Traditions blend holiday and heritage

Nostalgia and faith come together during the Christmas season

December 24, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house

Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

Clement Moore wrote these words to begin his poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," which he penned to entertain his children on Christmas Eve.

But long before the poem was written, families from cultures all over the world have tapped into legends and customs of their native countries and towns during the holiday season.

Carroll County residents are tapping into nostalgia, tradition, faith and family heritage to celebrate tonight.

Sandi Schneider, founder of Hugs and Stitches, a sewing group based in Westminster since 1974, is attending a family dinner and gift exchange today. The family enjoys brisket, ham, turkey, stuffing, pumpkin bread and sweet potato casserole.

After the family get-together, Schneider and her husband go home, light the Christmas tree, put in one of their 40 or so instrumental compact discs and relax.

"We sit and look at the tree in the tranquillity of our own home," she said. "We look forward to that time each year."

Thomas Abbott, coordinator of adult education at St. Bartholomew Roman Catholic Church in Manchester, practices a tradition that culminates on Christmas Eve called "Keeping the Baby Jesus Company."

Each of the 40 members of the Baltimore Chapter of the Discalced Carmelites, of which Abbott is a member, has been assigned a day leading up to Christmas Eve that they spend with Jesus. They keep the baby Jesus - represented by a figurine, doll or other item - with them and pass him from person to person, he said.

"The idea is that each person spends a day keeping Jesus in mind," said Abbott. "They might light a candle, go to Mass, say the rosary or read the Bible."

Susan Williamson of Westminster also celebrates today with a religious tradition. Called the Oplatek celebration, it consists of having a meatless meal on Christmas Eve.

Williamson has fish, green beans, mushrooms and unleavened bread.

"My family does this in preparation of the Christmas Vigil," she said. "And while we are eating our meatless meal, a roasted pig, turkey and ham are cooking in the oven. But after the midnight Mass, the ham is attacked."

Ronald Sewell of Taneytown comes from a long line of traditions.

His early Christmas memories include reading "A Visit From St. Nicholas" and setting up electric trains, he said.

"My family was living in poverty," he said. "But I never knew it because I grew up loving Christmas. We never saw a tree until Christmas morning. My dad put it up after we went to bed on Christmas Eve. I never knew that we did not have much, because people lived simply then."

And he still appreciates a simple Christmas, he said. His Christmas Eve is a celebration of the end of the season.

As owner of Sewell's Farm, he has nine locations in two states and about 200,000 Christmas trees to care for. He opened for business the weekend before Thanksgiving and he closed for the season today.

"Christmas Eve is the culmination of the season for my family," said Sewell, 65, who puts up a small Christmas tree in his house. "When we close the tree lot, we come home and celebrate that it is done."

Sewell gathers with about 18 members of his family to share a dinner of ham, turkey and shrimp. "When people leave depends on naps and whether the teenagers have hot dates or not," he said. " It sounds like a jump into a jungle, but it is actually very relaxing."

Victoria Fowler of Westminster also grew up in a house filled with traditions. From early December to Christmas Eve, things in her family home were predictable.

Around the first week of December, her mother and grandmother made 28 types of homemade cookies. She looks back on the annual tradition with nostalgia. Her favorite cookies were sand tarts made in the shapes of Santas, Christmas trees, candy canes and wreaths.

"My mother and grandmother would sit at a table hand-painting these paper-thin sand tarts with food dye," said Fowler, who works as curator of the Carroll County Farm Museum. "They were the most beautiful things you could imagine. The cookies were works of art."

Then they placed two of all 28 varieties of cookies into tins that they passed out through the Christmas season, she said.

"Then on Christmas Eve, they placed some of the sugar cookies on a table for Santa Claus," said Fowler. "And that was the end of the cookies until the next year."

Although she has not added the annual tradition to her holiday repertoire, she is contemplating the idea.

"I do not have pictures of what they did," Fowler said. "And I did not learn to make the cookies when they did it. Back then, it was a pinch of this, a dash of that. And my grandmother knew exactly when to take them out of the oven."

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