Con­jur­ing the Past, Up­hold­ing Hol­i­day Tra­di­tions

Trea­sured foods, dec­o­ra­tions, cus­toms take cen­ter stage ev­ery win­ter

RSWLiving - - Contents - Free­lance writer Kathy Grey is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to TOTI Me­dia.

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.


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.”


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.”


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...

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