Holiday traditions from across the ocean


Staff Writer

The holiday traditions of the Old Country will play out among many celebrating around this time of year, whether in the form of particular touches to their feasts or tales of gift-giving visitors who may seem unfamiliar to most Americans.

Belmont County Common Pleas Judge Frank Fregiato said any holiday celebration by people of Italian ancestry is bound to be boisterous and to feature a variety of dishes.

“Italians are very, very family-oriented, and they’re also tremendously oriented toward food,” Fregiato said, adding that dishes with olive oil figure as a staple, as well as bruschetta, or grilled bread with toppings. Dessert could include tiramisu, a dessert featuring cocoa.

Among the traditions that many practice around Christmas Eve is the Feast of the Seven Fishes. This hearkens back to the Catholic tradition of refraining from meat, and celebrates Italy’s reliance on seafood as a source of sustenance. Baccala, or salted cod, as well as eel, are often found at the feast.

Another tradition that has crossed the ocean in some cases is the story of Befana, the Santa Claus of Italy, who, according to legend, was a witch who met the three wise men searching for Bethlehem and then set about flying around Italy on her broom and distributing presents. The legend has been adapted to many storybooks for young children.

Meanwhile, when Sarah Viczian, a staff member at the St. Clairsville Public Library, married her husband, Janos Viczian of Hungary, he introduced her to some interesting ways of celebrating the season.

“My husband is from Hungary, and we follow a lot of his traditions — the ones that they still keep over there,” she said. “He brought them over from his village and where he’s from.”

Viczian pointed out the Hungarians place greater emphasis on Christmas Eve and other days leading up to Christmas.

“Santa Claus does not come on Christmas Eve. Santa comes on Dec. 6, St. Nicholas Day,” she said. “Another tradition is that the Christ Child brings the Christmas Tree on Christmas Eve, and the angels help him decorate it. Oftentimes the children are not present for the tree going up. They’re actually surprised with it on Christmas Eve. They might go to grandma and grandpa’s house while mom and dad are putting up the tree. Then they come home and see the Christ Child has brought home the tree and the angels have decorated it.”

She said there is an added emphasis on religion and the saints.

“There’s more focus on Christmas Eve being about the Christ Child than being about Santa Claus, and on Christmas Day everybody gets together with family and they have a lot of the traditional foods,” she said.

She mentioned other fun traditions.

“On Dec. 6 when Santa Claus comes, they have to clean their boots and put them by the window so that Santa Claus will fill them. Also they’re left with a bundle of twigs from the Krampus,” she said, describing a demonic figure that is said to punish naughty children and adding that actors often portray these characters in Hungarian communities. “Santa would come along, and there would be a guy dressed up like the Krampus. … You’re a good boy, but here’s some twigs just in case.”

Stan Fedyszyn, a staff member at the Bellaire Public Library, traces his ancestry to Poland and said a feast on Christmas Eve hearkens back to the Old Country.

“It’s called Vigilia. It’s a dinner. Vigilia is the eve, it’s the dinner that you serve on Christmas Eve,” he said, adding that this tradition has special significance, since during its history Poland had been conquered almost 30 times. “The dishes at this meal represent some, if not all, of the nations that once conquered Poland. There’s potatoes, we assume that’s probably Germany. Pickled herring, probably Sweden.”

He added that the feast even includes millet.

“That’s from when Ghengis Khan came through,” he said.

Dates are another foodstuff, this one marking Islamic aggression.

“Then there’s mushroom soup, but mushroom soup without any dairy in it,” he said, adding that this food likely came from the Swiss.

“There’s no meat in the meal. This is not only supposed to remind you of all those countries that conquered us, but also set you up for Christmas, where you have the turkey or the ham,” he said.


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