Just like our country has been dubbed a “melting pot,” the nickname also can be appropriately used to describe the Calumet Region, where people of many cultures and backgrounds reside alongside each other. Although in day-to-day life the American customs may be prominent, it is at Christmas when the roots of ancestors are honored and nationalities are most celebrated.
Slovak Christmas Eve
Every culture has holiday traditions that are related to food, whether it’s a dish served with the Christmas meal, a food item that hangs on the tree or a special plate left for Santa Claus (or that country’s special visitor) and his reindeer.
One of the highlights of the holiday classic movie with a link to the Region, “A Christmas Story,” is when the Christmas turkey is devoured by the neighbor’s hungry dogs and the family has no choice but to eat at a Chinese restaurant where they are introduced to duck as the centerpiece of the meal.
Carol Jacobson of Whiting recalls the Christmas Eve dinners of her youth that centered around the Slovak ritual of having a meatless meal. Her present day Christmas Eve meal doesn’t stray too far from the Slovak-inspired meal she grew up with.
Meals began with wine and a wafer called oplatky, similar to a communion wafer, that would sometimes be drizzled with honey. Next would be a mushroom soup, and fish was the main entrée. Jacobson says that long ago, her family would have smoked chub, but as it became harder to find, people started serving herring. Jacobson says that today her family usually has perch and shrimp.
Small bread balls called bobalky, which resemble hush puppies, are made with honey, milk, sugar and poppy seed. Jacobson says that she was never fond of them and that the kids usually put them on their plate and then hid them to avoid eating them.
Of course, pirohi (better known as pierogi) was part of the meal. “My mom always made potato and plum butter, but nowadays there are all kinds,” she says. A stewed fruit of prunes and apricots was also served and traditional sweets included a nut roll and kolachi, which came in apricot, prune and nut flavors.
“Then on Christmas day we splurged and had ham and good fellowship and my parents sang Slovak songs,” Jacobson says.
A Group Effort
For those of Hispanic descent, tamales are the centerpiece of the holiday meal, and the tedious task of preparing and assembling them is often a group effort. Maria Valencia of Lansing has turned her tamale assembly into a fun affair that involves not just the females, but everyone in the family—and not just family, but friends of many different backgrounds, as well. “In my house, it's everybody—even the guys get involved and we drink wine and listen to music. It's a family thing. And of our friends, one is Polish, one is African American, one is Italian, one is German. There are a lot of different nationalities."
For the two-day process, Valencia spends a full day in the kitchen on Dec. 23 cooking about 35 pounds of pork, making beans and dough and seeding and peeling peppers so that the ingredients are ready to go on Christmas Eve morning.
“We have all our friends come over in the morning and we sit around the table and spread the filling on the husks,” Valencia says. “After we’re done, I make rice and start cooking tamales and everyone leaves and gets dressed and then they come back and we eat.”
Valencia makes three varieties: pork, beans and cheese, and chili and cheese. Her parents are from Texas and she notes the difference in how tamales are prepared depending on the region. “Some are huge and some are thin and small. In mine, the meat/dough ratio is pretty equal. In Texas, they have a lot of dough and not as much meat,” she says. She adds that in some parts of Mexico sweet tamales are also common.
With the amount of labor involved, Valencia says that tamales are made in her house only on special occasions. “It’s pretty much a Christmas thing,” she says, “mainly because they're a lot of work.” After all the filling goes in, the tamales are steamed for hours in a large pot.
Valencia says there’s also an old-wives tale attached to the process that the main person cooking the tamales cannot leave the house throughout preparation. “I can’t let the outside air hit me,” she says. “I did it one time, and they just didn’t cook right. Everybody laughs about it, but I follow it.”
The best part of the tamale production is enjoying the fruits of her labor with husband, Leo, and their five children and their families—as well as a house full of friends, usually numbering about 70.
Valencia offers a couple tips should you take on the task of preparing tamales for the holidays: First, be sure that you are spreading the dough on the smoother, shinier side of the husk. “You don't want it on the bumpy, rough side,” she says. “It won't come off.” Also, she has found that the best tools for spreading dough are spackling spatulas that she purchases at a hardware store.
Celebrating the Swedish Way
Nordikids is a cultural club in Northwest Indiana for youth ages 3 to 21 aimed at keeping Scandinavian traditions alive. “All youth of Scandinavian heritage or those interested in the customs are welcome to participate,” says Lynda Smith of Munster, who founded the group. This time of year, much of the activity revolves around St. Lucia Day, which has somewhat dark origins.
“On the old Gregorian calendar, December 13 was the longest day of the year,” Smith says. “When Sweden became converted to a Christian nation, they learned of Saint Lucia, who was a young Italian girl that got burned at the stake for refusing to marry and instead gave her dowry to the poor. This also happened on December 13. Her intended had her killed, but legend has it that she didn't die and she looked like she had a crown of flames. They finally killed her by stabbing her.
“The Swedes adopted her as their special saint. They believed they could see a young girl walking through the land feeding the poor and wearing a lighted crown of flames and wearing a white nightgown with a red sash tied at the waist and streaming down the left side of her, signifying the blood from being stabbed.
“Every December 13, they honor her, with every little town selecting one girl as their queen. She wears a crown of candles and parades through the dark streets of town. She is accompanied by other girls and boys. Girls wear white and boys do too, carrying stars. At dawn on this date, the oldest girl in each family gets up at dawn and brings coffee and rolls to her parents.”
St. Lucia Day is the kick-off to the holiday season in Sweden and they celebrate until St. Knut’s day on Jan. 13.
An Exhibit of Cultures and Customs
At the Lansing Historical Museum, you can find a melting pot of cultures and holiday customs as you peruse the annual Festival of Lights exhibit. “We have about 33 trees and about 25 represent different countries. The others are variations on Lansing heritage,” says Barb Dust, museum curator.
Guided tours can be arranged to learn about how Christmas is celebrated in different parts of the world. “We have the German tree and tell the history of how the Christmas tree got started in Germany. The Dutch have St. Nicholas Day and they leave carrots and wheat in their shoes because he comes on horse,” Dust says. “The Italians have their visitor, La Befana, on January 6. She was a lady who prided herself on cleanliness. The three kings came by her home and asked her to accompany them and she was too busy cleaning and later in the night regretted it. So, she got up in the middle of the night with a bag of toys searching for good kids and giving them presents.”
Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Poland and Japan are among the other countries represented.