm treating this as my first home-away Christmas." 
Gryka, a Polish native, is one of three European players on the USC women's volleyball team who will not travel home for the holidays after the COVID-19 pandemic postponed its season to the spring. Though given the option to fly home for the three-day break in the team's training schedule, Gryka, junior setter Raquel Lázaro and sophomore opposite hitter Emilia Weske decided to stay in LA to avoid the 14-day quarantine protocols that they had to follow upon returning to campus in October. Instead, they will celebrate with each other.
Gryka's Christmas is usually spent bouncing from one grandparent's house to the other alongside her cousins, aunts and uncles in Warsaw, Poland. The city is all lit up with unique touches, like an old train car adorned with lights and a giant Christmas tree as the centerpiece. The last few years haven't seen snow, but Gryka associates the holidays with snowy weather from her childhood. 

The celebration lasts for three days and is made up by Christmas Eve, the first day of Christmas and the second day of Christmas. After a cozy Christmas Eve, Gryka's family fasts on the first day of Christmas to prepare for a meal that evening with family. The next morning, she has breakfast with friends and enjoys a mellow day for the rest of Christmas. 
For Raquel Lázaro, a Spanish native, the holiday season ends with Dia de los Reyes Magos on January 6. Her family opens presents that morning, and they gather around to eat Roscón de Reyes, a sweet bread traditionally topped with dried fruit and hiding two plastic figures inside. Whoever gets the piece of bread with the bean must buy the Roscón de Reyes for the following year, and the person who finds the figurine of the king is "just cool," according to Lázaro. 
Her Christmas day and New Years celebrations are always surrounded by family, including grandparents and 20 cousins, who enjoy a spread filled with prosciutto, cheese, shrimp and other entrees. Lázaro describes it almost like a buffet, with everyone picking and choosing what to fill their plate with. On New Years Eve, each family member must wear a red item or accessory and drink champagne with something gold or silver in the glass, such as a ring. It is a sign of good luck for Lázaro and her family as they eat 12 grapes during the final 12 seconds leading up to the new year. 
"We start the year with a lot of grapes in our mouth," Lázaro said. 

In Berlin, Germany, Weske usually enjoys the cold weather by walking around the city's Christmas markets with her family and friends. The markets are full of stands selling festive gifts and treats, covered in twinkly lights and complete with activities and warm beverages. It puts Weske in the Christmas mood leading up to her family's big Christmas day meal with the goose as the main course and complete with her parents, siblings, grandparents.
"I will definitely miss my family the most, because it's always the family that makes Christmas normal, beautiful and lovely," Weske said. 


Weske and her European teammates will spend Christmas 2020 with each other and make the two-hour, windy drive up to a cozy cabin in Big Bear, Calif. Weske wanted to go somewhere snowy to remind her of holidays at home in Germany, and Lázaro wished to spend the few days with people she loves. While not an exact replica of their families' celebrations, the players will create new memories and recreate old traditions with each other. Gryka usually sings Christmas carols and plays instruments with her dad on Christmas, and this year, they are packing Gryka's ukelele and Lázaro's guitar to take up the mountain.

The players are still planning FaceTime calls with their families back home, even though the usual get togethers have been cancelled due to COVID. Weske is hoping that the Christmas package she sent to her family arrives before the 25th, and Gryka is looking forward to hanging out with her family on Zoom with a mug of hot cocoa. Lázaro is already preparing her schedule for her New Year's Eve traditions after practice on December 31st. 
"I have to talk with [head coach] Brad [Keller] and tell him at 3 p.m. I have to be free," Lázaro said with a laugh, explaining that 3 p.m. Pacific time is midnight in Spain. "I have to prepare myself with my grapes and the FaceTime with my parents." 
Though 2020 has proved an unusual year for all, Lázaro, Gryka and Weske are making the best of a holiday season away from their families. They each acknowledge the bigger picture involving the rest of the team and the circumstances of a postponed season, and they are eager to start preparing for spring competition. 
"I really do think it's worth it. We really need to get going after Christmas," Weske said. "We're all super excited about the season, so we can live with Christmas here."