Timeless traditions

THE SABINS From left, Jack, Birgit, Lene and Neils Sabin in the kitchen of their northwest Gainesville home, which is decorated with Advent candles and calendars.

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 1:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 1:35 p.m.

There’s an elf in the attic at the home of Jack and Birgit Sabin this holiday season. And it's not one of Santa's helpers.

“He's got a pretty mean temper,” says Birgit, 48, who grew up in Denmark, where elves, not Santa, predominate during the Christmas holidays. According to Danish lore, the elves in Denmark live in the attics and haylofts, explains Jack, 65, director of information technology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Florida. Most of the time, they're busy making Christmas pudding and otherwise celebrating the holidays. But they're quick to temper and have been known to make mischief for unsuspecting homeowners.

“If he gets mad, he'll stomp his foot,” says Birgit with a grin. “And if you're not nice to him, he'll put a terrible Christmas curse on you and cause your crops to rot or make your cow go lame,” all of which are serious problems when you live on a farm in the Danish countryside like the one on which Birgit was reared.

To appease the elf in their attic, each year on Christmas Eve, the Sabins set out a bowl of rice pudding topped with cherry sauce — a tradition that Birgit grew up with and one the Sabin family has practiced for the past 17 years.

Time-honored traditions such as the Sabins' are an integral part of most holiday celebrations. And there's plenty to celebrate during the next couple of months. Holidays for two of the world's major religions — Christmas and Hanukkah — fall within the same week this year. The seven-day celebration of African- American culture known as Kwanzaa begins the day after Christmas and lasts through New Year's Eve. And of course, there's the New Year. From storefronts to door fronts, holiday spirit abounds.

The time we spend with family and friends, the special foods we make and eat, the gifts we give and receive, the festivities in which we share — each serves as a reminder of our individual and collective history and heritage.

“A great deal of who we are as human beings in society is articulated through the celebration of our traditions,” says David Hackett, chairman of the University of Florida's department of religion.

Kathleen Deagan, distinguished research curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History and adjunct professor of anthropology, history and Latin American studies, echoes this belief: “Anthropologists see ritual as a public observation and reaffirmation of a group's identity and underlying values. Ritual provides tangible symbols of those values for every kind of group, from families placing an angel on the top of the tree to nations lighting the White House tree to the Salvation Army bell and bucket.”

If our traditions define us, then our city-wide holiday traditions speak volumes about us: From the luminary-lined streets of the historic Duckpond area on the east side of town to the outdoor holiday lighting at the duck pond at North Florida Regional Hospital on the west side of town, we are a people who adore light. From annual performances of "The Nutcracker," "The Little Match Girl" and "The Cracked Nut," to the Hippodrome's production of the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol,” we are a people who embrace the arts, who celebrate the season with music, dance and merriment. And our annual communitywide food and toy drives, adopt-a-family programs and other outreach activities demonstrate that we are also a people who extend a generous hand to those in need.

Our rituals and traditions can also be a tremendous source of comfort and support. “Rituals provide us with a sense of consistency and comfort in our family lives,” says Debby Harris, a school psychologist and licensed mental health counselor in private practice in Gainesville. “They bring everybody together and become a method of passing along our values to our children.”


If you find yourself pining away for a good, old-fashioned holiday celebration this season, be careful what you wish for. Not every Christmas past is befitting of a greeting card. “The first Spanish Christmas in St. Augustine must have been a pretty miserable affair,” says Deagan. “The Spanish settlers were living in the Indian town of Seloy (today where the Fountain of Youth Park is located). Their leader, Pedro Menendez, had been gone since September, and they were already low on supplies when he left.”

It was also reported that 1565-66 was an exceptionally cold winter, and that more than 100 people died, according to Deagan.

“There would have been a Mass, certainly, and probably a procession,” she adds. “Christmases in Spain involved a feast, but the people of St. Augustine by that time probably had only some beans, corn and cassava (manioc) left of their supplies. Their most important food items, wine and olive oil, were probably gone by then. Hopefully they were able to get corn and vegetables from the Indians of Seloy. The Mass and feast would have taken place in Indian structures made of palm thatch, and it was cold.

“It really would have been a blended ritual, at least in atmosphere and food. The Mass would probably have served as the most important unifying ritual.”


As paltry a celebration as the Spanish in St. Augustine might have had during their first year here, other colonists in early America didn't celebrate Christmas at all. The pilgrims, who settled at Plymouth Rock in 1620, frowned on Christmas celebrations. Like other Protestants of the time — particularly the Puritans — they noted that the Bible listed no date for the birth of Christ, and that many Christmas celebrations consisted of bawdy, drunken bashes and Christmas riots, so they opted not to observe the holiday. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was banned in New England. Anyone caught breaking the law was subject to arrest and fines. Churches remained closed on Christmas day, and businesses stayed open. And for 67 years, from 1789 until 1870, when Christmas was declared a federal holiday, Congress met on December 25.

“The Christmas that we know and celebrate now is largely an invention of early 19th-century northern American culture,” points out David Hackett, chair of UF’s Department of Religion. Indeed, the 19th century American author Washington Irving is credited with helping to shape Christmas as the peaceful, familycentered holiday that it is today — including the acclimation of the image of St. Nicholas as an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. Although many historians believe that Irving's 1819 descriptions of a Christmas celebration in an English manor house in “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.,” were largely fictitious, many people began to emulate the customs described in the stories. Irving's stories, together with the immensely popular 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (now known as “The Night Before Christmas”), and Charles Dickens' classic tale, “A Christmas Carol,” published in 1843, helped galvanize the Christmas holiday traditions of the nation. As Americans began to embrace the holiday, they also borrowed from Catholic and Episcopalian rituals and traditions, including gift-giving, decorating a tree, sending greeting cards and even the notion of jolly old St. Nick.


By the turn of the 20th century, Christmas traditions were firmly entrenched in American culture. Even so, here in North Central Florida the celebration of Christmas was nothing like the commercially driven affair that it is today. According to Sally Morrison, a park ranger at Dudley Farms Historic State Park in Newberry, the focus would have been more on the food and family gathering rather than gift-giving.

“The main festivity of the day was a good meal served together with family and kinfolk — and the fact that they didn't have to work that day,” even if they still had to perform many of the routine chores on the farm, such as feed the animals, milk the cows and make butter.

As far as gift-giving was concerned, says Morrison, “Myrtle [Dudley] was so pleased to get an apple or an orange and some nuts” — and she was grateful for the offering. A child might have received a handmade wagon or a corn-shuck doll.

The holiday meal might have included a turkey, says Morrison — most likely a Standard Bronze turkey, an heirloom breed that is now endangered but is still being raised on Dudley Farm. The turkey would have been cooked outdoors.

The family also might have feasted on wild meats, such as venison or pork, and a wide array of vegetables. “People don't realize how prominent vegetables were in the Cracker diet,” says Morrison. In the fall and winter, the Dudleys had a range of vegetables on which to feast, including sweet potatoes and any variety of greens — collards, turnips, or mustard greens. They also might have whipped up a relish or jam using roselle, which Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings referred to as the “Florida cranberry.” The plant, which grows on Dudley Farm, is a member of the okra and cotton families, and a relative of the hibiscus. Instead of an edible green pod, the plant, an ornamental that can reach up to six feet tall , yields a fleshy, scarlet calyx. “It makes a beautiful burgundy colored relish, similar to cranberry,” says Morrison.

Rounding out the meal would have been biscuits or cornbread. Dessert would have consisted of pumpkin or sweet potato pie, pecan or custard pies, or even black walnut cake with walnuts harvested from the trees that still grow on the property.

wadays in North Central Florida, in true melting-pot fashion, folks who come from all over the world are blending their old family rituals with new customs. But the magic and mystery of the season — be it an elf eating rice pudding in the attic, Old Man Christmas stealing through a window to deposit gifts in a stocking on a summer's Christmas Eve, or Les Tres Reyes (three kings) filling children's shoes with gifts on January 6 — remains.


In the weeks before Christmas, elves abound in the Sabin home. Birgit displays a collection of miniature elfin figurines—at least 30 of them dressed in red suits and red Santa hats — throughout the house. Some are cooking Christmas pudding, others are singing carols, still others are headed outdoors with a sackful of skis and ski poles slung over their backs.

One special elf stands head and shoulders above the rest, mostly because her pointed felt hat is about three times taller than the elf herself. And though she doesn't have a name, the handmade elf from Sweden with a tuft of gray hair sticking out from under her cap is clearly the matron of the Sabin elves.

For Jack, Birgit and their two children — Lene, 16, a junior at Eastside High School, and Neils, 14, an eighth grader at Westwood Middle School — the holiday season begins on December 1. For the next 23 days, the family burns Advent candles every night at dinner time. Each family member also has an Advent calendar to mark the days until December 24. “The children receive a small gift every day until Christmas,” explains Birgit. “They might get a few school supplies and a pack of gum one day. On another day, they might get some chocolates or a book — little things that cost just a couple of dollars,” she says.

Birgit and Jack met in 1980 while he was at a conference in Denmark. They married and moved back to the U.S. in 1987. The family spends three months every year at their summer home in Denmark.

At the Sabin home, the big celebration happens on Christmas Eve, not Christmas day. On December 24, they partake of the Danish custom of serving roast duck or goose with all the trimmings. And for dessert, “we have what 95 percent of the Danish population has — rice pudding with cherry sauce.”

Another holdover from Birgit's childhood in Denmark: decorating the Christmas tree with hand-made ornaments (paper or fabric), a garland of tiny paper Danish flags and small white candles in gold-plated candleholders that clip onto the tree's branches. Real candles on a Christmas tree? Yes! But isn't that a fire hazard? “I don't know of anyone [using real candles] whose tree has caught fire,” says Birgit, who says she's heard of many more fires that have taken place as a result of a string of faulty electric lights being plugged in and left on. The rule of thumb for a tree with real candles: “We never leave the room when the tree is lit.”

After dinner, the family gathers around the Christmas tree, holds hands, walks and sings a number of Danish hymns before opening the gifts under the tree — mostly presents from family and friends in Denmark. On Christmas morning, Santa — who was once considered an elf in American culture and lore — has brought more gifts.


Karen Peet made her first gingerbread house when she was in the fifth grade, and her family was living in Germany, where her father, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, was stationed. That year, Karen's mother had enrolled her in a cooking class, where she learned how to make several German dishes, including a “true gingerbread house.” The 42-year-old mother of three has been making gingerbread confections every year since.

“My mother helped convert the recipe to English measurements,” says Karen who, together with her two younger siblings, continued the tradition for the duration of their stay in Germany, constructing houses out of gingerbread made from scratch. When the family moved to Florida in 1976, Karen's mother invited her friends and “massive amounts of kids” from the neighborhood to join in.

When Karen and her husband, Jeff, moved to Gainesville in 1995, “I was a mom with a preschooler and decided it would be a good way to get to know the kids in the neighborhood.” And so she began her own holiday ritual of hosting an annual gingerbread-housemaking party.

Karen, who works part-time as an occupational therapist in the pediatrics department at Shands at UF, still rolls out and bakes her own gingerbread, although she now uses a box mix. Karen then assembles the houses using icing as glue and is assisted by many of the children in her Jockey Club neighborhood as well as her own children: Justin, 14, an eighth grader, and Caroline, 10, a fifth grader, both of whom attend St. Patrick Interparish School, along with Andrew, 9, who is home-schooled. Finally, they decorate using all kinds of treats: candies, pretzels, licorice string, Cheez-its, shredded wheat, coconut flakes, marshmallows, Necco wafers (used for roof shingles), candy canes, nonpareils and M&Ms.

“The kids' personalities come out in the houses,” she says. Some of the younger kids do a “slap-happy” job, but last year, Karen's son, Justin, whom she describes as “a perfectionist,” made “an orderly-looking church using Dentyne gum for bricks.”

And some of the adults get downright carried away with their creativity. “In years past, a friend of the family once made a baseball diamond — his 'Field of Dreams,'” she says, chuckling. My husband, Jeff, has made a hot tub and deck out of pretzels,” she adds. Jeff works as an engineer at Progress Energy.

The gingerbread builders sip cider, eat snacks and listen to holiday music as they work, and the family dog, a yellow Labrador Retriever named Maddie, helps clean up anything that drops on the floor.

“When parents are so caught up in the shopping, decorating and running around, this is a time when you just stop and do something for the family. To me, it gets back into the heart of Christmas. It's a time of friendship and doing something fun together.”


When the British began settling in Australia in the 18th century, they brought many of their holiday traditions with them, including the custom of decking the halls with boughs of holly and making a hearty plum pudding to get them through the darkest days of winter. No matter that, in Australia, December 25 comes less than a week after the longest day of the year. No matter that a hot and hearty plum pudding is hardly necessary for sustenance in 80-degree weather. No matter that the berries on the holly are still green.

For Bernard and Mary Whiting, both of whom grew up in Australia, Christmas came just after school let out for the year, and the excitement of summer was compounded by the anticipation of Christmas. “Imagine celebrating Christmas on June 24,” says Mary, 53, author and editor of a number of books on classical era archaeology. “There was so much of the excitement associated with the end of the school year, the report cards coming home, coming home from boarding school.

“Father Christmas would come, and we'd open gifts on Christmas morning,” recalls Mary. As for gifts, “You'd get everything you needed for the rest of the year. The brand new, freshly re-painted bicycle, underwear, socks…Bernard was the eldest of seven and he'd get his school uniform for the following year,” she says of Bernard, 53, who is a professor in the physics department at UF. “There'd be a lot of buckets and spades under the tree, too,” she says. “People would be taking off for the beach.”

Their other holiday tradition: “Watching the Australians beat the British in cricket” on Christmas day. Because the Aussies always do.

As for decking the halls, in Australia, they relied on holly boughs whose green berries had been painted red with fingernail polish.

For the Whitings and their children — Ruth, 23, Mark, 20, and Bridgett, 10 — Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without a proper plum pudding. “It's a Medieval tradition begun in Europe and England, which was brought to Australia when the British settled here,” says Mary.

Making the pudding was — and still is — practically an all-day affair. Mary uses a recipe from a cookbook first published in 1899. The recipe has been handed down through the family ever since.

At some point during the process, coins are added to the pudding. And not just any coins will do. Mary pulls out a sandwich bag containing a handful of silver coins and explains that a proper plum pudding contains pre-1964 silver coins — sixpence and threepence coins to be exact — which were used before Australian money was converted to the decimal system. “The coins today have too much nickel in them, so you can't safely cook them in foods,” she says.

Mary still remembers the excitement of finding a coin in her pudding as a child. “Before 1964, if you got a sixpence, you'd just whop it into your pocket and rush to the nearest candy store and spend it on candy,” she says. “With sixpence, you'd get a little white paper bag full of enough candy to last the day.” Now, she promptly (and politely) retrieves the coins from family members and guests and saves them for next year's pudding.


December 24 is summer in South America as well, and in Miryam Braun's native Peru, Christmas is the biggest celebration of the year.

Braun, 46, an administrative services coordinator at the University of Florida's Office of Finance and Accounting, grew up in Lima, where the nativity scene — not the Christmas tree — is the centerpiece of the holiday festivities.

“The pieces were so beautiful. Their eyes were made of glass,” recalls Braun, who moved to Gainesville 17 years ago after marrying her husband, Miguel, an American whose parents come from Peru. Miguel is an assistant analyst with Mactech Engineering and Consulting, Inc.

When Miryam was growing up, her parents went all out with their nativity scene. “My parents had big statues and all the material to create mountains, grass and snow.” And of course, there was la cabana — the stable. “Every year we added an extra piece to the nativity scene,” she says.

Here in the United States, the Brauns continue many of the traditions of her homeland. Each year at the beginning of December, the Brauns and their children —Andrea, 13, an eighth grader at Westwood Middle School, and Michael, 9, a third grader at Glen Springs Elementary School — set up the nativity scene in their living room. During the days before Christmas, Braun also makes a special blanket for the baby Jesus.

On Christmas Eve, the family attends a latenight mass, known in Peru as Misa de Gallo, or the “rooster's mass” —so called because the rooster would announce the birth of Christ. At midnight, the new blanket is placed on the baby Jesus. “We wake up the kids, tell them that Santa came, and they get up and open their gifts.” After that, the family stays up for a big Christmas dinner consisting of turkey, pork, tamales (somewhat like Mexican tamales, but with a more elaborate filling), salads, rice and mashed potatoes. For dessert, says Braun, “We have hot cocoa made from Peruvian chocolate, along with paneton,” which is similar to a fruitcake. After dinner, it's off to visit family and friends. “We may not go to bed until 5 a.m.,” she says.

In neighboring Chile, where Maria Wojtalewicz was raised, the holiday tradition of displaying the nativity scene, or pesebre, was similar to the Peruvian custom. “It began with Novena, the nine days before Christmas, which was a time of spiritual preparation and prayer,” says Maria, 40, who recently received her Ph.D. in school psychology and now works at the Multi-Disciplinarian Diagnostic Training Program at the University of Florida. “Usually, the baby Jesus wasn't added to the manger until Christmas Eve.” On that night, the family would attend the Misa de Gallo. Afterward, the family would come home, have dinner and open gifts.

Traditional food and drink included salads and cold foods, a turkey on Christmas Eve, a Christmas bread similar to a fruitcake, and cola de mono — “monkey's tail,” a drink made with coffee, milk, eggs and pisco sour, a Chilean liqueur.

Gifts were delivered by Viejo Pascuero, or “Old Man Christmas.” Like Santa, he wears a red suit and boots, says Maria. “But he didn't come through the chimney. Instead, because it was summer, he came through an open window.” Here in Gainesville, Maria and her husband Paul, 46, who was born and raised in the United States and is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at UF, along with their children Daniela, 12, Nikolas, 10, and Sophie, 6, celebrate with a Christmas tree and the nativity scene that Maria and Paul received as a wedding gift. They attend an evening church service, and, of course, their home is visited by Old Man Christmas.


Hanukkah isn't the biggest Jewish holiday of the year. But for many area families, it's a festive time with ancient traditions that were begun more than 2,000 years ago.

The holiday commemorates the rededication of the holy temple in Jerusalem after the Jews' victory over Antiochus Epiphanes, the Greek king of Syria. Antiochus had seized the temple, dedicated it to the worship of Zeus, and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. But Judah Maccabee and his four brothers led a revolt against the Syrians. After freeing Jerusalem in 165 B.C.E., the brothers cleansed and re-dedicated the temple. When they went to light the menorah, however, they found only enough oil to light it for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, which gave the brothers enough time to replenish the supply of lamp oil.

What Ariela Notzer-Guelmann likes best about Hanukkah are the food and songs. “There are over 20 songs in Hebrew,” says Ariela, 42, who moved to Gainesville six years ago with her husband, Marcio Guelmann, and three children -- Noam, 17, a junior at Eastside High School, Inbal, 15, a freshman at Buchholz High, and Amit, 10, a sixth grader at Westwood Middle School. Marcio Guelmann, 43, is chair of pediatric dentistry at UF's College of Dentistry.

“It's a fun holiday," says Ariela. There aren't that many restrictions. You don't have to fast,” she says. One of the restrictions is that foods — traditionally latkes and jelly doughnuts — must be cooked in oil to commemorate the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days. “It's very fattening,” she says.

Ariela says that traditionally, gift exchanges were not a big part of Hanukkah celebrations in her native Israel, although nowadays children in Israel may receive one gift or Hanukkah money, traditionally called "gelt."

“For us, it's gathering every night and lighting the menorah.

“On the last night, we bring lots of friends and family in, and they all bring their menorahs. Last year there were 10 menorahs,” which helps to keep the tradition burning brightly.

At the home of Steve and Janet Brownstein, the family has a big celebration, usually on the first night of Hanukkah.

“We do potato latkes and make brisket,” says Janet 46, a family physician at the VA hospital and a board member of B'Nai Israel. The family, including Steve, 48, an accountant at Ellis Environmental Engineering, Sarah, 13, an eighth grader at Howard Bishop Middle School, and Joshua, 10, a fifth grader at Williams Elementary, also bakes a dreidel cake (a cake in the shape of a dreidel). On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, they play the dreidel game, open a gift and light the candles on the menorah.

And after the celebrating's over, says Ariela Notzer-Guelmann, it's usually necessary to go on a diet.


Between Christmas, Kwanzaa and the New Year, the Kima family's holiday season is jampacked with traditions, some of which are centuries old and others of which are fairly new. “We celebrate Christmas and Kwanzaa, says Marie, 41, a physician in private practice who specializes in infectious diseases. Marie, a native of Haiti, and her husband, Peter, 43, an assistant professor of microbiology at IFAS (who is originally from Camaroon), celebrate Christmas with a tree, presents and plenty of family and friends. “The kids get very excited about the presents,” says Marie of her sons Tabong, 10, a fifth grader, and Camille, 9, a third grader. Both attend Millhopper Montessori School.

“We also look forward to Kwanzaa, because the focus is not only on family but on culture, as well,” she says of the seven-day celebration and affirmation of African-American food, family and culture that was established in this country in 1966. “We do it not only because it's a very well thought-out celebration that has happened within our time, but also because it's a great way to teach kids values.”

Every night in a brief ceremony, the Kimas light a candle in the seven-pronged candleholder known as a kinara, and talk about each of the seven principles with their sons. “I try to have the boys pick a story relating to the principles,” says Marie. Those principles are Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith). “For selfdetermination, we read the story of Wilma Rudolph, who had polio and was paralyzed and went on to win the Olympics.”

The Kimas do quite a bit of traveling, and if they know they're going to be on the road during the holidays, they bring the kinara, candles and symbols along with them. The seven symbols include mazao, the fruits and vegetables of the harvest; the mkeka, or placemat on which the harvest is displayed; the kinara and the red, black and green mishuuma saba, or candles, that are burned each night; the muhindi, or ears of corn representing each child in the household; the kikombe cha umoja, or communal chalice; and the zawadi, or gifts. “No matter where we are, we do it, however limited.”

Last year, the Kimas invited a few other families to celebrate Kwanzaa, which included planned activities for the children. “A friend who makes bracelets and necklaces loaned us beads, and we made African necklaces and beads,” says Marie. “They also made a kinara from wood — it has to be made of natural materials. For candleholders, we used bottletops glued onto the wood.” Following the activity, everyone gathered around the table to talk about the principle of the day. “Those are the things that make it memorable for the kids.” Anthony Greene was first introduced to the holiday of Kwanzaa in 1998. At the time, the 50-year-old psychologist with UF's Student Health Services was serving on the cultural arts board for the Fifth Avenue Arts Festival. He was invited to the second night of a communitywide Kwanzaa celebration honoring the principle of self-determination. “That's where I learned all of the rituals and traditions,” says Anthony.

the following year, the Greenes — including Anthony's wife, Valerie, 48, a physician's assistant in the organ transplant unit at Shands Health Care at UF, and daughters Kellerie, 22, a UF grad who now works at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Kembrie, 19, a sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill, and Kerra, 13, an eighth grader at Kanapaha Middle School — adopted their own Kwanzaa traditions. One of those traditions involves displaying year-round on their dining room table the artifacts used during the seven-day Kwanzaa holiday — the kinara (candleholder), mkeka (mat), kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), and muhindi (ears of corn). Most of the artifacts were hand-made by artisans in the Fifth Avenue Arts Festival.

For the Greenes, the biggest celebration occurs on the seventh night of Kwanzaa, when the principle of Imani (faith) is observed. On that evening, the Greenes invite some 40 or 50 people to their Hidden Hills home for a pot-luck dinner, including their immediate family (Greene's mother and other family members travel from North Carolina), their church family from the Abiding Faith Christian Church, along with neighbors, friends and colleagues from other circles of their lives.

The evening program is steeped in tradition, and starts when Anthony asks the oldest person in the gathering for permission to begin. The pouring of libations and the sharing of the unity cup in honor of the ancestors follow this. The youngest member of the group is then asked to light the candles of the kinara.

The feast that follows features a wide array of foods, including pork, ribs, turkey, ham, chicken, and Anthony's contribution, macaroni and cheese. “And we always have to have rice and black-eyed peas and greens” for good luck and prosperity, says Anthony. The family's favorite, though, is the honey-bun cake Greene's mother makes.

After the feast comes the entertainment, including spoken words and recitals that are part of every Kwanzaa celebration. The evening culminates with traditional African dancing and music.

“We start gathering around 4, begin the program by 5, are eating by 6 and dancing by 8,” sums up Anthony.

“Of course,” adds Valerie with a laugh, “There are always some sports fans gathered around the TV.”


In Spain, Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Christmas celebration on the 24th lasts all night. But the children don't see gifts until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, when the biblical Tres Reyes — the three kings — arrived at the stable in Bethlehem bearing gifts of gold, myrrh and frankincense for the baby Jesus. “On the sixth, people go to bed early because they know the kings won't bring them anything while they're awake,” says Carmen Cuenca, 44, an accountant who moved to Gainesville from Spain in 1990 with her husband, Jamie Serrato. The couple have a daughter Raquel Serrato, 14. The three kings leave gifts in children's shoes, not in stockings, as Santa Claus does in the United States.

Vanessa Cruz, 25, who works in Cuenca's office, says that in her native Puerto Rico, the holiday celebrations begin shortly after Thanksgiving and continue for eight days after January 6, which is known as Octavitas. On January 5, children set a box of hay under their beds for the camels. When they awaken in the morning, they find that the hay in the box has been replaced with gifts.


For many Americans, ringing in the new year means sipping champagne, watching the ball drop in Times Square, or perhaps making a potfull of hoppin' john (black eyed peas) and greens for good luck and prosperity in the coming year. But there are almost as many ways to celebrate the new year as there are countries around the world.

Carmen Cuenca, for instance, celebrates here in Gainesville at 6 p.m. on December 31 — which is midnight in Madrid, where it is customary for the crowds gathered in the plaza of the Porto del Sol to eat 12 grapes, one grape per stroke of midnight on the clock, followed by a full night of dancing and dining. Since Cuenca can't be in Madrid on New Year's Eve, she watches the celebration via satellite TV.

Maria Rodriguez, 27, who moved to Gainesville with her husband four years ago after winning the Cuban lottery for a U.S. visa, says the custom in her native Cuba is to toss a bucket of water out the door, which is supposed to bring good luck by cleansing the house of bad luck and evil.

In Peru, good luck is believed to come to those who wear yellow on New Year's Eve, says Miryam Braun.

New Year's Day is also Independence Day in Marie Kima's native Haiti — two reasons to celebrate. She and her family still prepare a traditional pumpkin soup for the occasion.

Here in Gainesville, Emily Humphreys-Beher and her daughter Monica have their own New Year's Day tradition, one that was begun a number of years ago when Emily's husband, Michael, was still alive. They host a Russian Soup Party.

“We used his family's recipes for cabbage and potato borscht and a number of other dishes his family brought over when they immigrated to America,” says Emily, a trust officer for Community Bank and Trust of Florida.

But when Michael passed away in 2001, Emily didn't have the fortitude to carry on the tradition by herself. “It's a tremendous amount of work,” she says — too much for one person.

Last year, for the first time in four years, Emily and Monica, 17, decided to resurrect the tradition. Emily designed the invitations herself, which featured the characteristic “onionskin” domes of the St. Petersburg skyline. The 18 invited guests feasted on borscht, pirozhki (which Emily describes as something like a “Russian calzone”), a number of salads and plenty of flavored frozen vodkas. Peasant attire or tsarina's tiara were optional dress for the casual party.

“We set up tables by the patio and pool rather than trying to fit everybody around the dining room table,” says Humprheys- Beher.

More than anything else, resuming the ritual that started when her husband was alive had a positive outcome for Emily and her daughter. “It was a good type of healing to have that tradition.”


Makes 18-24

From George and Natalie Beher


1 envelope yeast

1/4 cup warm water

1/2 cup butter, melted

1 cup milk, warm

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

4 1/2 - 5 cups flour

3 eggs, beaten


Dissolve yeast in water and sugar until bubbly. Add melted butter to warm milk, and combine with yeast mixture. Add 1 cup flour and 3 beaten eggs and beat until bubbles appear (this develops the gluten). Add remaining flour and turn out to knead on a floured surface. Let rise until doubled in a covered bowl coated with oil or butter for about 1 hour.


1 onion, chopped fine

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1 1/2 cups cooked ground beef

1/2 teaspoon finely chopped parsley

1 teaspoon dried dill (1 tablespoon if using fresh)

Vinegar to taste

2/3 cup cooked rice


Combine all ingredients.


  • Fill a deep pot (large enough to hold 2-3 pirozhki) about 2/3 full with cooking oil and bring to a low boil over medium heat.

  • While oil is heating, punch down the risen dough, knead lightly, and divide into 18-24 pieces. Roll one piece into an oval, about 1/4 inch thick, fill with a large spoonful (2-3 tablespoons) of filling, and pull up both long sides of the oval to meet in the middle.

  • Pinch the edges together all the way down — your pirozhki will look something like a football. Use a bit of water to moisten the edges if necessary and make sure the pirozhki are totally sealed. Repeat with remaining pieces. Cover with a towel while the oil heats to the point in which a drop of water sizzles and pops.

  • Gently lower the pirozhki into the hot oil and cook, turning once, until golden brown and crusty. Drain from oil and keep warm on platter in oven until all are done. May be kept warm for about 1 hour.


    Serves 12-15

    From George and Natalie Beher


    1 small head cabbage

    2-3 potatoes

    2-3 pounds beef (flank steak), cut into cubes

    1 onion, coarsely chopped

    Salt & pepper to taste

    1 can (8-10 ounces) tomato sauce

    1 small can tomato paste

    Lemon juice & sugar (optional)

    Sour salt* (citric acid) to taste


  • Combine all ingredients, except sour salt, in large stockpot. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Simmer on low heat for 2 hours. Add 1 teaspoon of sour salt, or more to taste. Ladle into individual bowls and garnish with sour cream. *Sour salt is citric acid. It adds a distinctive flavor that cannot be duplicated in any other way.


    Makes 2 dozen canapés

    From Darra Goldstein's "A La Russe" cookbook


    1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

    1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

    6 pieces of thinly sliced blackbread, cut into quarters

    1/4 pound smoked salmon, sliced

    3 tablespoons sour cream

    4 teaspoons black caviar

    Parsley or dill


  • Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks. Fold in the horseradish.

  • Spread each quarter of bread with some of the mixture.

  • Top the whipped cream with a thin slice of smoked salmon.

  • Top each slice of salmon with a dab of sour cream, and then sprinkle a little caviar over the sour cream, pressing down lightly so it will stay in place.

  • Tuck a tiny piece of parsley or dill into the whipped cream on each square. Chill. Author's note: These hors d'oeuvres, which take minutes to prepare, may be held in the refrigerator for several hours, covered, before serving.

  • Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

    Comments are currently unavailable on this article

    ▲ Return to Top