My Family's Holiday Heritage: Christmas Past and New Traditions
Me as a baby at Grandma Carolyn's house
My regular blog readers have probably noticed that I’ve been pretty “quiet” over the past couple of weeks—no new blogs or recipes and only a few Facebook updates and “tweets.” Between the busy Hanukkah season and a terrible winter cold, I was exhausted. I was also dealing privately with a death in the family. Ever since I was born, I have associated this remarkable woman with Christmas and the holiday traditions of my childhood, so it’s a particularly difficult loss at this time of year. Today I’d like to tell you about my great aunt, Pauline Perozzi, and the holiday joy she inspired in the heart of our family.
As most of you know, I was not born Jewish. I wasn’t raised in any particular religion, but my mom’s side of the family has been Christian for as long as we can remember. My great aunt Pauline was a member of the local Catholic mission church; she was well known in the community as a warm, kind-hearted person. She was a member of the Farm Bureau for Women and the Red Hat Society. She played the organ and piano by ear. She was the type of person you were proud to call family; just the mention of her name brought a smile to everybody’s face. And, for about as long as anybody can remember, she has hosted our family’s Christmas Eve celebration.
Grandma Carolyn, Aunt Pauline, and their sister Phyllis (left to right)
It was from Aunt Pauline and her sister, my Grandma Carolyn (who we also lost recently), that I learned the importance of family holiday traditions. Pauline and Carolyn were born and raised near Big Springs, Nebraska. They were the great grandchildren of Swedish immigrants who moved to Nebraska in the late 1800’s. Pauline and Carolyn were farmer’s daughters; growing up they were taught how to can cherries and make noodles from scratch. When my Grandma Carolyn married her husband Robert, they moved to California and brought along Aunt Pauline, who was unmarried at the time. In this way, our family settled and planted roots in San Luis Obispo, California -- the same town I was born in, and my mother before me.
Pauline and Carolyn (2nd and 3rd from left) with brothers and sisters
At the tender age of 21, my Aunt Pauline was already considered an “old maid schoolteacher” when she met her husband Dennis Perozzi in 1952. Uncle Dennis is a farmer who raises beef cattle on his peaceful ranch in the rolling countryside of San Luis Obispo. Aunt Pauline was well suited to farm life, and also to Uncle Dennis. They had four children together and lived happily married for 56 years.
Pauline and Dennis get married.
From the time I was born we celebrated Christmas in the same way, spending Christmas Eve at Aunt Pauline’s ranch and Christmas day with Grandma Carolyn. Christmas Eve at the ranch was a particularly unique gathering that brought our diverse and scattered family together to celebrate in a magnificent fashion. When I was fourteen years old, I wrote a column about the experience for our county newspaper. Here’s an excerpt from the article:
Since before I can remember, the chain of events is the same. We meet Jake at the door, pet his hairy arthritic back, and coo to him lovingly. Jake is a good dog. Then in we tromp, chilled from walking through the wintery grass fields, to the fire-warmed Perozzi ranch house.
A stuffed cougar mounted above the Christmas tree seems to leer “Joy to the World” as we enter. The smell of boiling soup stock greets our anxious noses as welcomes are belted out from the group sitting around the dining room table. Hugs commence as my great aunt Pauline Perozzi passes out soup bowls. New additions to the family are coddled, the elders acknowledged respectfully, and dinner is happily devoured. My cousins and I head off to our own corner of the house while the adults talk about taxes and work and Christmas traffic.
Christmas tree at the ranch
The family piano is treated harshly as we experiment with “chopsticks” on the worn keys. When the piano becomes boring, we race to the hors d’oeuvre table and dare each other to try the jerky made with deer meat. We stuff ourselves with frosting and cake and cookies.
Just as things begin to die down and children begin to yawn, caroling commences. In off-key voices, we sing “Silent Night,” “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful,” and finally “Jingle Bells.” At the height of the merriment, in bursts Santa Claus (an uncle in costume) with an elf in tow. We older cousins, who have been sitting in the same lap at the same ranch house for years, act too cool for Santa until our name is called. Then, strutting up to the jolly man with anticipation in our hearts, we tell him whether we’ve been good or bad this year. No matter what we say, we get a candy cane and a present (which inevitably pleases us). Then comes the fun of watching screaming babies go through the torture of sitting on Santa’s lap… hilarious, because only a decade before, we had been afraid of him as well.
Me on Santa's lap, age 10 (during my "chipmunk cheek" phase)
Eventually, with a jolly “Ho Ho Ho” and a toss of candy to the floor, Santa Claus leaves to bring other children presents around the world. We pounce on the candy greedily and let a few pieces melt in our mouths between yawns. We are anxious to return home to our warm beds and soft pillows. Christmas Eve is drawing to a close, and we must all return home to fall asleep… and then again to awaken, when Christmas morning’s sunlight opens our eyes. Waiting will be a tower of presents, wrapped to be unwrapped; and my family, as we celebrate life and love and Christmas joy.
With Aunt Pauline and Uncle Dennis, Christmas Eve 2008
Losing a matriarch like my Aunt Pauline or Grandma Carolyn leaves a gaping hole in the family structure. It can prove a daunting task to keep the holiday traditions alive after they’re gone. Who will host the Christmas dinner? Who will call up the family and invite everybody to come over? Who will cook the family soup or the holiday cookies? Who will decorate the house with the love and care that she did? Who can deal with the sadness of celebrating without her? Who has the time or energy to keep that spirit, her spirit, alive?
But carry on we must. Our holiday traditions are what make us special, give us our identity. They keep our children connected to their past from generation to generation. Part of the reason I was drawn to Judaism was this very emphasis on tradition. We say the Shabbat prayer and light the candles the same way our ancestors did thousands of years ago. It’s part of what keeps us connected to our history, to the essence of who we are.
Four generations celebrate Christmas. That's me as a baby, my Grandma Carolyn
holding me, my great grandma sitting in the rocking chair, and my mom.
For my mom’s birthday this year, I gave her a beautiful wooden nutcracker from Germany. I told her it’s because we are now the matriarchs of our family… we are responsible for carrying on the holiday traditions that my grandma and great aunt were so diligent about each year. The holidays will never look the same way they did when Aunt Pauline and Grandma Carolyn were alive. The landscape will change, different houses will play host, new decorations will adorn the mantle, new babies and children will open their gifts with breathless excitement. In interfaith families like mine, holidays will be celebrated in new ways thanks to a uniting of different religions and cultures. But one thing remains the same—the strength and love of family, and the ancestral bond that ties us together for every holiday to come.
Here is a gift from my family to yours, my Aunt Pauline’s recipe for Missouri Cookies. She made them every year for Christmas Eve. They were one of my favorite treats growing up, and they’re so easy to make—no baking required. I hope you have a chance to enjoy these delicious cookies with your family during the holiday season… Aunt Pauline would have wanted it that way.
AUNT PAULINE’S MISSOURI COOKIES
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter
2 cups granulated sugar
3 tbsp cocoa
½ cup milk
Dash of salt
½ cup chunky peanut butter
1 tsp vanilla
3 cups quick oats
Makes about 32 cookies
Kosher Key: Dairy
Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in sugar, cocoa, milk and salt. Turn up heat and bring mixture to a full rolling boil for 1 minute. Remove from heat.
Stir chunky peanut butter and vanilla into the chocolate mixture. Add quick oats to the pan; mix all ingredients together till well combined. Form the mixture into small cookie balls (about 1 ½ tbsp of mixture each) and lay them on wax or parchment paper to cool. Cookies will cooled and be ready to eat in 20-30 minutes.
The Shiksa in the Kitchen