December Traditions: Old & New
By Kathleen Reynolds
The month of December in Napa comes with many holidays and traditions. We surveyed several families to learn the cultural traditions—and what’s changed, in their homes.
To Dorothy and John Salmon, children are the highlight of Christmas. “We have kept a Christmas Stocking tradition going for years with all ten grandchildren’s names on each stocking hanging on our fireplace,” says Dorothy. “Our Christmas tradition for the past several years involves driving to our adult children’s homes on Christmas Eve and driving to four homes early on Christmas morning with a car packed with gifts. Christmas is about family so being with our children and their children is the most important part of celebrating Christmas.”
Betsy and Dan TerAvest introduced a little 50s rock-n-roll to their children. “Since our kids were little (35 years ago), my husband plays Blue Christmas by Elvis at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning to wake them up,” says Betsy. “Sometimes it takes a while, so that’s when the volume goes up. Once the kids are up it’s time for stockings.”
“Squash Rolls are my favorite TerAvest holiday tradition. Dan’s mother always made them for Thanksgiving and Christmas; her mother made them for her. They’re made with cooked butternut squash, Crisco (one of these days I’ll try butter), milk, egg, sugar, yeast and flour. They complement our turkey dinner, but the best is having a turkey sandwich on a squash roll the next day.”
Evy Warshawski grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, as the middle of five, close-in-age siblings. “Our family Chanukah celebrations were annual romps punctuated by lots of noise.” Evy reminisces. “It was all about the result—the hope of receiving presents that had been hinted about for months.”
“Each of the eight nights, we would gather around the Menorah, light the colored wax candles followed by a round of songs from our Sunday School booklets. Then, all five of us would make a mad dash to the carefully wrapped presents, which my parents required to be opened one by one, sibling by sibling.”
“My fondest memory, one that we still joke about today, is that my loving parents truly believed that socks, underwear, shoelaces, pencils and a box of colors were adequate gifts for the occasion. After all, there were eight nights multiplied by five kids. And yet, every year they somehow managed to buy that one thing each of us craved.” Evy added, “I just gifted my youngest daughter a package of her favorite underwear. Some traditions never change!”
Dr. Mary Cooke and her husband Gary Awai delight all who go past their home. “Our most cherished holiday tradition is our Christmas lights,” Mary says. “My husband Gary, with our minor assistance, spends 40 to 80 hours putting up Christmas lights for the whole town to enjoy. This was especially important during 2020 when many other things were taken away from us, people could still walk and drive by and see his show.”
Sally Sheehan Brown and her husband Michael grew up without many traditions. That changed when she lived in Denmark for a year and returned with a mixture of Scandinavian customs, including having real lighted candles on the Christmas tree.
“For the past eight to ten years, we’ve celebrated with our Danish friends who live in Napa,” Sally says. “We have a three-and-a-half-hour dinner with four courses or so, punctuated by toasts with Aquavit (also known as Akvavit) and beer. There are little glasses for the “skoal,” and you must look everyone in the eye before you drink, or you have to do it all again.”
“The first course is pickled herring and brown bread, the second is flæskesteg, which is a pork roast and potatoes, followed by Leverpostej or liver pate and Frikadeller, small Danish meatballs. Dessert is Danish apple cake.”
Mary and Jason Luros mark several traditions. “We celebrate Hanukkah. We exchange gifts, light the menorah, eat latkes and donuts, spin dreidels, and our kids love the chocolate gelt. We also celebrate Christmas every year by tracking our Elf on the Shelf, baking cookies, going on the Santa Train, driving around to look at holiday lights, ringing the bell for the Salvation Army, putting up a Christmas tree, listening to holiday music and decorating the house.”
“I never thought much about the importance of family traditions until I got married, had kids and we started losing parents. When I started bringing my Jewish boyfriend (now husband) home for the holidays, I got to see how we celebrate the holidays for the first time from an outside perspective. And Christmas forever changed when we had kids of our own to share the magic. Our traditions strengthen family relationships, provide immense comfort and teach our kids what’s important to our family.”
December is often highlighted by big family meals. Gary Garaventa recalls fond memories of past Italian Christmas dinners. “On Christmas Eve, my Dad’s family got together. He had two brothers and a sister, and we’d all have a party at one or the other’s houses. It was mostly for the kids. There’d be about fifty of us cousins waiting for Santa Claus, who came that night. It was a big, big thing.”
“On Christmas day, we’d go to my mother’s side of the family. There was food you just couldn’t believe. We had ravioli, malfatti, veal, a pot roast and antipasto that my aunt made. Nobody makes it like that anymore. Those were the golden days that were really special. When you’re young, you don’t realize how fortunate you were. It was the old-fashioned way that we’ll never see again.”
New Year’s Eve is the last big celebration in December. For newlyweds Katherine Zimmer and Pat Burke that’s been the time to create their own tradition. “We have blended our holidays since dating and getting married, so we are starting new traditions,” writes Katherine. “We spent our first New Year’s Eve together in 2019 in San Francisco and decided to make it an annual event, until Covid hit. We are doing it again this year.”
“We’ll ferry from Vallejo to the City and check into the Meridian Hotel overlooking the City, followed by dinner at One Market. We’ll have late seating for the night’s special menu. After dinner we’ll walk to the Embarcadero and enjoy the midnight celebration with fireworks over the Bay and the crowd of revelers ringing in the New Year.”
Whatever way you celebrate, we hope your December is one to remember.