Local residents (clockwise from top left): Wally and Donna Cachro from Poland, Marla McCoy from Germany, Lucia Stanslaw from Mexico and Oliva Mears from South Africa, share their holiday traditions from their home countries.
By Karen Yekel
There are many traditions of holiday celebration in the United States, ranging from tree trimming, caroling, Santa Claus, and various and sundry food rituals that complete the American Christmas holiday. The myriad modern American traditions often find their roots in the ancestry of individuals who have migrated to the U.S.
Several of our local Fall River County residents with holiday histories in other countries are featured here. Take a walk around the world with traditions from Mexico, Germany, Poland, and South Africa.
Beginning with Mexico, Lucia Stanslaw, who owns the downtown Hot Springs business, Lucy and the Green Wolf, came to the United States 13 years ago.
“Traditions in Mexico, when I was growing up, were very different from what people do now, which has been heavily influenced by the United States,” said Stanslaw. “Some things still continue, though. The big gathering of the family happens on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve, preparing to receive the holiday of Christmas Day, which is usually very quiet and is spent with family at home, opening gifts and lazing around.”
The food served depends on the region. “I am from central Mexico, so the people cook turkey and chicken, and then supplement with a lot of local dishes,” she said. “People from Mexico City, for example, have very different food traditions, including fish dishes. It’s very regionalized. In some parts of Mexico people serve tamales or other traditional Mexican dishes.”
Another tradition Stanslaw remembers, which is still an experience today, is “Posadas,” perhaps the most delightful and unique Mexican tradition, begun in the 1500s.
“They would have these special ceremonies for nine days leading to Christmas,” Stanslaw said. “Before the ceremonies people would be partying in the streets. There would be music, and lights, and walking toward the churches, dancing, and then came the time to pray.”
Beginning Dec. 16, Posada commemorates the events in the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. After dark, each night of the Posada, a procession begins, led by two children. The children carry a small pine-decorated platform bearing replicas of Joseph and Mary riding a burro. Other members of the company, all with lighted long slender candles, sing the “Litany of the Virgin” as they approach each door of the houses to be visited.
Together they chant an old traditional song and awaken the members of the house to ask lodging for Mary. Those within the house threaten the company with beatings unless they move on. The travelers continue to move on and sing, until they arrive at the designated home to welcome the entourage.
When the owner of the “Posada” house learns who his guests are, he jubilantly throws open the doors and bids them welcome. All kneel around the manger scene or “Nacimiento” and offer songs of welcome, Ave Marias and a prayer. And then the party starts, after the nine days. Traditional beverages are served there, like Ponche, a beverage made with hibiscus and fruits from that time of year. It’s a hot drink with cinnamon and cloves, very spicy.
Then it’s time for the “Piñata,” refreshments and dancing. The “Piñata” is a pottery (or paper) container, brightly decorated and filled with candy and toys. It is hung from the ceiling or a tree. One by one, the children are blindfolded, turned around and instructed to strike the Piñata with a stick. Usually several attempts are made before the container is broken. Of course, when that happens, there is an explosion of goodies and a scattering of children. The Piñata symbolizes the good news of the coming of the Christ.
These traditions have been lost in certain areas, especially the big cities, said Stanislaw.
“Everybody’s afraid, afraid of strangers, and modernization has brought that,” she said. “But, in smaller villages where everybody knows everybody, kind of like our own in Hot Springs, people still follow these traditions. Cultural institutes in big cities host indoor events that help celebrate the culture that is part of the Catholic traditions. There are lights where there used to be fireworks.”
Stanslaw in her home growing up, they opened gifts on the 25th.
“In our particular house, we received some gifts in our bedroom, so if we woke up early we could open gifts without waking anybody. Then we would also receive gifts in the living room,” she said.
“January 6, the holiday of the three wise men, was the main gift giving and receiving holiday. And there were not a lot of gifts, just two or three. It was mainly spending time together, eating special foods, like a sugary bread called ‘Rosca,’ which means circle or wreath. The bread was baked with a baby Jesus inside the dough. Whoever received the baby Jesus would host a tamale party later, in February. Early in January you see that bread being sold everywhere, which continues to this day.”
Stanslaw added that Mexican kids would not write a letter to Santa Claus, but instead it would be a letter to El Nino Dios, “which literally translates to ‘little God,’ she said. “El Nino Dios would bring the gifts, in the old Mexican tradition. This too has been more Americanized, with the arrival of Santa Claus.”
From Germany, where the tradition of the Christmas tree began, local artist Maria McCoy tells of St. Nicholas Day, traditionally celebrated on Dec. 6.
“The night before Dec.6, children would place a shoe or boot inside by the front door,” McCoy said. “During the night, St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, would go from house to house and fill the shoes or boots with delicious candy.
“Of course, as children, we would run around looking for the biggest boot we could get our hands on, though mom would say St. Nicholas would know we were trying to cheat, and we would get nothing.”
“For Christmas, gifts are given on Christmas Eve,” she said. “You go to church, and then you come home. The children would have to leave the family room. When we were allowed back in, my mom would have all the windows open in the freezing cold. She said the angel comes and flies in through the window and brings us all these gifts. The gifts were unwrapped and set up for each child.”
McCoy said that Christmas Day was reserved for immediate family, which included aunts, uncles and cousins. “We always had a group of about 20 people for dinner, which was served about two in the afternoon. We would have American foods like turkey and ham, because my dad was American. The day after Christmas was to share time with friends.”
“On New Year’s Eve, we would have gluewein, or mulled wine, and family would come over and we would have pork chops and sauerkraut with mashed potatoes, and we would eat just before midnight. Because at midnight we were all going to party out on the street, even as little kids, and there would be fireworks and lots of partying,” McCoy added.
Some interesting folklore tells that, on Christmas Eve in Germany, rivers turn to wine, animals speak to each other, tree blossoms bear fruit, mountains open up to reveal precious gems, and church bells can be heard ringing from the bottom of the sea. Of course, only the pure in heart can witness this Christmas magic.
Of special note is that the custom of trimming and lighting a Christmas tree had its origin in pre-Christian Germany, the tree symbolizing the Garden of Eden. It was called the “Paradise Baum,” or tree of Paradise. Gradually, the custom of decorating the tree with cookies, fruit and eventually candles evolved. Other countries soon adapted the custom. Charles Dickens called it “The Pretty German Toy.”
Poland is a land of intriguing traditions and legends. So important is the first star of the night that Christmas Eve has been given the affectionate name of “little star” or “Gwiazdka,” in remembrance of the star of Bethlehem.
Donna Cachro, who owns Hills Inn with her husband Wally, said that, in Poland, the Christmas tree is set up on Christmas Eve, before the first star is seen in the night sky. The moment the star appears, everyone exchanges greetings and good wishes. Families unite for the most carefully planned meal of the year, called Wigilia.
“We did not celebrate Christmas, like present-giving, because we had St. Nicholas Day, where the kids would get presents and see St. Nicholas,” said Cachro. The adults did not get presents, she said.
“There was no such thing as opening presents on Christmas Day,” Cachro said. “We would go out to the forest and cut the tree down, then decorate it before we saw the first star in the sky. Then we had our big dinner, with 10 or 12 courses. It had to be meatless; you could have fish, and there were dumplings, Pierogi, potatoes, sauerkraut with brown peas, and a compote with different dried fruits cooked down, eaten as a meal or eaten with noodles. Before you started eating, we put hay on the table, with a white cloth over it, which signified the manger Jesus laid in. We would have a plate with honey, and a large, rectangular wafer.”
The wafer, called “Oplatek,” was made of unleavened dough and stamped with scenes of the nativity.
“Everyone at the table would break off a piece of the wafer and eat it dipped in the honey as a symbol of their unity with Christ,” Cachro said. “Everyone offered good wishes for the New Year, or perhaps offered an apology to right a wrong. After that, we’d give the animals some of the wafer as well. Then we began our meal, beginning with beet soup, followed by small dumplings, called ‘Little Ears,’ filled with mushrooms. Then we would start on the fish and other foods on the table. This was followed with dessert, like Angel Wings, a fried pastry dredged in powdered sugar, or poppy seed cake or noodles with prune dumplings.”
“These foods would be made a week ahead and kept cool, because there was no baking on Christmas Eve,” she said. “We’d go to midnight mass. And on Christmas Day we would spend the time with our family. There were no presents Christmas morning and sometimes you would go to church, and you could eat meat on Christmas Day. I think the fish symbolized the Catholic traditions, like not eating meat on Friday. The whole day of Christmas Eve you could not eat meat.”
“The grandparents would say, ‘How you act on Christmas Eve is an indication of how you’re going to act all the next year.’ So, you wanted to be good and not get in trouble,” Cachro added.
“After Christmas, before the New Year, there would be youth groups dressed in regional costume singing carols at houses. Also, groups might come to your house and wish you good things for the New Year. A lot of times they would throw candy or oats at the people in the house, to symbolize good fortune in the year to come. New Year’s Eve you would go to church and thank God for all the blessings of the old year. New Year’s Day was always a holiday, and you could go visiting friends and extended family.”
As South Africa lies in the Southern Hemisphere, Christmas falls in the middle of summer. There’s no ‘White Christmas,’ but rather a colorful season of beautiful, blooming wild flowers and lush green grass.
Olivia Mears, Executive Director of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, hails from South Africa. She shares her memories here. “The seasons are opposite, and it’s hot, and also, South Africa doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, a traditional American holiday,” Mears said. “Our traditional Christmas lunch, and we do take a lot of influence from the British, would take place on Dec. 25. On Christmas Eve, we’d snack and visit and drink wassail and gluewein, a hot mulled wine. We would open presents on Christmas morning, and our lunch would be roast turkey, with all the trimmings.
“As we grew older, it gets hotter and hotter slaving over a hot stove in the middle of summer, so eventually we abandoned ship with that and wound up doing barbecue. A lot of South Africans do this because it’s just so perfect for it.”
“But we did retain a couple of interesting traditions,” Mears said. “One is Christmas Crackers. They’re not edible. It’s hard to explain. They contain a little toy or puzzle and a paper crown. Almost imagine a toilet roll tube and it’s like a bang stick and when you pull it apart, it makes a bang sound, and the toy falls out, and whoever gets the long end of the cracker gets the prize. And there’s always a joke, like today what are called ‘dad jokes.’”
“Another continuing tradition,” Mears added, “is Christmas pudding, a steamed pudding made with fruit, which my aunt used to make for us. She would take the South Africa version of five and 10 cent pieces, and she would clean and disinfect them, and put them in the Christmas pudding. Then brandy or rum was poured over the pudding, to flambé it. Everyone would get their serving of pudding and have hot custard with it. We all knew there was money in there, but you didn’t just take the money out, you had to wait for your portion. Whichever adult was doing the serving was sure that each kid would get a portion with some of the money in it.”
Back in the day, South African stores were closed, and Christmas was considered more of a religious holiday. Mears said, “We did caroling and at school, we would have a Christmas play. The two traditions I have brought to America with me are the Christmas pudding, without the money, and the Christmas crackers. My friends have been entertained with my little traditions. And with my sister in the states, we have created our own tradition of having duck and lamb, two of our favorite meats.”
The day after Christmas in South Africa as well as Britain is known as Boxing Day, and it is an official holiday. Mears noted, “It was always our leftovers day, all very family oriented and very different because it was summer. High summer in Hot Springs is similar to high summer in Johannesburg, with thunderstorms in the afternoon. The arrival of the New Year was always the big holiday for the younger crowd, the big party holiday. Christmas was for family, New Year was for fun, not that different from the British or even here.”