Old World Christmas Traditions Thrive

COURT HOUSE – There is probably no holiday among Western cultures that elicits more nostalgia than Christmas. If moved away from the roots of childhood customs it becomes even more important that these traditions are maintained in the new home environment.

These traditions translate well in Cape May County.

The Herald spoke with four people representing Old World European countries who live in Cape May County whose traditions have come to infuse much of how we celebrate Christmas in the United States - probably without our even knowing that our holiday festivities have roots from elsewhere.

Germany

Germany is one of the most influential nations on an American Christmas whose traditions are so embedded in the stateside holiday that many have forgotten, if ever realized, of its long-standing impact.

Don Hirsch, Petersburg, with four grandparents from Germany can't imagine a Christmas tree that is not freshly cut, a family activity that has centuries-long history from Germany. It is not hard to do in a county with a number of Christmas tree farms.

"We also decorate the tree with ornaments that have been passed down from my great-great-grandparents. These are made out of very fragile glass, and some are made out of wood that has been decorated with lace and hand painted," explained Hirsch.

"We also make, each year, a few side dishes such as Rotkohlsalat, red cabbage braised in bacon fat with vinegar and mushrooms in cream that I remember my grandmother making.

"For breakfast, we always have Stollen (a type of German yeast cake studded with dried fruit and topped with confectioner's sugar) before opening our presents stashed under the tree on Dec. 25."

Poland

Felicia Kuczynski of Seaville, said, “My grandparents came from Poland and growing up in the '50s we lived close to our relatives in Philadelphia.

"We went to midnight Mass when I was in grade school because I was in the choir. We had our main meal Christmas Day with pierogi, kielbasa, and sauerkraut, ham and side dishes. 

"We had babka (Polish bread) with cheese, and a cookie called chrusciki, and they were also called angel wings. I still buy these food items in Philadelphia so we can keep the traditions alive.

“A tradition that is especially important is sharing a large host that looks like communion and was called ‘oplatek’. This is a most ancient and beloved of all Polish traditions that is a thin wafer made of flour and water similar to the host used for communion at Mass. Each person breaks a piece and wishes for health and happiness.”

Italy

Maria Repici of Court House, remembered that “Truth be told, our Christmas Eve/Day as kids in Philly was so much more traditional than here in Cape May. Back then, our aunts, uncles, cousins, would travel from house to house (we all lived within a 15-minute car ride) and landed at our house where they spent the most time because my mom was such a great cook. 

"Christmas Eve was the traditional ‘Seven-fishes’ dinner which could include anchovy, whiting, lobster, sardines, cod, eels, squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels and clams, many of which are abundant in our region, a bounty of homemade cookies, pizzelles, and Christmas candy. 

"We would go to Mass on Christmas Eve about 4 p.m. (to cover us for Christmas Day!), and then the family started to come. Because our friends, for the most part, lived within a block or two, after stuffing our faces at mom’s, we kids would go to friends’ houses with little bags of cookies or candy and spread good wishes. 

"It really was like one big happy family among friends and family. As we got older the tradition continued except we would skip the afternoon Mass and visit everyone till about 11 p.m. when all of us would go to Midnight Mass, and then back to someone’s house for another hour – back then I could stay awake till 2 in the morning, as opposed to now when 9 p.m. seems late. That was back then.

“Now, our families are scattered across the country; the older generation has passed on, and some of the traditions went with them. 

"Since moving down here, we generally do a fish dinner with some friends after going to an early Christmas Eve Mass (because Midnight Mass is a thing of the past).

"It’s a quiet evening since our siblings, nieces, and nephews live a long drive or plane ride away. We do FaceTime with our families mostly on Christmas morning. All nice but very different from when we were growing up.”

Ireland

Georgina Shanley strives very hard to keep her Irish Christmas memories and customs alive in Ocean City, for her family … and for herself.

“Since Ireland is situated very far north, on a level with Canada’s Hudson Bay, and southern Alaska, the length of daylight in December is often less than seven hours. 

"Growing up in a Fifth-century village during the 1950s, Christmas was a time of hope and light. It was the most exciting time of the year, where traditions and customs played very important roles.”

“Schools closed from Dec. 23 until Jan. 7. Many businesses closed shop from Christmas Day, Dec. 25 until Jan. 2. We were not really consumed with shopping, even at bricks-and-mortar shops, so our focus was on being with family and neighbors and sharing in the Christmas spirit. 

"Nativity scenes, mostly hand-crafted, started to appear around the Solstice, Dec. 21. In the local Catholic church life-size figures were set up, including a few donkeys. The Virgin Mary was deeply revered especially around this time of year, and I still set up such scenes,” reminisced Shanley.

“Our mothers started preparation of a Christmas cake, and plum pudding in mid-November, or earlier. There was no fresh fruit available during the winter, so dried fruit i.e. raisins, sultanas, cherries, ginger were used to make these Christmas specialties.

"Cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves added an exotic flavor. Each household had her own variation, and often fierce competition raged over who made the best. I have carried over the custom of making a boiled fruit cake, never as good as my mother’s, but still pretty tasty.

"In Ireland, the ladies (never men!) also added a layer of almond paste surrounding the cake topped with the most decorative icing. Of course, the cake has to be fed with some periodic dashes of whiskey while it waited for Christmas Day – and I very much enjoy still offering this treat to my family here in Ocean City,” described Shanley.

“The Christmas plum pudding is another marvel! Some women were experts in the art of making this mysterious dish. Strictly-guarded recipes handed down generation to generation were kept under lock and key. Topping the pudding is a brandy sauce.

"My childhood friend visited me this summer and brought a plum pudding for me. It is in the freezer, and I am anxiously waiting to indulge Christmas Day,” Shanley said.

“As to our actual dinner when I was a child, the turkey and smoked ham were readied. Potatoes peeled for roasting on Christmas Day. Brussel sprouts, carrots and turnips and peas were lined up. This is the same tradition I have carried to Ocean City, with the addition of a veggie turkey.

"On Christmas Day mulled wine was prepared and the aroma filled the house. I maintain this custom using apple juice, fresh fruit slices, red wine, and spices.

“Back in Ireland, a separate room, the ‘sitting room,’ was set aside for the Christmas tree and decorations. Colorful paper garlands stretched across from wall to wall. Paper moons were hung, and the mirror draped with shiny tinsel, mimicking icicles.

"Freshly-picked holly with lots of red berries was picked from the garden, and the whole house, including the front door, was decorated with it. It was said the prickly leaves represent Christ's crown, and the berries represented his blood. 

"My children grew up in Ocean City with the same decorating tradition, right down to some of the paper moons and garlands. Holly is still an important part of our Christmas which is abundant here in Cape May County,” Shanley said.

Learning more about how other countries’ Christmas traditions thrive in Cape May County is a demonstration of the cultural strands that make up the fabric of Dec. 25 for American children and their families.

To contact Camille Sailer, email csailer@cmcherald.com.

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