Conjuring the Past, Upholding Holiday Traditions
Treasured foods, decorations, customs take center stage every winter
Celebrating the winter holidays in Southwest Florida can be a bit off-putting, especially for those of us who grew up north of Tallahassee. Holiday temperatures in the mid-80s can ignite or douse the holiday spirit. But for many who uphold family traditions, the holiday spirit remains vibrant, whether outside temperatures reach 20 below or 90 degrees.
And whether you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, there are likely traditions you hold dear. Treasured decorations, meals and treats prepared for loved ones, and festive gatherings create memories repeated annually. Those iconic traditions make the holidays singular, harkening back to simpler “happy golden days of yore.”
I am blessed to know some of the best holiday revelers in Southwest Florida, who uphold winter holiday traditions year after year, even when the weather outside is less than frightful.
THE FEAST OF THE SEVEN (OR SO) FISHES
Everybody wants an Uncle Benny. Sal Dickinson had one, and spent his formative years in New York celebrating Christmas Eve by enjoying the Feast of the Seven Fishes. The celebration has historic roots in Southern Italy, and is known as an Italian-American tradition in the U.S. Sal’s grandfather made a living in the New York wholesale seafood business, starting in 1917. His uncle followed suit, and Sal’s Christmas Eves were spent at his Uncle Benny’s, honoring the Feast of the Seven Fishes. “When you’re in the wholesale seafood business in New York City, you’re bringing home great stuff,” Sal says, referring to octopus, salted cod, shrimp, oysters, clams, lobster, crab and an array of fish. “We’d go to midnight Mass and come back to a gazillion Italian pastries and open our gifts,” he adds.
These days, Sal continues the tradition in a “Southwest Florida modified way” with his wife, Ginny, and two daughters. “We still do octopus, calamari, shrimp and flesh fish,” he says, referring to grouper or redfish he may have caught on his boat. And sometimes the feast incorporates local stone crabs. “It might be the feast of four or five fishes,” he notes, “but I still figure that seafood Christmas Eve tradition has remained with me throughout my life.”
HANUKKAH: DEFINING TRADITION
Sue Izeman extols an indisputable truth: Everything about Hanukkah is based in tradition. To Sue and her family, lighting the menorah is key, of course. So are gifts. “We grew up getting a gift each night … mostly small stuff,” she says.
And her family’s traditional Hanukkah celebrations will never be complete without potato latkes and her Grandmother Ruth’s applesauce—made from scratch. “I was an adult when I found out that my grandmother’s secret ingredient was tiny cinnamon candies,” Sue notes. “When she died, I found a mayonnaise jar of them in her cupboard. I took it home and thought of her every time I used them.”
HO HO … OH!
With a passion for all things antique, Cindy Pierce has amassed an impressive collection of about 50 vintage Santa Clauses, and they adorn her circa-1926 Fort Myers home every holiday
season. Although a few were found on eBay, most caught her keen eye at local thrift and antiques shops. “It’s more fun to find them that way,” she says.
She decorates every room in the house with Santas that range from the whimsical to the downright scary. Visiting children earned prizes for counting the most Santas on Christmas Eve. (One Santa so terrified a nephew, she had to hide it whenever he visited.) And once upon a time, her own children were challenged daily to find the most recently placed Santa.
Cindy unpacks her collection every year, remembering where and how she acquired each Santa. “One has his hands open, so every day last year, I tried to find something different to put in his hands,” she explains. “Silly things like that,” Cindy adds, are what make the Pierce household a haven for the holidays.
Another Pierce family tradition: Helen’s holiday noodles.
Kevin Pierce is the master re-creator of the family-famous pasta that his mother, Helen, made year after year. It’s quite a production. “This big sheet of egg noodle dough would sit out for the better part of a day or two and then get cut into individual noodles that sat out for a day or more. The noodles were center stage for the better part of the week,” he relates.
“They are enough of a labor that mom only made them for the holidays. They never showed up on the table any other time of the year. Never. Ever. It was a big deal. Maybe because of that, they’re a little more special, and we looked forward to them as part of the holidays. They continue to be that way. The whole clan looks forward to it. It tastes like the holidays. They’re rare and dear.”
Marc Collins hails from Athens, Alabama, where his grandmother spent months creating stockings that he and his siblings proudly display every Christmas. In the South, he says, “Everyone has Christmas china. When you get married, you register for your fine china and your Christmas china.” And on that china, “at my Mama’s house,” he says, pineapple casserole was served. “It was the only time of year we ate it.”
Beth Cameron hosts her family of about 24 on Christmas Day. She and her husband provide the prime rib, guests bring the sides and everyone takes part in a Yankee gift exchange after dinner.
We perused the collectibles at Gannon’s Antiques in Fort Myers and found a honey of a vintage electric menorah, old books (one from 1902), sheet music and a mid-20th century Santa Claus with a pink nose that was made in Japan and originally sold for 29 cents. An angel-in-fiberglass-clouds tree topper was a favored mid-century style. Any of these beloved reminders of the past can be the cornerstone of the winter holiday you love best.
Santa figurine (right) is one of 50 collected by Cindy Pierce of F ort Myers. Her husband, Kevin, always cooks his mother's holiday noodles. Left-side third photo is one of author K athy Grey's ornaments. At Gannon’s Antiques in Fort Myers, she found a...