Christmas: A Season of Traditions That Create Family Memories

| December 25, 2018

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – Christmas is a season of many traditions, from cultural traditions to personal traditions, all woven together to create a patchwork of holiday joy.

The Christmas holiday has a remarkable history, stretching from the early days of Christianity back through earlier Pagan traditions that have been woven into the fabric of the holiday over the centuries.

The Christmas tree – a figure of much love and care in many homes both around the world and in our region – even came from an earlier European tradition of using evergreen boughs as a winter decoration in homes as a reminder that spring would return soon. Later, as Christianity spread, the evergreen boughs were replaced by “Paradise Trees” which were slowly incorporated into Christmas celebrations.

Today, Christmas trees still figure largely in Christmas celebrations around the world, from Jerusalem to Moscow and Rockefeller Center to Rome.

In Pennsylvania, many cities and boroughs, including Oil City and Franklin, have their own special events around the light of the tree, but the most remarkable may be the floating tree of Boiling Springs.

The small town of Boiling Springs’ civic association sponsors a Christmas village event where hundreds of luminaries line the lake, and people from far and near gather near the gazebo to watch Santa Claus row a boat across the lake to greet the children. Then, a special Christmas tree that is set afloat near the Memorial Clock Tower is lit.

Locally, Christmas trees are a major part of many residents personal celebrations, as well.

“My mom and son go every year to the tree farm and hand cut their own special tree,” said Clarion resident Malorie McFarland.

The tree itself is a starting point, but what is a tree without decorations?

For many people in western Pennsylvania, where the Heinz name still holds sway, there is one particular ornament on the tree that holds special significance.

According to, the tradition of the Christmas Pickle was believed to go back to Old World Germany, but that story doesn’t seem likely. There are multiple origin stories for the tradition, and no one knows for certain how it began, but the one thing that always seems to hold true is that the ornament is hidden on the tree, and the one who finds it gets something special, often to be the first to open a gift.

“We always hide a Christmas pickle ornament in the tree,” said Clarion resident Jessie Eustice.

Local resident Dr. Erin Bowser noted that her family also takes part in the Christmas Pickle tradition, but with their own special twist.

“We have a Christmas Pickle that we leave out with our Santa cookies. Santa always hides this on our tree and the first one to find it Christmas morning gets to be Santa’s elf and hand out the presents,” said Bowser.

“We wanted the kids to learn to give so whoever finds it gets to give the gifts.”

Christmas trees may be central to many families’ celebrations, but for those who practice the Christian faith, the reason for the tree supersedes the tree itself, and some of the biggest traditions of holiday revolve around the church.

Local resident Carol Brunner Flynn said that attending candlelight service with her family is one of her favorite traditions of the season.

Oil City resident Rebecca Ann shared similar sentiments.

“One of my favorite traditions was going to Christmas Eve church service with my grandmother. She passed away quite a few years ago and we kind of stopped going. So this year, we’ve begun going to a new church, and I’m so excited to start this tradition up again with my family. This will be our first Christmas Eve service in years.”

The big meal of the day is another tradition that takes many forms. For many of those who have come from Italy, the Festa dei sette pesci (Feast of the Seven Fishes) is a major event on Christmas Eve, where seven different seafood dishes, which can include anchovies, whiting, lobster, sardines, baccalà (dried salt cod), smelts, eels, squid, octopus, shrimp, mussels, and clams, are the main attraction.

German traditional meals are made up of geese filled with apples as well as roast pork. In Russia, Christmas Eve dinner is often composed of twelve dishes, one for each apostle, with the focus of the meal being fish accompanied by a traditional beet soup. In Finland, the “Joulupöytä” (Yule table) is often covered with a traditional display of Christmas food including Lutefisk and carrot and potato casseroles.

According to CNBC, in Japan, KFC Chicken has become so popular for Christmas meals that people often place their orders as much as two months in advance.

Regardless of the food chosen for the Christmas celebration, family meals play a major role in the festivities.

“People think I am a killjoy because no one can open any gifts until after breakfast, which is the big meal of the day: bacon, sausage, pancakes with fruit and whipped cream, fried potatoes, and an almond tart this year,” said Shamburg resident Anissa Ferringer.

“I bake on Christmas Eve: pretzels and brownies and breads and then make sauces,” said local resident Christine Moore.

“My favorite part of making the Christmas dinner is peeling the potatoes. I don’t know why, but I will peel an entire bag happily, then I wonder what the heck am I going to do with so many potatoes.”

John Fedak, a former Redbank Valley High School teacher who currently teaches at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, noted that his family long practiced the Polish tradition of breaking bread on Christmas Eve.

“I remember breaking bread each Christmas eve before our family meal, with grandparents and other family. I don’t remember if we did a public prayer or thanks; we may have. I do remember that any leftovers from that meal were burned in offering to the Lord.”

Local resident Brenda Moon noted her family has several food-oriented traditions.

“Growing up we bake a birthday cake for Jesus, and I have carried that on with our son,” Moon said.

“When we sit down to our Christmas meal we have an extra place setting, for the ones missing. Having lived on military bases, the extra place setting was sometimes used for someone that had just returned from deployment and sometimes it was empty, thankfully most times there was a last minute guest.”

Local residents who have moved here from other parts of the country and the world also continue to bring their own traditions with them.

“I had not really celebrated Christmas on December 25th until I had my daughter. We simply adapted since that’s the gift-giving day in America,” said local resident Marija Jankovic.

“We came to America 20 years ago. We grew up Serbian Orthodox, though we did not go to church much. Serbian Orthodox Christmas is on January 7th. No presents are given. We go to my parents’ house in Hermitage, go to church on Christmas Eve (Jan 6th, depending on the weather since it’s a late service), and have a nice lunch on Christmas with my folks. Our most important holiday, a tradition that carries from Eastern Europe, is St. John the Baptist day. It is January 20th. We go to my parents’ house, my brother and his family come, friends and guest come, a priest comes and blesses the house, and we all break blessed bread together. We eat a lot, drink, and enjoy each others company. This day is called Slava.”

Other local residents have discovered new and interesting traditions.

“I’m implementing the Icelandic tradition of buying books for loved ones and staying up all night Christmas Eve to read them while eating chocolate and snacks. It’s like the concept of “Hygge”, promoting a cozy house filled with warmth and love,” said Clarion resident Rebecca Hoff.

Sligo resident Shannon Rumbarger noted she also began a new tradition with her own children, while keeping older traditions, as well.

“Christmas PJ’s! Since I’ve had kids, I’ve gotten them coordinating Christmas pajamas and gifted them to them on Christmas Eve,” Rumbarger said.

“In addition, as a child, we always opened one gift on Christmas Eve, usually from a sibling, so my kids do the same.”

Clarion resident Jennifer Fulmer Vinson’s household also made a few changes to her childhood traditions for her own family.

“The most consistent tradition in my family is the one I grew up with and is pretty close to the one my mom grew up with,” Vinson said.

“On Christmas morning, my change from my childhood is I allow my girls to have their stockings first thing. When we moved into our big house the stockings were hung (with care) from the living room mantle and since my bedroom fireplace is directly above that one, Santa would kindly leave the stockings there for the girls to find. Then everyone has to be dressed for breakfast (Pillsbury cinnamon rolls and my grandmother’s hot chocolate recipe) and then we can attack the Christmas tree.”

While some families have a few simple traditions, others mix a whole range of traditions covering days of the Christmas season.

“During the week of Christmas, my wife, Keli, makes Christmas sugar cookies, other cookies, and Chex mix. Every Christmas Eve morning, our elf brings Emma, a new pair of pajamas. On Christmas Eve we attend Mass. We visit my family in Saint Marys and exchange gifts either just before or shortly after Christmas, weather permitting,” said local resident Jason “Kosmo” Kosmiski.

“Prior to his passing, we used to celebrate my great uncle Dickie’s birthday, which is also on the 24th. After Mass there, we would enjoy shrimp cocktail and freshly made venison sausage, made by my uncle, Andy, who passed away from cancer earlier this year. Santa comes Christmas morning and we open gifts. We usually eat some kind of special breakfast, and, in the late morning, go to my wife’s mother’s house to exchange gifts. We usually enjoy a huge Christmas dinner there.”

From movies to midnight mass, from decorating to caroling, shopping and wrapping to eating and drinking and even driving around seeking out that next great Christmas display, the holidays hold a vast and ever-changing array of possibilities for families near and far to make the holidays memorable in their own special way.

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