By Teresa Nguyen
RCHS History Teller
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…
We all could easily sing the next line of this traditional Christmas carol. Am I right? Ah, the music of the season! Familiar melodies, beautiful harmonies and nostalgic lyrics evoking our own sweet memories of family Christmas gatherings, times gone by, childhood joys or romantic moments.
The photo at the top of this post was taken on a trip to France in the winter of 2013. We passed street vendors selling chestnuts on attractive roasting carts, the aroma wafting on the chilly winter breeze seemed to warm the soul. And the Christmas Song came to mind. But, here in America, who roasts chestnuts anymore?
According to the Michigan State University Extension website, chestnuts had long history of being a fall, winter and holiday delicacy. American chestnut trees once covered over 200 million acres in the United States, but then destruction came. In 1904, a destructive fungus began to destroy the chestnuts, and in less than 50 years 3.5 billion trees were wiped out. And though some might carry on this tradition, it has not only waned from popularity due to fewer trees, but our busy schedules barely give us time for simply making an open fire.
Whether about chestnuts, sugar plum fairies or kissing Santa, we can all sing, or at least hum, several traditional carols from memory. Many feel a rush of glee when first heard on the local radio station in November, and most enjoy hearing carols sung at a live performance. Of course, not all holiday songs are a welcome sound. Some become earworms, or pop artists have twisted the arrangements so far from their original melodies that one must pause to recognize the tunes.
For those who work in retail, I have special sympathy. You probably feel like belting “All I want for Christmas is … for this song to stop!” As a result, changing the radio station might also become one of our holiday traditions.
During the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, children sing “The Dreidel Song”, written in 1896, which, in the English version, is about a spinning top made of clay. In the Yiddish version, it’s made of lead, which spins much better than clay. The lyrics to “Oh Hanukkah” sing of the many traditions of lighting the glowing menorah, eating latkes (delicious potato pancakes) and spinning colorful dreidels.
As a professional musician in the Rock County area since 2002, it has become my own tradition to perform a few charity gigs this time of year. There’s something very special about the gift of live music for those who cannot afford a ticket to a show, or to patron at an establishment where live music is the norm. It could be considered the gift of nostalgia, as songs bring back memories for so many.
Collaborating with other local musicians is always rewarding and our community has numerous musicians who are willing to share the gift of their talents, singing beautiful carols at the holidays. Yet another reason to love Rock County! This is a favorite from one of those gigs a few years back:
Music is but one of our holiday traditions. Sweet melodies and lyrics give meaning to our lives. We also find meaning in religious customs, special foods and in the exchange of personal gifts. We decorate our homes and attend community events to celebrate the significance of our holidays.
Our trusted Merriam-Webster dictionary defines tradition as “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior, such as a religious practice or a social custom”. Considering the fact that the American landscape is comprised of descendants of numerous nationalities and subcultures of religions, regions and ethnicities, the array of inherited customs, behaviors and practices is vast!
What a fun Story Squad assignment for me to go out into our community to capture stories of the many holiday traditions of local folks.
Midnight Mass, Dreidels and Incense
While attending this year’s fun-filled Christmas with the Tallman’s party in the RCHS Carriage Barn, I gathered numerous stories of favorite traditions. More than one guest spoke fondly of attending candlelight service at church. The history of this tradition goes way back to fourth century Jerusalem, celebrated on January 5th, the Eve of Christmas, as was the date in that era.
Today, our local churches are filled with numerous candles on Christmas Eve, which not only beautifully illuminate the sanctuaries, but create a calming, spiritual atmosphere for prayer and song to thoughtfully recall the birth of Jesus.
My Jewish friends in the area celebrate Hanukkah, a holiday commemorating the re-dedication of the Holy Temple in the land of Israel more than 2,000 years ago. They enjoy playing dreidel, a pointed, four-sided top which is spun for pennies, or chocolate coins.
A local woman told me her favorite memory was going to her grandparents’ home to eat latkes and light the menorah, a beautiful candelabra which holds the Hanukkah candles, one for each of the eight nights.
Area Buddhists keep the tradition of the Chinese New Year, which is typically in late January or early February, depending on the lunar calendar. Their families light fragrant incense at a small home alter to honor their loved ones who have passed. Usually a photo is place on the altar and incense is lit to attract the spirit of the dead … almost as a means of communicating. Silent prayers are said while bowing as a sign of respect. Fruit is also placed as an offering, as well as a meal, in case the spirit arrives while the family is away. After the ceremony, the meal is often shared by the family.
I know a local family who celebrates the Persian holiday of Nowruz, which is an over 3,000-year-old tradition of celebrating the vernal equinox, first day of spring. Special foods and symbolic items are presented for invited guests.
In our fast-paced world of modern life, these practices embrace the meaning behind our holidays, they slow us down, help us feel grounded, to recognize something outside ourselves. They embrace the past and a larger picture of wholesome goodness, love, peace and celebrate the joys of faith.
Oyster Stew, Latkes and Ninjabread Cookies
Eggnog anyone? There’s turkey in the oven, sparkling sugar cookies in the shapes of Christmas trees, stars and snowmen, and maybe a pot of Wassail with a twist. So many delicious holiday treats adorn our countertops and tables! It’s no wonder fitness centers promote January specials. The ever-loathed fruitcake still makes its way to parties and gatherings. But, fruitcake aside, what is a holiday without traditional foods?
As holidays bring families together, they are filled with special recipes, many passed on from generation to generation. In my Story Squad interviews, I’ve gathered food stories of belly warming oyster stew, fought over homemade cinnamon rolls made by Mom on Christmas morning, the decadence of chocolate fudge for breakfast and singing for your supper.
Every year at Hanukkah, one of my Jewish friends makes the most delicious latkes for guests and family, served with apple sauce and/or sour cream. Others enjoy suvganiot, or jelly doughnuts, after the Hanukkah service at synagogue in Beloit. There’s something exceptionally glorious about the smell of fresh doughnuts!
In our home, my Vietnamese husband makes delicious egg rolls for Christmas, and I bake “ninjabread” cookies, with fighting ninja cutouts for my sons. It was a hit the first year I made them, so now this has become another one of our family traditions.
We fill our senses at the holidays with special sounds, sights, scents and, of course, flavors are no exception. They all bring to mind warm recollections of holiday gatherings and favorite recipes shared.
Peanuts, Homemade Presents and Eight Special Nights
Christmas was not always centered around the children as it is now. We can thank the German and northern Europeans for this emphasis. Gifts, too, were not always for everyone.
In Colonial America, presents were only given TO the children, but children did not give back to their parents. A business owner might have bought something for an employee, but not the other way around. Often a few small gifts were placed in the branches of the Christmas tree at home, a tradition that lasted another 150 years or so, until department stores dotted the landscape and consumerism and shopping became as much a tradition as going to church on Christmas Eve.
One of our RCHS guests at the recent Christmas with the Tallmans party spoke of a tradition of passing out paper bags of oranges and peanuts to the children after the church service on Christmas Eve. Another recalled opening only one gift on Christmas Eve, and the other gifts on Christmas Day. Sometimes fewer is better. Perhaps this way the gifts carry more meaning.
I know of one local family who, on a recent Christmas, decided that they would all make each other’s gifts by hand. Nothing store bought and ready-made. It was more time consuming than expected, but what a meaningful Christmas that must’ve been!
Just like the Christmas tradition, gift giving evolved as a practice at Hanukkah, as well. One local person I interviewed told of their tradition of creating a Hanukkah scavenger hunt with clues for their children and grandchildren to solve to find their gifts. Another said that growing up Jewish was wonderful for so many reasons, but it was especially fun around the holidays. As did most Jewish kids, they received their gifts on the 1st night of Hanukkah and sometimes all eight nights!
I’m sure you can recall a gift given to you that holds a special place in your heart. Again, we find meaning in this tradition of giving, a way to connect, to remember our loved ones, or perhaps a way to leave something behind for future generations.
Windsor Castle, Candles and Meaning on the Tree
According to the history.org website, the first written reference to a Christmas tree dates from the 17th century, when a candle-lighted tree astonished the residents of Strasbourg, Germany. However, it wasn’t until 1848, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s decorated tree at Windsor Castle appeared in the Illustrated London News, that the custom truly caught on.
I remember my grandmother telling me stories of her German family home in the early 1900’s. She was adopted into a wealthy family of doctors in Davenport, Iowa, and was their only child. She said that the servants would close off the front parlor of their beautiful home, forbidding her to see the room until Christmas Eve.
They would finally open the doors to reveal a tree beautifully lit with many candles…yes, real candles. Yikes! A feast was served and carols were sung. As was the custom, she and her cousins would eagerly find a few small presents among the branches of the tree on Christmas morning.
A native Milton woman told the story of a generous neighbor who would let her father cut down a tree from the neighbor’s woods every year. She said that was one of her favorite memories of the holiday.
Our ornaments are meaningful, too. They beautifully adorn our trees, some made by children in school, some reflecting travel destinations, anniversaries or special people in our lives. We find more meaning in these personal connections to our past, and with these ornaments, we tell a sort of story of own family history
Victorian Tours, Live Camels and a Masquerade
Just as families have wonderful traditions, so do communities. Rock County is no exception. We have both the old and new, from our dazzling Rotary Gardens Holiday Lights Show and Holiday Tours of the Lincoln Tallman House, to Janesville’s Jolly Jingle weekend which includes a tree lighting at Courthouse Park, the ChristKindl Holiday Market, jazz band concerts at Voigt Music Center, and the delightful Jolly Jingle parade complete with fireworks!
This year’s parade was huge, solidifying this local tradition. Milwaukee and Main streets were lined with hundreds of gleeful children collecting candy and waving at a glowing dinosaur, Elsa and Anna from Frozen, the RCHS antique car and, of course, jolly Santa Claus.
Productions of nativity programs fill the December calendar. Area churches fill the pews while darling children in oversized shepherd’s robes, gracefully striding angels and crawling sheep depict the scene in Bethlehem so long ago. Cargill United Methodist Church has their annual live nativity, where real camels are brought in to town to greet the visitors!
The Rock County area boasts of musical concerts right and left from the BJSO Winter Holiday Delight, to the Lessons and Carols event at Trinity Episcopal Church or the Choral Union’s annual holiday performance.
Party lovers, you’re in luck! On New Year’s Eve, you might plan to attend The New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball at the Holiday Inn Express, or The Great Gatsby New Year’s Eve party, which will be held at The Armory.
For a list of local events, visit the JACVB calendar.
Instagram, Cards and Dreams of a White Christmas
In Eighteenth Century London, schoolboys wrote on pages pre-printed with special holiday borders, always using their best penmanship. “Christmas pieces” they were called.
Today, we see a flutter of social media photos from November through January, sparkling trees, photos at light shows, nativity scenes, cutesy selfies in Santa hats and professional shots of the whole family wishing holiday cheer. Greetings online have replaced the long and thoughtful hand-written letter.
Christmas cards are slowly becoming a tradition of the past, yet we still smile when we pull them from the mailbox. There is something very sweet about such thoughtful, deliberate correspondence, something tangible to place on a shelf.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas …
During this busy time of year, it’s especially important to remember those serving in the U.S. Military. Their holiday season isn’t filled with concerns about which cookies to bake or where to find the better deal. They face a more profound kind of stress, and for those service men and women in warmer climates, it might only be the dates on the calendar that remind them it’s Christmas time.
Surely you can finish that next line, too, right? One story claims that Irving Berlin wrote it from a hotel room in warm La Quinta, CA where the weather did not resemble a familiar Christmas time. A few weeks after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Bing Crosby’s first recording of “White Christmas” was broadcast on his radio show, Kraft Music Hall, on Christmas Day, 1941. A hit was born and the official recording soared to the top of the charts in 1942.
Let us pause to thank those who serve in our military during the holidays, wherever they are. May we remember their sacrifices, and those of the families who miss them.
While my grandfather, Joseph H. Lauber, was serving as a U.S. Army cook and entertainer, tap dancing and singing for the troops, he truly missed his sweetheart back home. In 1918 at Christmas time, he sent her this photo with a Christmas poem written on the back:
“Across the Miles on Christmas Day
Amid the Christmas Cheer
I’m sending Thee a greeting gay
And wishes most sincere
May every hour bring Thee joy
And happiness be Thine
And Merriment and sweet content
Bless all thy Christmas Time
And when the Christmas Day is o’er
My wish I still repeat
May each tomorrow bring a store
Of goodness true and deep
Of Gladness true and deep and strong
Of pleasures fine and free
So may the coming year be rich
In happiness for Thee”
Friends, Family and Faith
Why do we keep our traditions? Though they are fun, beautiful and sometimes delicious, it all comes down the memories they hold. Traditions take us back in time, to joyful reunions, to laughter, company, the real love of family and friends. They create meaning in the memories, and often remind us of our faith … the true reason behind the season.
May your preservation of traditions continue on, and may the holidays bring you peace. Let us go forth in 2018 with thoughtful appreciation of our past and a renewed optimism for what is yet to come!
Happiest of holidays and a very happy New Year!