Memories make holidays a time to cherish

Family, food, traditions, photos

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Telling tales is a major part of what makes Dec. 25 the treasured day it is, from Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" to Bob Clark's "A Christmas Story."

While relatively few folks write classic novels or direct hit movies, many enjoy simply sharing their holiday experiences. And plenty of those are childhood memories.

"When I was about 11 or 12, I wanted to peek at my presents so badly before everyone else got up," recalled Maureen Duane, 38, who grew up in Peters.

"So weeks before, I made a very detailed map of how to get from my bed to the family room without making the floor creak, stuff like: 'Take three steps forward and then step one step to the right. Forward four steps, three steps left.' Oh, yes. I even drew a map."

Mrs. Duane now lives in Wenatchee, Wash., but Pittsburgh figures prominently into her Christmas recollections.

"We would go Downtown to see the display windows at the department stores, Gimbels and Kaufmann's. We would go to the window where KDKA was broadcasting and give them our donation for Children's Hospital, and they'd give us farkleberry cookies," she said.

Holiday customs weigh heavily into many a Christmas memory.

"When I first started dating my husband, he invited me to his family home in Monessen for a traditional Polish Christmas Eve, called Wigilia," said Buffy Hasco, 48, of Upper St. Clair. "Michael's mother, Irene, worked for weeks to prepare a feast including mushroom soup, fish, pierogi and, of course, sauerkraut.

"Before the meal, everyone offers each family member a piece of the traditional wafer, oplatki, and offers wishes for good health and happiness in the new year.

"Also included is pickled herring, or sledzie, a dish every newcomer must try. They insisted, and I politely choked it down. Strong proof of my love for my future husband!"

Bethel Park resident Marcy Santel continues the family tradition of a Slovak Christmas Eve dinner.

"Although it has been adapted over the years by my mother, she still cooks a meal with many of the traditional dishes such as bobalki, a sweet poppy-seed bread; pagach, a flat bread filled with sauerkraut; a sour mushroom soup; and fish," she said.

The meal also includes oplatki.

"Everyone gets a postcard-sized wafer with a Christmas scene on it," said Mrs. Santel, 42, who grew up in Carrick. "We each break our oplatki into enough pieces to share one piece with each person at the table. We pass them around and eat them dipped in honey.

"The oplatki were always obtained from a local ethnic church, but I was not too surprised to find out that they can now be bought from"

A family tradition for Collier resident Mary Alice Norcik involved her family's business, Wright's Seafood Inn in Heidelberg.

"The Sunday after Thanksgiving, the restaurant was always closed, and we'd get ready for the holidays, baking our cookies in the big kitchen," said Mrs. Norcik, 78, whose family owned and operated Wright's from 1898 to 2004. "My grandmother always had us help with the decorations."

The Christmas tree, though, had to wait.

"We always had the tree, but it was always hidden from everyone, and it never went up until Christmas Eve, when all the kids went to bed." As far as the children were concerned, "Santa Claus brought the tree, and they didn't see anything. That was a lot of work."

Maura Rodgers, executive director of Casey's Clubhouse Miracle Field in Upper St. Clair, remembers one of her family's trees in particular.

"My dad would take us to pick out the Christmas tree," said Miss Rodgers, 22, of Nottingham. "The first year that I was allowed to pick out a tree, I chose the saddest, sorriest tree on the lot, because I knew no one else would want him. We called that the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. It was the last year I was permitted to pick the tree."

The selection of a certain Christmas present has special meaning for Diane Essary, 37, of Peters.

"When I was about 8 years old, it was my first time being able to buy my mom something for Christmas, and, wow, was I excited!" she recalled. "I got her this clear glass vessel with a big yellow butterfly in the middle, suspended. Her favorite was a yellow butterfly, so it was extra special. She cried with joy.

"A few years later she passed from cancer. Now when times get hard, I always seem to have a yellow butterfly show up and reassure me it'll be OK."

Mrs. Essary received the gift that was all the rage in 1984: a Cabbage Patch Kid.

"My daughter now sleeps with her," she said. "I received her when money was super tight in our family, but somehow my parents found a way, as parents usually do."

Some Christmas memories are jogged by something as simple as a snapshot.

"I have a picture of me as one of Santa's helpers, riding with Santa on a Bethel Park fire engine in a parade circa 1986," said Lisa White, 43, who grew up in South Park.

"I worked at McDonald's, at the end of Corrigan Drive. I was the 'party girl,' meaning I did all the children's birthday parties and public appearances with Ronald McDonald, Grimace and the Hamburglar. We were at all the parades and fairs."

Along with her Santa's helper costume, she sports platinum-blond locks in the photograph.

"I bleached my hair because I thought it looked great," she said. "It didn't."

Christmas music brings back fond memories for Tina Featheringham, 48, of Mt. Lebanon. She remembers attending National Symphony Orchestra Pops performances with her father and stepmother in Washington, D.C., near where she spent her youth.

"One concert was particularly memorable," she said. "[Conductor] Marvin Hamlisch looked out in the audience and noticed that the first couple of rows were filled with teenagers, and stopped the show to ask if they were a group. When he learned that they were a concert band from Australia, touring the U.S., he told them to go get their instruments during intermission and join him on stage.

"Well, I guess only the first-chair trumpeter had the guts to do it, but up he went, playing a jazzy version of 'The First Noel' with Marvin Hamlisch accompanying him on piano! The kid's smile was a mile wide, and so was Marvin's.

"In fact, mine is pretty wide right now, just remembering it," Ms. Featheringham said. "It kind of had it all -- being with family, the Kennedy Center so beautifully decorated, and the power of music. The magic of the season is such a hackneyed phrase, but it really applied during those moments."


Harry Funk, freelance writer:


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