Sifting through sweet Christmas memories

2013-12-25T00:00:00Z Sifting through sweet Christmas memoriesJennifer Pallay Times Columnist
December 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

As I get older, Christmases from the past start to blend together. They’re a cherished collection of memories, tastes, smells and emotions.

Now we have the challenge of duplicating the Christmas magic from our childhoods while adding some of our own traditions for our son. I hope he will love lights as much as his dad and my dad. I hope he will know the stories of his ornaments and the special people who gave them to him. I don’t know what bits and pieces of this Christmas will become part of his memory, but I hope at least a few of them stick around.

I might not remember what year my parents built me a dollhouse, but I can still feel the excitement of seeing it at the bottom of the steps on Christmas morning with a miniature Santa and reindeer on the rooftop.

I’m not sure how many times my mom and aunt took me, my brother and our cousins to eat at the Walnut Room, but I think of them every time I go with my husband and son.

I don’t know the first time I tasted my Grandma Pallay’s Christmas cookies but I remember how the house smelled as she baked them each year and the crunch they made as you bit into one.

In recent years, my cousin’s daughter has re-created the signature cookie by using my grandma's recipe and cookie cutters. I know my grandma would be happy that her family still experiences some of what Christmas meant for her.

Another way we do that is with what is now called bagna calda Christmas, the gathering of Pallays for the holiday season.

Over the years, this Christmas Eve tradition rotated from house to house, first hosted by my grandma’s generation in Dolton and Chicago’s Pullman neighborhood. During my childhood, it was hosted by my father’s generation in South Holland, Calumet City and Orland. In recent years, its date was moved to the Saturday before Christmas, to give the immediate families more time to enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas Day together. It has also moved to the third generation of family’s homes.

The name bagna calda Christmas comes from the traditional Italian appetizer that is always served and hard to forget. The garlic-anchovy-oil mixture is used for dipping veggies and crackers and produces a one-of-a-kind smell reserved for this special night.

My grandma and her siblings were 100 percent Italian and the bagna calda was part of their family’s European tradition of not eating meat on Christmas Eve.

The pan must be stirred constantly to avoid burnt bagna calda. Burnt fish and garlic are also a smell you do not soon forget. This year, my 14-year-old niece did the stirring and she, along with her siblings and their guests, were the dip’s main consumers. Maybe someday our son will join his cousins in this tradition.

Whether it’s the sweetness of cookies or the tastes of garlic that remind you of Christmas, I hope they’re part of your day today. I hope the new memories you create are as good as the ones you remember from the past and I hope you have a wonderful day with the people who mean the most to you. Merry Christmas.

The opinions are solely those of the writer. She can be reached at

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