If there were one word to describe Whitney Sanger, “community” might encapsulate it.
As the creative communications and development director at Hawkeye Area Community Action Program and co-founder of Project Rooted in 2019 — a Dubuque-based organization that aims to connect youth to the origins and importance of fresh, nutritious and locally sourced food — she has made a name for herself through education, outreach and community gathering.
“I think I just love people and live for connecting people,” she said. “I’m probably at my best when I’m able to do that kind of work.”
The holidays are no exception for Sanger, 31, who brings that idea home with husband Brian and their five children — Graham, 9; Charlie, 7; James, 4; Evelyn, 2; and Via, 6 months.
“I love the holidays and everything that comes with it,” Sanger said. “It’s just fun to come together, conversing and connecting in a deeper way.”
We chatted with the Dubuque native ahead of the holiday season to find out some of her favorite traditions and how readers might find inspiration for their gatherings.
Establishing the perfect ambience
When it comes to holiday décor, Sanger described her style as minimal and neutral, making use of natural elements, such as garlands strewn upon mantels, mirrors and tabletops, with simple pops of embellishment.
“I think my style started with my grandparents,” Sanger said. “Every year, they would host a holiday gathering, where the whole family would get together. Everything was so pristine and elegant. All of the décor she used had meaning to it. That was passed down to my mom.”
A Dubuque Senior High School and Loras College grad, Sanger said an opportunity to study abroad in Belgium also influenced how she decorated for the holidays.
“European countries, in general, are very minimalistic,” she said. “I think I brought a lot of that back with me.”
However, Sanger emphasized that every space should be decorated in a way that makes the person living with it happy.
“Your home is a representation of who you are,” she said. “I wouldn’t encourage anyone to try to be something they’re not. My mom, for example, loves to decorate for Christmas. There is décor every way you look, and it looks amazing. Our house is more simple. What’s so cool about Christmas is that everyone can celebrate their own unique style that they love and that they think is fun.”
That also includes deciding when the holiday décor should make its appearance.
“We don’t start decorating until after Thanksgiving,” Sanger said. “But that does make it a shorter season, so I understand those who like to enjoy it longer.”
A tradition she enjoys with her family includes venturing out to cut down their Christmas tree the weekend following Thanksgiving.
“We always do a real tree, and we select a different location to find it every year,” she said. “I like to get the biggest, baddest tree I can possibly get for our main tree. Then, the kids also pick out a smaller tree.”
Following the hunt for the perfect tree, the Sangers enjoy lunch with one another, then return home to set up their tree finds, accompanied by their annual viewing of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
“It’s just nice to spend that time together as a family,” said Sanger, who, in addition to raising a large family, comes from one as well. “My mom is one of seven children. My grandmother is 95 and still doing really well. So, we really appreciate that time.”
Gathering around the table
A passionate advocate for fresh and healthy food, as well as the concept of community, it comes as no surprise that Sanger’s philosophy behind her holiday dinner table follows suit.
“I was always taught that food offers a time to gather, communicate and connect on a deeper level,” she said. “Every single night, our family gathers around the dinner table, even if it’s later in the evening, and we value that time so much. It’s rare for us to eat out, and we don’t do fast food. We prepare our food together and teach the kids about where the food comes from. That can be a challenge for many families because everyone is so busy. But it’s so important to find that time.”
A key component, Sanger said, is selecting foods that help establish that sense of togetherness.
“You can set a common theme to your meal or have traditional holiday dishes,” she said. “The main thing is to set the table with food that everyone loves because really, you can have any conversation around the table when there is good food present.”
Sanger said traditions her family has embraced around the holiday dinner table includes sharing what each is thankful for, as well as the passing of a blessing cup at Christmas.
“We’ve done this since I was little,” she said. “Our whole extended family sits for a couple of hours passing the cup and sharing our blessings.”
They also re-enact the Nativity scene, complete with costumes that have been in the family for years.
“It’s more comical than anything,” Sanger said, with a laugh.
Embracing the traditions
The most important element of the holidays, Sanger said, is having fun and taking the time to foster traditions within your family, including extended family — even amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID has made family gathering difficult,” she said. “But you still can find ways to start a new tradition or adapt an older one. My grandmother lives at Bethany Home, and even last year, we all went down and gathered outside her window on the first floor to sing Christmas carols to her. I think a lot of it comes down to planning ahead, working with family and communicating openly about what everyone’s comfort level and boundaries are.”
For families with younger children, Sanger said even simple traditions, such as waking up in their beds, can create a meaningful lasting impression.
“Especially as a young family, it has been important for us to establish and keep our own traditions because now the focus is really on the kids,” she said. “We never stay anywhere else on Christmas. Everyone wakes up in their own home.”
Most importantly, Sanger said to remain present in each holiday moment.
“Put your phone down,” she said. “Really be with the people you love while you can be with them. That includes friends. Surround yourself with them. Find time to grab a cup of coffee with them. Have a conversation with them. Connect with them. Give back to them with your time and your energy through the season.”
Megan Gloss writes for the Telegraph Herald.