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Archives Celebrating Christmas in a variety of ways

Dec. 18, 2019

By Mary Beth Bracy
Contributing writerChristmas Traditions

Though cultures celebrate the holiday differently, Christmas (or Christ-Mass) reminds all of us that God is with us and present among us. Hymns like “Minuit, Chrétiens,” “Gesù Bambino,” “Adestes Fideles,” “Away in a Manger,” and “Stille Nacht” ring in our hearts at Midnight Mass, echoing joy at Our Savior’s holy birth. North Country faithful reflected on some of their favorite memories of celebrating Christmas with faith, hope, and love in a variety of ways.

When she was a child, Mary Hartzell Bracy, now a resident of Carthage, recounted that nuns sent her mother, Bette, a little packet of Christmas wheat seeds.

“Every time you did a sacrifice or something nice for someone you’d put a seed in a bowl,” Bracy said. “On the feast of St. Lucy (Dec. 13), you’d plant the seeds. They grew, and on Christmas you’d present the plant at the manger while singing a hymn.”

This Hungarian custom is intended to remind those who practice it of the Holy Eucharist and that Jesus was born at Bethlehem, which means house of bread.

Joyeux Noël!: French traditions
Peru resident Bruce Beauharnois has a special tradition of visiting and attending Mass at Notre-Dame Basilica in Montréal. This family trip, the week after Thanksgiving each year, marks the beginning to the Advent season. After, the family enjoys crêpes in Centre-Ville.

Growing up, Michele Renadette Polhemus of Plattsburgh describes Tourtière (French Canadian meat pie) and pastries, filled with brown sugar and cinnamon, made from the leftover dough. It was a family time and they would visit both sets of grandparents and go to church on Christmas Eve.

Similarly, Plattsburgh resident Jackie Ryan Bracy’s mother, Sally, always made Tourtière on Christmas Eve. They visited her maternal grandparents and attended evening Mass together as a family. When she and her sisters were older, they went to Midnight Mass.

“My mother really kept Christmas about the birth of Christ, and it was not commercialized,” Jackie Ryan Bracy said. “She kept it simple. I really appreciate that now.”

Nollaig Shona!: Irish traditions
Sharon Riley Luck of Cliff Haven recalled celebrating the holiday with Irish traditions.

Luck noted she fondly remembers her mom’s Irish Soda Bread, and how “she would make it for us but also give it to friends and the priests at the rectory.”

Clare Szydlik Whitten recalls the traditions of her parish, St. John’s in Plattsburgh, as well.

“At St. John's when I was little, there was always a pageant before Midnight Mass,” Whitten said. “Sister Felicitas always put it on. The boys would wear the cassock and surplice and sing. There would be little kids who would come up during the song ‘Oh Come Little Children.’ The junior high girls – boys could start in 4th grade, when they started serving – would sing certain songs while they were dressed in angel costumes trimmed in gold or silver garland with matching halos. I longed for the day when I could be one of those angels and was thrilled when I could.”

Wesolych Świąt: Polish traditions
Whitten noted her family observed Polish customs during the Christmas season.

“We would follow the Polish tradition and put our tree up on Christmas Eve,” she said. “We would also have Mary and Joseph travel around the living room and arrive at the stable about a week before Christmas. Jesus didn't get into the manger until after Mass on Christmas Eve.”

Natalie Wagner Batt’s family also celebrated the holiday in the Polish tradition.

“As a child, Christmas Eve meant carrying on the Polish Wigilia customs handed down by my dad’s family,” she said. “My husband and I continue to carry on these traditions with our own five children. After the first evening star has risen, Oplatki – unleavened Christmas wafers – are broken and shared amongst all the members of the family; each piece is offered with a blessing or joyful wishes for a Merry Christmas. The Wigilia meal, which includes fish, pierogi, peas, and noodles, among other traditional Polish goodies – and in our particular tradition, always all green or white – is meatless but hearty and wonderfully comforting. Soon after dinner, we break out the Christmas cookies and enjoy dessert and games, and a nap for the little ones before heading off to Midnight Mass.”

Satonnhà:ren tsi rotón:ni Mohawk traditions
Dr. Rose-Alma “Dolly” McDonald shared that there is “traditional midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the St. Regis Mission Church. Our Mohawk Choir sings throughout the Mass and we have hot cross bread that we always distribute on Christmas Eve.” At an earlier Mass there is a pageant with children and “the baby Jesus is a little Mohawk baby.”

Merry Christmas!: American traditions
In addition to celebrating cultural traditions, many area families have created their own practices. Peru resident Pam Sears says she remembers “Mass with family on Christmas Eve and lighting the Advent candle at our evening meals.”

Elizabeth Gibbs of Plattsburgh said her family uses tree decorating as a way to reflect on the meaning of the holiday.

“When we decorate the Christmas tree, we always make sure the angel is the last thing to go on the tree on the top,” Gibbs said. “Wyatt [her youngest son] asked me why we don't have a star on the top, and I said we have an angel so that we are reminded of God's presence in the holiday. Christ's birth is the ultimate act of love.”

Deacon Dave Clark, also a Plattsburgh resident, said his family’s celebration of the holidays blended traditions from around the United States.

“For years, our Christmas tradition was midnight Mass with our three kids,” he said. “I would get the kids ready and get them into the car. Meanwhile Mary [his wife] would put new sheets on their beds and lay out new pajamas on the pillow. That way there were new PJs for Christmas Day. Another tradition was food. Christmas Eve was seafood – an Illinois custom, Christmas Day meant a very special breakfast, then a turkey or ham dinner. New Year’s Day would have to include black eyed peas – a southern tradition – for good fortune in the New Year. Finally, our Christmas traditions always revolved around Mass. We celebrated Mass to honor our God and thank Him for another great year.”

Christu Pirapu Perudhina Valthukkal! Indian traditions
Sister Jackie Sellappan, a Sister of the Cross of Chavanod, explained that in India, they light candles on the wreath during Advent and prepare for Christmas with spiritual lessons. Children write poems and essays about the season that are presented in a competition. A Christmas pageant is staged with live animals.

Faithful go “caroling house to house, street to street,” Sister Jackie said.

They also have traveling nativities where they act out on streets, “how Jesus is born today in our situations in this part of the world.”

Stars are the most important decoration, and they are hung on the rooves of houses. At Midnight Mass, the liturgy lasts three hours and is known for having beautiful music, Sister Jackie said.

People display large, ornate nativities in their homes, and a priest travels to the houses to choose the most beautiful. Prizes are awarded.

It is also customary to bake Indian cookies which they put on a platter to give to Hindus, Muslims and everyone. All of the neighbors are invited to share in Christmas dinner.

Sister Jackie said children travel to relatives houses and ask for a blessing from their elders who say: “God bless you, have a long life.”

Feliz Navidad!: Spanish Traditions
Lora Sepúlveda Kluwe, a native of Puerto Rico who now lives in Keene, shared that “the celebration of the feast of Los Tres Reyes Magos is so beautiful! Throughout the island [of Puerto Rico], there are town-wide festivities including processions, singing, theatrical presentations of the Three Kings’ visit to the Holy Family in Bethlehem. Children and their families accompany the Three Kings in song as all process through a village. Our traditional Christmas songs are called Aguinaldos. It is a great joy to witness the excitement and wonder of the children, especially the younger ones, as they receive little gifts directly from Los Reyes Magos. This January 6th tradition, Christmas Eve Midnight Mass and the Christmas season's Parrandas, Puerto Rican Christmas caroling, Pasteles—the sabroso traditional Puerto Rican Christmas dish, are unforgettable experiences filled with love and joy.”

Fröhliche Weihnachten!: German traditions
Mary Stauss Szydlik, a Plattsburgh native of German heritage, food ties her Christmas celebration with her culture.

“A yeast fruit bread called Stollen [or Christstollen] is Christmas fare with those of German parentage,” she said. “A German friend baked it on a cookie sheet so that it was rather flat. She would fold it over itself when she panned it. My cookbook written by Germans in this country bakes the rich dough filled with candied fruit, almonds and raisins in a bread pan. It is very delicious.”

One legend says the “humps” in the bread represent the humps on the camels who carried the magi and the colorful fruit symbolizes the gifts they brought the Baby Jesus.

Buon Natale!: Italian traditions
Thinking back to some Italian traditions, Lisa Mockus emphasized that “going to church was a definite. People dressed up to do so. My cousin used to bake a birthday cake for Jesus.”

Mockus said her family would attend Midnight Mass, staying up late to see family, grandparents, and cousins. They had a special meal before Church.

Keeping Christmas spiritual
Father Theodore A. Crosby, pastor of St. Joseph’s in West Chazy and Sacred Heart in Chazy, encourages “any Catholic to reflect on the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary throughout Advent and Christmas time. St. Matthew tells us that the Wise Men found the Christ Child with Mary, His Mother. Wise men, the old saying goes, still seek Him. And the wise still find Him with Mary!”

Anne Marie Holleran said that her family, “always, always, always attended Mass together; the celebration was definitely faith based.”

Celebrating Christmas as an adult is important to Debbie Rheome, a Plattsburgh resident.

“We have quite few nativities and ornaments that express my faith in Jesus,” she said. “He is at the center of Christmas for me now, it's all about Him. I like to read the scripture from Luke 2:8-14 on Christmas morning. That’s what Christmas is all about.”

Attending Midnight Mass, and taking part in all of the French traditions, was also central in Linda Bennett Bracy’s family. Following Mass, they continued “Le Réveillon,” rejoicing with family, music, and sweet treats throughout the night. Her grandmother also passed on an Advent prayer which the family still says today:
O Jesus, little child, come into my heart on Christmas morn to wash away my sins and remain there in eternally. O Mary, Mother of my Savior, prepare for Jesus a cradle in my heart.

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