Sharing Holiday Traditions

Warmth radiated from a glowing fire and lots of greetings and hugs as we gathered in Betsy Wiggins’ lovely home for a December meeting themed around sharing our holiday traditions.

Each of us had been asked to bring a finger food representative of our religious, cultural, or family tradition. The dining room table was laden enticing foods, but we first gathered around the fireplace in the living room.

Danya Wellmon welcomed everyone—especially Saro Kumar. Her beautiful smile in our circle brought joy to each of us and made the afternoon special before it even began. Saro thanked everyone for their cards, calls and support over the last weeks. Barbara Croll Fought and Muriel Medina were unable to join us at length but stopped by to wish everyone well.

Danya invited us to celebrate each other and our own religious/cultural/family traditions by sharing something about the food we had brought. Relaxed and informal, we asked questions and shared our own memories as each woman spoke.

Some brought foods from their family traditions. Jennifer Crittenden brought an interesting tapioca pudding made of figs, dates and raisins and shared a story about its place in her family. Barb Bova brought clam dip which her family serves at every gathering. Cindy Rahrle brought wonderful gingerbread cookies and spoke of her grandmother teaching her to bake. Patti McGuire talked about making Tom and Jerrys, and brought Chex mix popular at her family celebrations. Betty Lamb brought pumpkin pie made from a genuine pumpkin; she began baking these for her family when they lived in Pompey, NY in 1975.

Other offerings reflected our cultural traditions. Sue Savion brought Swiss German bazalackie cookies; made weeks ahead and aged; the ingredients include coconut, honey, lard and citron. Sue also talked about St. Nicholas Day, which her family celebrates at her home on Dec. 6th. She shared some of the history of the Turkish-born St. Nicholas, who became central in many European holiday traditions. Betsy Wiggins offered wassail, a traditional (and delicious) English holiday drink: apple cider simmered with cranberry juice, aromatic bitters, cinnamon, oranges studded with cloves, and allspice. Lina Alsafadi brought a dish which highlighted za’ater, a special wild thyme native to Palestine. Danya Wellmon made Bourbon turkey meatballs from her Scots-Irish cultural heritage. Joy Pople brought a red-and-green layered jello salad because the Pennsylvania Dutch make jello for every occasion! Edith and Akosua Washington-Woods offered traditional African-American New Year’s dishes: black-eyed peas (Edith’s were vegan) and greens (usually served with fried chicken) represent good luck and prosperity respectively. We spoke of how less-desirable foods available to slaves evolved into some cherished African American dishes. Diane Lansing, whose parents were Jewish Holocaust survivors, brought lebkuchen, a spice cookie from their German heritage.

Many shared around their religious traditions. Those of the Jewish faith spoke about Hanukkah that brings joy and light into the darkness of winter. We learned that the holiday commemorates the story of the Maccabees and the temple oil that lasted for eight days, how and why the relatively minor Jewish holiday became widely celebrated, and the origins of the dreidel as a soldiers’ gambling game. Since Hanukkah is about oil, its traditional foods are fried. Carol Lipson made potato latkes (fried pancakes) while Ann Port provided the homemade applesauce and sour cream served with them. Sherry Gordon brought a rice and bean dish based on a recipe from her relatives in Israel. Rosalie Young provided jelly doughnut balls. Sis Zucker made noodle kugel traditional at many Jewish holidays. We talked about lighting menorah candles with the sham mash (helper candle) and types of menorahs.

Saro Kumar shared that Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, also involves oil as lamps are lit to symbolize Righteousness putting Evil down and bringing Light back into the world. When kids wake up in the morning their parents anoint them with sesame oil (kids hate this!). They then bathe and get into their new clothes, have prayers, and set off fireworks. Children take trays of food to the neighbors to exchange gifts of food. There is a feast at home, followed by visits from friends. Based on the lunar calendar, Diwali usually falls in October or November.

While not a mid-winter holiday, Muslim Ramadan (also based on a lunar calendar) comes 11 days earlier each year; at some points in the cycle it falls in December. Danya also spoke about the Wiccan tradition of the Yule ceremony which celebrates the light returning to extinguish the darkness.

Carol had brought a beautiful Menorah from Jerusalem. As we moved to the dining room, she lit the candles as voices sang a Hanukkah prayer.

We filled our plates and wassail cups, and enjoyed every moment of a truly special time together. Hopefully, this will become an annual event—it celebrates the connections and friendships that bind us one to another.

Thank you to Betsy for hosting in her beautiful home, and to all who brought special foods, memories, and love to share.