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Remembering Christmas family traditions

'Tis the Christmas season. It seems food is a huge part of the traditions surrounding this holiday. I can't help but remember the Christmases of my youth. My brother and I were lucky enough to be raised with a great deal of diversity.

Christmases here in Maryland included a huge train garden in our living room with a tree overlooking it. Christmas day was the big event; we'd wake up early in the morning to see what was under the tree for us. Mom would make a breakfast of pancakes, eggs and sausage. Later in the day, my dad's parents would come over for dinner, which was ham baked with this amazing glaze my mom made from pineapples, cherries and brown sugar. We'd have mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, corn, homemade apple sauce and my favorite dish to this day: Homemade cranberry relish. Dessert would be one of my mom's famous cream puff rings and a glass of eggnog — the non-alcoholic version — or a cup of hot tea.

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Every other Christmas was spent in Massachusetts with my mom's parents. At Babcie's — grandmother in Polish — we celebrated the holiday much the way it is celebrated in Poland, the country my ancestors are from. Christmas Eve was a day of fasting until dinnertime. No meat was served during the meal, which consisted of 12 dishes that some believe are representative of the 12 disciples of Jesus. Beet soup was sort of a mandatory dish, typically served with small mushroom-stuffed dumplings, which I still don't like. Babcie would bake a fish with this wonderful lemon butter sauce. There would also be some kind of pasta dish and, of course, my favorite: Sugared blueberry pierogies. She normally made about eight dozen of them with homemade dough and blueberries she had sorted through for days to get the right ones. Once the pierogies were made, she'd boil a big pot of water, drop them in and let them cook for about 3 minutes, then drain them, put butter and salt on them and serve. Christmas Eve dinner at Babcie's house could easily feed 50 to 60 people.

After dinner and dessert were finished, we'd sing Christmas carols and eventually open gifts. After presents were opened, the adults would leave for midnight Mass at the church. The kids would be put to bed. Christmas Day was more low key. We'd have Babcie's wonderful French toast and spend the day singing and talking and visiting with family members that were in and out of the house. Around 2 p.m., Babcie would put out a spread — as she called it — of homemade roast beef, ham and roasted chicken with salads and fruit. Anyone who came in during the rest of the day was welcome to make themselves a sandwich or a plate of food and sit and visit. The TV was never turned on during Christmas Eve or Christmas Day at Babcie's house; rather, it was a time for family and friends. These Christmas memories live on today in my heart and mind.

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As I got into high school, I had a number of Jewish friends who would invite me to their homes for Hanukkah. One of the most traditional Hanukkah foods is called a potato latke, which is a potato pancake. Following Jewish tradition, on Hanukkah, children make a dreidel from clay and play a game with gelt, which are chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil. I always enjoyed visits to their houses, as well.

As I was writing this, I spoke with my friends and asked about their family traditions. Many told me about open houses with favorite family foods from homemade meatballs to roast pork loins, while others described brunches that include champagne and steamed shrimp.

Now that my parents are gone, my family traditions have changed. The year my mom passed, we started a tradition in her honor of having dinner on Christmas Eve at her favorite Chinese restaurant. We have not missed a single year in the last 18 years. My brother still carries on my dad's tradition of decorating his home with lights and many figurines. This Christmas, we will begin with a light breakfast of bagels, doughnuts, muffins, hot chocolate, tea and coffee at our home. Later in the afternoon, my boyfriend and I will go to my brother's home where we will share gifts and a delicious meal, followed by some of my brother's amazing desserts.

No matter what your religion or cultural background, one key part of the holidays is always the most important: At the end of the day, the best tradition is being with family. I hope you and your family have a happy Hanukkah and merry Christmas.

Terry Chaney is a Reisterstown resident and can be reached via email at antter95@yahoo.com.

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