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Friday, 18 December 2015 11:51

Lynn's place: Setting the table for Christmas traditions

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EAGLE -- It’s the people around the table who are the most important during the holidays, and the tie that binds them together often is reflected in the food served.

A blend of old and new traditions add continuity to family gatherings. The old traditions remind us of the past and those who have passed, while the new traditions propel us forward as we welcome friends and new members to the family.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, I favor the food traditions, making and baking the same foods that my grandmothers and mother before me made and served -- these include my grandmother’s stollen and my mother’s favorite cookies gleaned from the Wisconsin Electric (now We Energies) cookie books.

And it wouldn’t be New Year’s without my mother-in-law’s chopped liver served on some German rye bread with a spread of cream cheese to entice those unfamiliar with this delicacy.

(Lynn's Place holiday recipes HERE.)

If you’re not the do-it-yourself kind, this is an especially good time of year to indulge in tradition because many churches, organizations and businesses put on their own special events.

Most of us, of course, are a mish-mash of ethnicities -- unless you are 100 percent Native American, all of our ancestors came from another place. For my family, that includes England, Ireland, Germany, Poland and Russia.

All five of these countries have been celebrated during the 32 years that the Old World Wisconsin living history museum near Eagle has served up its holiday dinners. People come from far and wide to enjoy the festivities, which include the featured country’s holiday traditions, music, food and decor.

Gwen Griffin, interim manager of the Old World Foundation, said the dinners highlight the Wisconsin immigrant experience.

"We focus on those groups that arrived here at the turn of the 18th to 19th century, so we’re limited by that just a bit.

"People really enjoy the dinners and come back year after year," Griffin added.

Some guests want to learn more about their own heritage and what their ancestors did during the holidays. For others, it’s learning about the history of food in general that’s enticing.

Anita Boyd took in a Scottish dinner last weekend at Old World Wisconsin with her daughter-in-law.

They enjoyed traditional Scottish music with bagpipes and food.

Boyd, who is of Scottish heritage, lives in Stoughton, a city known for its Norwegian immigrants.

Stoughton’s new Livsreise (Life’s Journey) Norwegian Heritage Center helps people remember their immigrant past. It opened earlier this year.

By 1900, almost 25 percent of Wisconsin residents were from Norway, according to Marg Listug, director at the Norwegian Heritage Center. At one time, Wisconsin had more Norwegian immigrants than any other state.

Music also was important to Norwegian-Americans. Their instruments included a fiddle with eight strings and the simple psalmodikon with a single string.

"Even though I don’t really make a point of doing it (making the traditional foods), I think it’s nice that the younger generation know what it’s all about," Boyd said. "Plus, I enjoy learning more about the different celebrations," she added -- this was the fourth time she attended such a dinner at the museum.

Sandra Johnson of Williams Bay is of Swedish descent. She also believes it’s important to pass on the traditions of food and music.

Johnson owns Bragi Coffee House and Wine Bar in Williams Bay, where the first two weeks of December were spent celebrating St. Lucia’s Day.

"Food was a big part of our holiday celebrations growing up," she said. "We had all the usual foods -- meatballs, rice pudding and gingerbread cookies."

Around Christmas in Sweden, the biggest celebration is St. Lucia’s Day, traditionally held on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. The day with the shortest amount of light is celebrated with a festival of lights.

A young girl is chosen to represent St. Lucia, a  Christian child who secretly would take food to the persecuted Christians who lived in hiding in the catacombs under the city of Rome. To illuminate her way, she wore candles on her head so she would have her hands free to carry the food.

Johnson played the part of St. Lucia when she was a young girl.

"I was probably 13 or so and led the procession in the church," she said. "Thank goodness they have battery- operated candles now."

In Scotland, Christmas was banned during the Protestant Reformation in 1647, so the celebration of New Year’s Eve, or Hogmanay, became more important.

"It wasn’t until the 1960s, I think, that it (Boxing Day -- Dec. 26) became a bank holiday in Scotland," Griffin said.

The singing of "Auld Lang Syne," based on a poem written by beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns, is sung during Hogmanay. A black bun, a fruitcake wrapped in pastry, is served. The gift of a black bun is meant to symbolize that the family receiving it will not go hungry during the following year.

Every country seems to have a distinct food or group of foods that become associated with the holidays.

Maryann Millard, a town of Geneva resident, reminded me of the Italian tradition of the Seven Fishes. Christmas Eve at Grandpa DiRago’s always included the seven fishes.

In the family cookbook, this tradition called for snails, squid, smelt, eel, shrimp, salty white fish and herring.

"My mother would make them all, but now I do maybe three or four," Millard said.

Joe Russo, owner of Riga-Tony’s Italian deli in Delavan, knows well this tradition. He grew up in a traditional Italian family in Chicago.

"Christmas Eve was always a partial fast --  no meat, but that didn’t mean we didn’t eat. We had calamari, shrimp, clams, baccala (salted cod) -- all before Mass."

Traditionally, the seven fishes represented the seven sacraments in the Catholic faith.

"After midnight Mass we’d come home and eat some more," Russo said. "All the traditional foods -- pizza, mostacciolli, Italian sausage. It’d go on all day."

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