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Holiday Gift and Event Guide The Altamont Enterprise, November 20, 2008
Family holiday traditions
By Zach Simeone
Whatever faith you belong to, the ability of religious holidays to bring a family together is uncanny. It’s got to be the food.
My mother, a Holland, grew up in a Conservative Jewish family. My father, a Simeone, was raised Catholic. Neither one of them is religious. When they married almost 30 years ago, two families with entirely different beliefs became one.
As a product of that fusion of faiths, I’ve experienced more than 20 years of diverse family gatherings, on nearly every major Jewish and Christian holiday. Whether it was hunting for colored eggs on Easter, or dipping apples in honey on Rosh Hashanah, we did it. The egg hunting ceased many years back, but I digress.
So when the days get shorter, the trees become bare, and frost coats our windshields, I know that the season for candles, colorfully lit trees, and endless feasting is fast approaching.
Latkes and candles
For as long as I can remember, we’ve had annual Hanukkah parties at my home in downtown Albany.
The usuals: My mother’s parents, Herbert and Marilyn; her brother, David; her sisters, Debbie and Sheryl; and Aunt Sheryl’s children, Becky and Stacey. I grew up with Becky and Stacey, but rarely see them anymore since we went our separate ways for college.
My father’s parents, Stefano and Elvira, almost always drive in from Amsterdam to join the festivities, as well as cousin Karen and her kids, my Aunt Sally, Aunt Diana, and Uncle Gerry.
Some years, when we’re lucky, my mother’s father brings one of his homemade breads. My grandfather passed his mastery of baking on to my mother, though she specializes in desserts. Someone always brings at least one more loaf of bread from Prinzo’s Bakery, and mom picks up a tray of cold cuts from one of the neighborhood delis.
Relatives swarm the kitchen when my mother and grandmother start frying up their homemade potato latkes. They are always just the right shade of golden-brown, crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. They have to be eaten right out of the pan.
When the last precious latkes have been devoured, the family dives into whatever gourmet dessert my mother decided to bake. A chocolate pecan pie and her signature cheesecake are the most common duo. Cool Whip is a must with the pecan pie.
With bellies full, the family gathers in the living room, while my cousins and I light the appropriate number of candles in the menorah, depending on which of the festival’s eight nights the party falls. The family sings in prayer. I’ve never been much into praying.
We exchange gifts, and the grandparents on my mother’s side dole out Hanukkah gelt, the traditional chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. We spend the rest of the night talking, laughing, and drinking either wine or coffee.
Just when the menorah’s candles have burned out, it’s about time to put up the Christmas tree.
The more the merrier
When I was younger, my father would drive me to the corner of Delaware and Morton to pick out my favorite shrub. Our living room was usually covered by an elaborate arrangement of the conventional multicolored lights, which ran along the floor, up to the piano, over the fireplace mantle, and, of course, spiraled up around the new arbor.
On Christmas Eve, my parents and I have always exchanged gifts at home, spending most of the night listening to music, and resting before the day of travel ahead. Getting my family from one place to another is always far more hectic than it should be.
Some of my earliest Christmas memories take place at my grandparents’ house in Amsterdam, a house that they sold this summer.
Once my cousin Lexi was born nearly 15 years ago, my Aunt Val and Uncle Wayne could no longer make the drive from Connecticut to Amsterdam. Now, we celebrate Christmas at their home in Darien. Since Darien is more than a three-hour drive for most of the family, this is usually a smaller-scale affair.
Bright red stockings line the fireplace, stuffed with assorted candies and wool socks. Their tree, which usually takes up half of the living room, is covered in tinsel, candy canes, and assorted ornaments.
After distributing and opening presents, our cups are filled with hot cider, our bowls filled with homemade chicken soup. Some years, my aunt is tasked with the soup making; other times, the responsibility is my grandmother’s. Each has her own unique recipe, delicious in its own right, with fresh white meat, diced vegetables, and just the right amount of salt and pepper.
The feasting continues throughout the night, and Dean Martin is usually singing in the background, much to my mother’s dismay. Turkey, artichokes, lasagna, and pigs in a blanket cover our plates, though they don’t remain for long.
Again, my mother’s chocolate pecan pie and cheesecake make their appearance. This time, however, my mother’s baking is challenged by my grandmother’s apple pie and rugelach cookies. We welcome the competition.
What is the common theme shared by these memories? An enormous, home-cooked meal can spread joy across faiths. So, as the holidays approach, my advice is this: Listen to your gut. If it’s anything like mine, it’s been waiting all year for the gratuitous amounts of sustenance that await it.