North County Residents Share Holiday Traditions
Holidays are steeped in tradition. In towns, as Christmas draws near, evergreen trees in the square are decorated with sparkling lights. In New York City's Rockefeller Center, a towering evergreen is erected and millions of people watch, in person or sitting in front of a TV set, as the lights on the tree are illuminated at a festive ceremony. And near Central Park, the world's largest menorah is lit for Hanukkah.
Local families have traditions, too, and iBerkshires asked people from different stages and different walks of life how they celebrate the holiday season: Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, and Hanukkah, which commemorates the victory of the Jews against the Syrian-Greek regime in 165 BCE.
North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright shared his memories of growing up in very strong Polish/Catholic traditions.
"My mother's parents were from Poland and we celebrated both Christmas and Easter in very traditional Polish/Catholic fashion," the mayor said. "My babcia (grandmother), mother and ciocia (aunt) prepared Polish foods for our family gatherings. The parish priest from St. Stan's (St. Stanislaus Kostka Church) in Adams came to the house to offer his blessing over the food.
"I vividly remember visiting the Christmas manger — it was quite spectacular," Alcombright said, adding that St. Stan's was and continues to be a beautiful shrine to Eastern European Catholicism.
"At 89 years young, my mother still makes some great Polish food that she shares with my children and myself on a regular basis. This year as my family congregates at my mother's house on Christmas Day, we will still partake of the great tradition of breaking the oplatki. Oplatek is a very thin bread wafer — much like a communion wafer but larger. Family members and any guests are each given an oplatek and they each break off a piece from one another and eat it, expressing best wishes and blessings for the new year.
"The real kicker for me this year is that our food will be blessed by a priest. I am extremely proud that my son, Matthew, was ordained a priest this past summer and I am certain he will bless the food in the Polish tradition at Christmas and Easter for many years to come."
For Tom Costley, a Williamstown selectman and owner of Overland, a family tradition is becoming more challenging as the years go by.
"We decorate the Norway spruce at the end of our driveway with white lights," he said. "That was easy when the tree was 6 feet tall ... it's now over 20 feet!"
The family's traditions also include attending "the beautiful Lessons and Carols Service" at the college.
"And we have [my wife] Liz's parents over for Christmas dinner, which is always roasted turkey with all the fixin's," the selectman said.
Edith Evans of Williamstown celebrated Hannukah with her parents and siblings when she was a child living in Austria. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hannukah is celebrated for eight days, starting on the 25th day of the month of Kisler in the Jewish calendar. This year it fell from Dec. 9 to 16.
"We had a pretty silver menorah and my father would light one candle the first night, a second candle the second night and so on until all the candles were lit. We would sing 'Rock of Ages' and other songs in Hebrew each night," Evans recalled.
The children would play with a dreidel, a four-sided spinning top, and depending on how the dreidel fell, they were given a certain amount of "gelt" money.
"We would get a penny or a few pennies," said Evans.
Joe Finnegan, general manager of Williams College ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, became a member of two very large families when he married his wife, Tracy.
"The holidays became a movable feast," he said. "The only sure thing when the boys were younger was that Tracy and I would be up very late on Christmas Eve wrapping and/or putting something together and I never let the boys go down the stairs until I was down there with the camera."
"Now our twins are 16 and our youngest is almost 15 and that magic is mostly gone; the holidays are about gathering with family and good friends. If we have snow on the ground or ice on the pond, there will be sledding, skiing and pond hockey — bonfires outside and fires in the house-many movies and Christmas music and candles."
For people who have suffered the loss of a loved one, the holidays can be bittersweet. Memories of holidays spent with those who have passed away can bring smiles as well as sadness.
"This is the first year that both my wife Mary and I will be without any of our parents," said Williamstown Town Manager Peter Fohlin. "Thus Mary, son Chris, and I are planning a mobile Christmas. We have purchased a live potted Christmas tree here in the Berkshires. After a week here in Williamstown, we will take it with us on vacation for another week. We are decorating with glass ornaments almost 100 years old handed down through my family. The tree will be planted at our destination, starting a new tradition for the three of us."
Sarah Thurston, president of the Stratton Hills Association Trust, was 4 years old when the tradition of making Christmas cookies with her paternal grandmother took root.
"We'd make all sorts of cookies, but no matter what, we always made peanut butter cookies with Hershey Kisses on top," she said.
"I've been blessed to grow up here in town with both sets of grandparents within 20 miles of us my entire life, so we used to alternate who hosted Christmas Eve/Christmas Day and that often depended on what aunts and uncles were in town," said Thurston. "In my immediate family, we always opened one present on Christmas Eve.
"Our celebrations always center around food, and my mother traditionally makes a seafood lasagna for Christmas Eve — to die for!! And a beef tenderloin or prime rib for Christmas Day. For dessert, we traditionally have Nana Leach's (my father's great-grandmother's recipe) Christmas Pudding with three sauces. It is like a bread pudding, and you drizzle on a brandy sauce, a sugar sauce and top it with whipped cream — completely decadent."
Williamstown Selectman Ron Turbin said his family has a nice holiday tradition that is "unique to the Turbins."
"[My wife] Judy is a practicing Methodist and I am Jewish, so we celebrate Christmas and Hannukah. I know that many homes do the same things," he said. "However, I am also a Christmas baby and have a twin brother. As children, there were times we shared both a Christmas present and birthday present.
"Now, Judy makes sure I get many, many, presents. It's become a family joke with us, our kids and now our grandkids."
This year, the Turbins will celebrate Christmas Eve with their daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren in Averill Park, N.Y.
"On Christmas day, we'll have Christmas dinner with my 99-year-old mother-in-law at the nursing home, Williamstown Commons," he said. "The chef always cooks a delicious holiday meal."
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