My informant’s grandmother is Russian, and what was a common food in her country became a family tradition for holidays and other get togethers once they moved to the United States and settled in New Orleans. Her memories associated with that side of the family always involve making pelmeni together, giving it a lot of sentimental value. It’s interesting how the tradition is passed down and each person has their own role that they fill, including the younger children being given something to do so that they also feel included.
“Whenever we’re all together, we always make pelmeni, a Russian dumpling. My great grandma would sit down and make everything by hand (dough, meat, etc) and would pound out hundreds of absolutely perfect and soft pelmeni, the most amazing you will have in your entire life. She had 5 kids, the oldest is my grandma and youngest is my Aunt Tanya (a 24 year difference between them). As a little kid, would go to grandma’s house and get little wrappers and sit around the table and make the dumplings. My grandma would give my little sister one tiny piece of dough and meat, and my sister would fix it and say “okay that’s good but I think you could do a little better” with same piece. She would play with same piece of dough and meat for hours while the older kids and adults made the actual pelmeni. My great grandma’s five kids each have several kids who have several kids, so I have tons of super close cousins all living in new Orleans. The torch was passed down from my grandma and my mom is now the honorary one in charge of making them, and it will probably be passed on to my sister later on, since she has the knack for it.”
D is a 57 year old man. He is a practicing cardiologist at a hospital in the northern suburbs of Illinois. He identifies as American as he grew up in Boston, but he strongly associates with his Scottish heritage as well. D completed his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth University and he attended Cornell University for his degree in medicine. During his studies, both undergraduate and med school, D studied abroad in France two times. While in medical school, D studied at the Faculté de Médecine et de Maïeutique de Lille in Lille, France. English is his primary language, yet he is also fluent in French.
Me: What’s your favorite Christmas tradition?
D: I have a lot of favorite Christmas traditions, but one that I am particularly fond of that has been passed down from my mother are her Christmas morning Christmas buns.
Me: What are Christmas buns?
D: Christmas buns are made from pillsbury crescent roll dough slathered in melted butter, and lots of cinnamon and sugar, wrapped around a marshmallow and baked. The whole family pitches in to make them and while they are baking we listen to Christmas music and drink Irish coffees and hot chocolate. No one is allowed to open their presents until the Christmas buns are ready to be served.
Me: When did this tradition start?
D: In the 1960’s.
Me: Why did it start?
D: Because it sounded delicious. And it is delicious.
Me: And you guys have been making them every year since then.
Though he likely has many different holiday family traditions, D chose Christmas buns as his favorite. The familial attachment to the tradition seems to mean a lot to him. The fact that the recipe is from his childhood and his mother used to make it every Christmas makes it more important for him to keep the tradition going. His family now all participates in making the Christmas buns before opening their presents every Christmas and not only are they tasty, but the act of making them is fun as well. The joy of Christmas is spending time with family and enjoying ones company, and by making these Christmas buns every Christmas morning, they start the day off right.
A is an 18-year-old woman. She is currently studying Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California. She considers her nationality to be American, but more specifically she is one quarter Greek Cypriote, one quarter German and half Argentinian. that being said, she strongly identifies with her Greek roots. She is fluent in both English and Greek, and is currently learning Mandarin.
A: Um, I don’t know if this is a me parable or family parable but I really hated taking baths when I was little, so they used to sing a song about a little kid who wouldn’t take baths and would turn into a pig. Cause she was so dirty. But I think its real because it actually has a tune, like I don’t think my Grandmother actually made up a song, but the song is like “I’m a little piggy, cause I stink a lot,” basically in Greek. And it goes like “well you’ll turn into a piggy too unless you take a bath.”
A: So yeah, I was afraid I was gonna turn into a barnyard animal. It was fun.
Me: But you took the bath!
A: This is true.
Me: Did they sing this to your siblings? Do you have other siblings?
A: I don’t, I’m an only child. And this was with my grandparents too, and I’m the only grandchild as well.
Me: Aw. But you’ll probably do it with your kids too.
A: Oh yeah. It was so much fun. It’s got it’s own song! My grandfather told me a lot of stories about donkeys, I don’t remember exactly what they contain, but every story that had a moral always involved a donkey. Like a donkey on an adventure.
Me: Your grandparents liked farmyard animals is basically…
A: You know what, my grandparents grew up in the village with farmyard animals, so I’m sure this is how their parents told it to them.
Me: So the songs and the stories are like based on that?
A: Oh yeah. And it’s definitely based on the old village, which is like way the heck up in the mountains, like I’ve been there.
Me: Is there a name for it?
A: Yes, Ayiosgiannis. So my last name is the name of the village, just shortened. The name of the village is St. John’s in English. Um, Ayios is St. in English and that’s where Ayiotis, my last name is from.
A: So the last names were very frequently based on the area where you are from or like what you were called in the village. So I’m pretty sure my great-grandfather made up that name.
Me: So that’s generally where Greek last names come from?
A: I believe so. A lot of them, like a couple of them, are professions, but a lot of the ones are places.
Me: So places and professions but mostly places?
A: Actually let me rephrase. If you got out of the village then it’s a place cause you wanted to honor your village, but for people in the village, why would they all have the same last name as the village?
A: So it was in the village it was by profession or by nickname or sometimes you will genuinely find people name “Andreas Andreou” like “Phillip Phillipou,” like people with the same last name as their first name, and it’s very funny. Um they’ll do like men’s first names as well as last names cause that was your dad’s dad. So basically common ways to distingush between people with the same name in a village.
Me: So your last name, does it change?
A: It can. We didn’t have last names until the British came and were like “why the heck do you not have last names?” And that was in the 30s, um the 20s. Yeah, Cyprus was a British colony up until the 60’s.
A: Um that’s when they gained their independence.
Me: You didn’t have last names until the 20’s?
A: Yeah, why would we need it? We’re farmers, we’re farming.
Me: That’s true.
A: I remember my grandfather was born in like 1934 and he told me he saw a car in his village once when he was like nine years old and that was probably the only car on the island of Cyprus, driving through all the villages like “oh my god I bought a car!” So it was very…
A: Yeah. And it’s still very farm-heavy. Its still agricultural.
Me: Is Cyprus an island off of Greece?
A: It’s an island actually closer to Lebanon than it is to Greece. It’s north of Egypt and south of Turkey in the Mediterranean Ocean, but since that area used to all be ethnically Greek in the Greek, Egyptian, and Ottoman Empire and since Cyprus is an island it saw less change over time as more people moved in and out because it’s harder to conquer an island. So the people who are Greek there, like our dialect of Greek is more similar to ancient Greek.
A talks about a song that her grandparents used to sing to her when she was little to get her to take a bath. This is a fond memory that she has and she said that it works, the song was effective in making her believe that if she were not to take a bath, she would turn into a pig. A also explains that the song might have to do with her grandfather’s origins, which are especially important to her as the root of her last name is the name of the village. Her grandfather lived in a very agricultural, farm-heavy village, and this is likely where the song originated. The dirt being the result of farming all day, and turning into a pig being the result of not cleaning yourself, so turning into one of your farm animals. The name, the village, and the song are all connected in one way or another.
M is a 20-year-old black woman. She is currently double majoring in NGO’s and Social Change and Communications at the University of Southern California. M grew up in Boston, MA but currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. M primarily speaks English, but she is also fluent in Spanish.
M: My mom always gets the day off and we always go to the Lilac Festival on Mother’s day, ’cause it happens at the same time.
M: It’s like, we have the Arboretum in Boston, and there’s like, all these lilacs get planted and they all bloom like almost, like on command on Mother’s day. So, when we were kids, my dad would always take us to the Arboretum and give my mom the day to herself.
Me: But now your mom goes with you?
M: Hmm? Oh, yeah.
Mother’s day definitely means a good deal to M and her family. They have an annual tradition that they go to the Lilac Festival at the Arboretum in Boston every year to celebrate the day. Though the tradition has changed a small bit from giving their mother the day to herself to having he come long with them, it is still a good way to celebrate her and she still gets a nice day of relaxation. It is common to just send your mother a card and or gift to celebrate the day, but M and her siblings carry on the tradition of spending the day with their mom and showing her their appreciation by reserving the day for her, even after they have moved out.
M is a 20-year-old black female who is currently double majoring in NGO’s and Social Change and Communications at the University of Southern California. M grew up in Boston, MA but currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. M primarily speaks English, but she is also fluent in Spanish.
Me: Does your family have any fun holiday traditions?
M: Um. We are aggressive when it comes to Easter baskets. My mom is really happy that my brother aren’t home for Easter anymore because, I think she though she could like stop when I like reached 16, and she had the Easter baskets like out on the table, like you know, like we always do the hunt and then go to church, but she left them out on the table and we came downstairs and we were very upset and we told her she had to hide them, so she did, unfortunately very aggressively. And we didn’t even find them before church, so we had to go, we still didn’t have our baskets, and then it took us another hour and a half to find them when we got home. She was really annoyed. she was like, you’re ll adults you don’t need these, and my sister was…my sister to be fair was only 12, so she was like I am not an adult at all, like I want mine hidden. Then when my mom hid hers, my brother was like I’m only 14 and she was like ok. Then I was like, you can’t hide theirs and not mine. And then that’s when she was like, alright, these bitches… Yeah.
M talks about an annual family tradition of her mom hiding their Easter baskets and candy for her and her two siblings. Their mom thought that when they reached a certain age, that she could stop hiding the eggs, but the children all wanted to keep the tradition going. There was a sense of maturing and distancing from old childhood memories and games that the kids did not yet want to let go of, and so they continued the tradition until they moved out of the house. Not only was the Easter basket hunt fun for the kids, and kept their childhood spirit alive, but it was more time spent with siblings bonding and working together to find their baskets. They will likely carry on the tradition when they have children as it meant so much to them growing up.
Photo of gumbo recipe that my dad, Brad Perrin, emailed to himself.
When asking my dad if he had any family recipes or ritualistic traditions in his family, he brought my sister and I together and revealed this gumbo recipe to us and wanted to make sure we had copies of it so we could teach our kids about it someday. My dad first learned this recipe from his mother when he was in his late teens. He didn’t have any female siblings, so it was his responsibility to ensure this family gumbo recipe survived. His mother was an amazing cook and loved cooking Southern dishes for their family, with this gumbo dish being made on special occasions such as birthdays and holidays. My dad was excited to learn this recipe from his mom when he was in his late teens because it meant him being fully connected with his roots and being able to pass on the recipe which has been in my family for supposedly at least five generations. He said it was supposedly created by my great great grandma in Algiers, Louisiana.
I loved knowing that I am now responsible for carrying on the tradition, as my family doesn’t have many cultural traditions. It makes me feel closer to my ancestors and also allows me to learn more about Southern culture which formed the basis of my family’s identity for many generations.
My informant is a graduating college senior from Atlanta, Georgia. She is very close with her family and family rituals mean a lot to her. She doesn’t remember how this tradition started, but essentially her family gets together to make pizza every year on the days before Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. This interview was conducted at a sushi restaurant on a sunny afternoon out.
“Ok so the day before Thanksgiving or New Years my family and I make pizza and invite our significant others over and eat the pizza. It’s always really fun, I do the crust and then my mom makes the ingredients and my brother, who usually has a girlfriend, puts the pizza together, so that he’s the one that brings everything together.”
“Yeah. It works out.”
“So, do you have a normal recipe for the pizza?”
“Usually we do like, green peppers, red peppers, bell peppers, sausage, sausage, mucho queso, lots of queso, like shredded cheese not actual, you know, like melted queso… yeah. I don’t know, maybe sometimes we do like pineapples, sometimes my brother and I like to put pineapples on the pizza.”
“Nice. Do you make it from scratch?”
“Yeah we make it from scratch. We get the dough, and then I put the flour on it and I roll it out, and then I put cheese in the crust and turn it up and that’s when my brother gets there and is like—“ “Oh so you put cheese in the crust??”
“Oh shit! That is next level.”
“It’s pretty fun. And it ends up being like a lot of food so you can only eat like two pieces at a time.”
“Nice. Cheese crust pizza day before Thanksgiving or New Years.”
“Yeah, just cause it’s like, family time. And it’s pretty darn delicious, cause it’s from scratch obviously.”
“And when did you guys like, start this tradition? … Did your parents start it? Did you just decide you wanted pizza?”
“I think we just like did it, and then we were really into it—…Raquel’s so beautiful I can’t help it, I have to just sorta say it, ok back to the story—um. I don’t know! Maybe like five or ten years ago, we decided like, we should be together on the days before Thanksgiving and New Years, so, sometime in the past ten or so years.”
“You just made it once and got really into it.”
“Yeah. Whenever my mom’s trying to do family bonding she like, goes to the grocery store and gets the dough, gets everything ready, leaves it out on the counter the day before… yeah.”
Obviously family rituals are important to her but this one seems to stand out, as it is one that she can still engage in while in college, since it happens over the holidays when she goes home anyway. Considering age/time of life, it makes sense that this would be the first thing she would think of, as she can still engage in it.
“We have a ranch. It’s 30 acres, fairly big. I’d say if you walked all the way around it, on the fence, about three miles. Um and on this ranch we’ve got forest area, and then we’ve got these big fields, and every year, at Easter, my grandpa would take 1500 dollars, and he’d put them in eggs, and he’d invite everybody, depending on who was coming, he’d like, up the ante, you know, if a lot of friends of the family we’re coming he’d put down 2000, 2500 in these eggs. And the night before, you’re not allowed to watch him, you couldn’t even be there, he plants these eggs, in this field. Sometimes he’ll dig [pauses for emphasis] a foot deep. The trick is, they have to be like visible. Sometimes he’d plant them and then at night it would rain, and the eggs would sink to the bottom, get covered up by mud. The thing was, he’d always keep track of how many eggs there were, he made a map, of where all the eggs were so if anybody didn’t find them he wouldn’t waste any money. Now, it was getting to the point where he’d put money into the eggs at the beginning, and people weren’t finding all of the eggs. But, he started to just place all the eggs out there, empty, and mark them with either like a 0, an x, a triangle, you know, like a square, and each one of those corresponded to a certain amount of money. And you’d collect all your eggs, these empty shells and you’d give it to him you’d hand them in and he’d pay you that amount of cash. And of course there was a brunch. It started at eleven o’clock [pause] but there was a brunch, and a dinner. Anyway the brunch, the kids ten and under got to go in first, get a five minute head start.”
The informant, who went to high school with me, regarding his family’s Easter tradition, stated: “it was just a family gathering and we did that every single year until my grandpa died this year, so uh we don’t do it anymore, but we did it every year since I could remember. I think, I think even like decades before that, you know. And it’d be a time, where the whole family got together and told stories from over the years because people would come from all over, come from Alabama, we had people from Kentucky come, things like that. We would have all of our family come in, and one year, people from Phoenix came in, and Barstow, which is just down the road. So we’d tell stories, get to catch up.”
The enthusiasm with which the informant told this story indicates how important this Easter tradition is to him. That the tradition died along with the death of his grandfather demonstrates the great extent to which the grandfather was revered in the informant’s family. The importance placed on this game of egg hiding and the lengths he would go to make this game a success reveal a lot about the character of the informant’s grandfather, mainly that he was a sporting man that was invested in devising the best possible egg hunt, but also a wise man, one who would thoroughly plan his endeavors.
“So every year, I have really strong memories, when I was young all the way to high school, of our annual, Christmas eve, party that my mom would always throw. It was always her. And we would always have family, friends, and neighbors over and it grew and grew and grew every year until by the time I was older, it would be about 50 or 60 people over at our house. And she had the same menu every year, she’d make the same food. And she, we would always have eggnog, always some kind of meat. It was usually roast beef I think, that she would carve. Uh, hmm, there was always a crab dish, there was always lobster rolls. Not like the kind, in the northeast like in Maine. I can’t really describe, exactly how they were, gosh I’m blanking out now. But um there’d always be a vegetable dip, there’d always be fruit, um and we’d always have dessert, lemon squares, brownies, that was common. So, yeah um it was the same, it was the same people year after year obviously more people came each year but it was the same crowd of people. Everyone dressed up, and I remember one of our neighbors was a doctor and he would bring his accordion over and he would play the accordion every year, it was funny. And unlike me, the more chaos and the more noise, the happier my mom would be, you know that’s not how I am. And I just remember being a little kid, all the kids would hang out together. One of the neighbors, he would, he would always go home and call our house and pretend he was Santa, and he’d say things like “ho ho ho,” and he’d be like “Rudolph be quiet” and stuff like that. And of course as kids we believed that it was Santa Claus, it wasn’t until later that were like ‘oh it’s just him.’ So everybody had someone to hang out with, and, that was pretty much our Christmas eve.”
The informant that I received this item from is actually my mother, and I had never heard about this tradition before. She grew up in Dallas, Texas.
As far as a Christmas eve tradition, my mother’s family tradition seems normal. Her account of this tradition becomes interesting, however, when looked at in light of the Christmas eve tradition that my family settled in to. Although she remembers her Christmas eve’s fondly, I see in my mother’s account of them a differentiation, a separation between herself and her mom. She mentioned in her account that “unlike me [her], the more chaos and the more noise, the happier my [her] mom would be.” The Christmas eve’s that I grew up with consisted of a nice dinner cooked by my parents that we would eat in the dining room. It was the only time of the year that we would sit down as a family and eat in the dining room; we would normally sit at the table in the kitchen. It was also always just my family, never any of our friends or relatives. That said, I now look at my Christmas eve’s as a vehicle for my mother to express her individuality, personality, and parenting style.
At a tender seven years of age, the informant shared a family tradition of eating tamales on Christmas Eve, which, according to her account, is a shared tradition among most Mexican families. Her mother’s side of the family is Mexican and has practiced the tradition through generations. Indeed, the informant described an annual large family gathering with such an excess of tamales that it feels like “forever” until the leftovers are finished.
For the informant, it seems the tamales on Christmas Eve is a fun way to spend her vacation―she talks about how delicious the food is, her presents the next day, and the fact that school is on recess.
Every night, uh, I mean before every Christmas night, we go to Nana’s. Actually, we used to go to Nana’s, but then she passed away. But we would go, and lots of people were there and we would make yummy tamales during the night and take them home!
I don’t make the tamales, I just eat them. I’m not old enough; they don’t let me touch the things in the kitchen yet. Usually it’s just the girls, but sometimes my dad helps, too, and the other people. I don’t know all of them, just some, but there are lots. I didn’t know my family was so big.
My mama said she did it with Nana when she was a girl, too, and that lots of Mexican families do it. I just know that we make so many tamales, like, so many tamales. Well, there’s rice and beans, too, but even when we bring them home we just keep eating the tamales the next day, and the next day, and the next day. . .it feels like forever. It’s still my favorite dinner though! We eat the tamales, and then the next day we get presents. Plus, there’s no school.
Although some of the finer details may be absent from the informant’s narrative, in sifting through her account we can find some more thematic values embedded in the tradition. Family is clearly an important element in the Mexican Christmas Eve tradition. For one, the women gather together in the kitchen, presumably to “catch up” and bond through the cooking process. The informant mentions how so many family members gather together that she doesn’t even recognize them all. In that vein, her Nana’s recent passing seems to have made a significant impact on her family’s practice of the tradition. The informant did not provide information about where her family would make tamales in the future, but it is quite evident that the familiar setting of her grandmother’s home, a symbol of the stable matriarchy, is no longer accessible to her, further showing how integral family is to this tradition.
Additionally, the theme of bountiful celebration is quite clear. The family makes so many tamales that guests must take them home, and even then the informant herself must eat tamales for days after Christmas Eve. While the rest of the year she and her family may practice moderation, tamales on Christmas Eve is clearly a happy abandonment of that principle.