As Americans are pulling together, the idea of tradition is becoming important once again.
Whether it is putting out cookies and milk for Santa on Christmas Eve or preparing the “we just can’t have Christmas dinner without …” recipe, almost every family has a type of holiday tradition. Though certain traditions can be dreadful for some, most are happily anticipated.
My family has two traditions and both take place on Christmas Eve. One is an open house. Once just a get-together, it is now a major event considered “almost famous” by many family members and friends. I can’t say for sure when the tradition evolved, but I do know that I have been a part of it for 27 years, one year even via pay phone… from Ireland… in the middle of a hurricane. My family laughs that if we all were to miss the event, friends would still arrive at the door, ready for a party, because it has become that much of a tradition.
After our mother’s death, we decided not to end the open house and now my sister and her “significant other” host the event. The evening is full of food, family and friends. Our other tradition is my favorite — on Christmas Eve we all get to open one present. As children, we would always get excited that maybe this was the year Santa would bring something different. Not a chance. Every year it was the same thing — pajamas. It wasn’t until we got out of grade school that we really appreciated the new warm, cozy, and sometimes, footed pajamas. The pajama tradition has been carried over by all the children. My sister’s children now receive their “jammies”; my brother’s wife makes sure he gets his; and I am sure their new baby will get his own new pair of pajamas this year on Christmas Eve. I have introduced this tradition to my significant other and now he too looks forward to opening what he knows will be fresh new pajamas for Christmas.
I was curious about other family traditions here in Cape May. Perhaps it’s my inherent “nosiness” or maybe I just needed an extra nudge to get into the holiday spirit.
Two more traditions
The first person I sought out was Sue Lotozo, a friend, mother of two and the owner of The Flying Fish Studio. Susan told me her family has two special holiday traditions. The first (which I may just have to miss my own party for) is a Christmas Eve “Seafood Extravaganza.” Joe, Sue’s husband and Executive Chef at the Mansion House Seafood Restaurant, annually prepares a large seafood dinner for his family on Christmas Eve. Though there is no specific recipe — Joe prepares something different every year — Sue said past dishes include paella and bouillabaisse. After the dinner is prepared, it is placed in the middle of the dining room table surrounded by plates for all encouraging everyone to help themselves.
And I’m sure not one person misses their chance to get a helping of Joe’s superb cooking — except maybe daughters Izabela and Eliza, who prefer Christmas cakes and cookies.
The Lotozos have a second tradition carried over form Sue’s childhood. Her mother always wanted to be sure little Sue believed in Santa. When she awoke on Christmas morning, Sue would find proof that Santa came down her chimney.
Big, black, cindered footprints on the carpet would lead from the fireplace to the Christmas tree where Santa had left presents. Proof-positive for wide-eyed little Sue. Now Izabela and Eliza awake every Christmas morning to that same bit of evidence that Santa Claus had indeed been there.
Speaking with Sue certainly put me into the Christmas spirit and prompted me to wonder about other traditions here in Cape May, the island’s long history dating back to Mayflower days, and its current collection of so many diverse and eclectic cultures. And I wondered about those households Santa doesn’t visit? I have never known a Christmas without Santa Claus and his elves.
More to it all than Santa
I spoke with Mindy Silver-Cohen who celebrates Chanukah with her husband Danny and their daughter, Dorit. We discussed the lighting of the menorah, one of the most prominent pieces of the Jewish holiday. The Cohens have collected menorahs over the years and now have more than 12 in their beautiful collection — having so many allows each Cohen to light their own.
The lighting of the menorah is traditionally done at sunset. The Cohens use a Shamash candle to light the other candles. The Shamash is only to be used to light the other candles. The Shamash is the candle that remains in the middle and is slightly higher than the others. All candles are burned for at least one-half hour after nightfall and the menorah is placed in a window for all to see.
After the lighting of the menorah, the Cohens open gifts. When Mindy was a child, her mother used to hide her Chanukah gifts and play a game of “Hot and Cold” — you know, the proverbial “you’re getting warmer …” game. Mindy has carried over this childhood tradition. Actually, it was little Dorit herself who carried on the tradition because she enjoyed the game so much, she insisted her parents join in. Now, Mindy and Danny include each other’s gifts in the hunt as well.
The Cohens love to share their holiday traditions with others. When friends stop
by while they are lighting their menorahs, they are offered a menorah of their own
to light. Mindy and Danny throw an annual party during Chanukah. The night is
full of traditional foods like latkes (potato pancakes) served with sour cream and applesauce and Chanukah games for the children. Mindy and Danny also explain Chanukah to their guests and all who attend leave with a better understanding of Chanukah and how much it means to the Cohens.
Jul is Yule
For years around Christmas time, my Grandma has given me fragile paper cut decorations. I never really knew what they were and never displayed them for fear they would be ruined. As I got older and Grandma still gave me the paper cut decorations, I finally asked about them and was told they were Danish Christmas decorations, and that my Grandfather was Danish and admonished that I should learn about my heritage. I replied that I didn’t know any Danish people, and didn’t know where to look for them.
But I wanted to make my Grandma proud, so I decided to do a bit of research.
Traditionally, Christmas or Jul, an old Nordic word for “feast,” is celebrated on December 23, known as “Little Christmas Eve” in Denmark. On that night, parents decorate the Christmas tree with candles and handmade Christmas hearts made from red and white paper representing the colors in the Danish flag. Paper and candles, and a bucket of water kept nearby.
On the morning of the 24th, presents are left by Julemanden (Santa) followed by a day of celebration and food. Christmas night comes and children wait patiently through dinner to open their presents afterward — dinner consisting of a feast of either duck, pork roast or goose, served with potatoes, gravy, and cooked red cabbage.
For dessert there is “ris a’la mande,” a type of rice pudding. Hidden in the desserts is a whole almond and whoever finds the almond gets a present which is traditionally a marzipan pig. Ris a’la mande is also sometimes placed in the attic in the earlier part of December to keep “pixies happy” and not bother the family. After dessert, everyone dances around the Christmas tree and sing carols. Then everyone opens presents. Afterwards, families like to talk about the presents, the night, and eat some more. The following day, the 25th, brings a smorgasbord — a brunch for the extended family.
I can honestly say I am now in the spirit of Christmas and plan to carry on my family’s traditions. I will think about the faces of little Eliza and Izabela when they awake to find that Santa has come. I now have a better understanding of Chanukah and perhaps I will go shopping for a menorah to add to little Dorit’s collection. Most of all, I will happily hang the Danish paper cut decorations from my grandmother. I may even go buy some Danish flags to display on my own tree this year.