Dim Sum For Christmas: Creating A Holiday Tradition At Home

With very few exceptions, I’ve spent the last 17-plus Christmases going out for dim sum. No matter where I’m living at the time, once December rolls around, I start researching the best places to indulge my har gow habit. Why? Because I’ve worked in the service industry for over two decades.

I’ve either waited tables or worked retail (usually in the food industry) since I was in my 20s. In layman’s terms, it means that the holidays ceased to exist for me starting in 1995, when I started culinary school.

I’d always loved Christmas as a kid and in college. Yet, I willingly sacrificed the holidays, because it meant I’d finally embarked upon the career path I’d long dreamt of: becoming a cooking teacher and food (and eventually, travel) writer. I naively failed to realize that decades of restaurant work, flogging farmers market produce, and slinging cheese and meat would be required to supplement my occupational pursuits.

I’ve been able to travel overseas a couple of times over the holidays, and the Christmases spent in Thailand and New Zealand were memorable from both a cultural and universal perspective. If I had the financial means, I’d always travel during the holidays. In general, however, being in the food industry means you stay at home this time of year, even if home is somewhere most people would kill to visit (I’ve been fortunate to work the holidays in Vail and Telluride).Unable to take Christmases off to see my family (they always get Thanksgiving, which is extremely important to my parents), I started going out for dim sum as a way to pass the time, stave off loneliness and get a good meal.

Dim sum parlors and Cantonese restaurants are always packed Christmas Day, with Chinese-Americans as well as diners of varying ethnic and religious persuasions. I’ve learned over the years that many people have a Christmas dim sum tradition, usually because they don’t celebrate for whatever reason (not having kids is a big one).

In my case, I’m single and childless, but that’s not why I do dim sum. Ethnically, my relatives on both sides of the family were immigrant Russian Jews, but my agnostic parents celebrated Christmas when my brother and I were growing up. To them, it was a way to unite family and allow us kids … to be kids. As a child, I never imagined Christmas and I would part ways.

As an adult, I shun Christmas not because I have to work, but for the same reasons many people do: it’s a stressful, bank account-depleting, heavily commercialized guilt-fest. I don’t miss it, although I do my best for my teenaged niece (who received a rescue kitten from me this year) and nephew.

The truth is, if I’m unable to travel, I relish having one day a year where I can have 24 hours off and not feel bad about it. I eat delicious dumplings, maybe go for a hike or see a movie. Call family and friends. It’s unabashed me-time, and until or unless I meet someone I want to create a more traditional holiday with … please pass the bao.

[Photo credit: dim sum, Flickr user Jason Hutchens; tree, Flickr user Ian.Kobylanski]

Christmas Eve in Denmark: Bask in the glow

In elementary school in the U.S., and I’m sure in elementary schools pretty much everwhere, there are the chapters of social studies books that present a sampling of holiday traditions in other countries. One of my favorite things about traveling is finding out which things hold true outside the pages of a book–and which are sometimes true, but not always the way that is pictured.

My Christmas spent in Denmark was my first Christmas away from home–it could have not been more perfect. It was social studies book perfection. One thing I found out is that Danes really do hold hands while they sing carols and dance around a live Christmas tree that has real candles lit all aglow. The candles are only lit on Christmas Eve.

My Danish family (I still call them that years later) had a pitcher of water close to the tree in case it caught on fire. Besides dancing around the tree, we also wound our way through the house. It was wonderful. I remember feeling safe and loved. This YouTube video is not of my family, but of a family who lives in Svendborg. Still, the look and feel is the same. Notice the garland of the Danish flags. My family’s tree had these as well as paper hearts like the one in the picture. Click on it and it will take you to the Web site with instructions. This video is less than a minute long, but you’ll get the idea.

Messiah Sing-a-Longs (and you don’t really have to sing)

I went to my first Handel’s Messiah Sing-a-Long Friday night. This one was a joint effort between the ProMusica Orchestra in Columbus, Ohio and area orchestras and choirs–plus their conductors who took turns conducting various segments. As soon as I took my place in the soprano section, it was obvious I wasn’t prepared for such an event. All around me people had score books with the music and the lyrics. I had just the program that was handed to me at the door. Oh. That’s what a sing-a-long means. I expected that there would be a choir that I would listen to and the audience would pipe in from time to time. Not so. Not in this case.

The audience was the chorus, meaning the main event. Like a true chorus, we were directed to sit in sections according to our voice range. And, although I was dressed fairly nicely, I wasn’t in the same league as the women around me, particularly the one in front of me with the spectacular dress and a voice to match. Think sequins and tulle, but stylish, like something Beverly Sills would wear. I briefly wondered if the wrinkles in my pants had shaken out by now.

But, being that I’m game for about anything, I stood on cue and followed the conductor’s stick, thankful that I’ve heard the Messiah more than once, and thankful for my high school choir days. I may not have had the score in front of me, but I could fudge a bit. Truly, this was a blast, but next year, I’m bringing the score, and if I don’t have one, I’m looking for that woman in the sequins. She was awesome. Listening to her helped me find the range and follow along–even though my voice could be described as “thin” and often off key. But, hey, I paid honest money for the price of the ticket, and that means, I’ll sing if I want to. You don’t have to sing though, several people, like my mother, just sat and listened.

If you’re looking for a special holiday event, find a sing-a-long Messiah. From what I’ve found out since last night, these are increasingly popular. I found several that have already happened this year. Here are some Sing-A-Long Messiah’s still happening.

Here’s a link to “How to Sing Handel’s Messiah” If I had only known.

St. Nicholas Day: Santa Claus is coming to town in spades

Two Sundays ago, we saw our first Santa Claus of the season riding on a float at the end of the Holiday Lights Parade in Gahanna, Ohio. Since my son is five, I’ve come up with elaborate reasons why Santa is in so many places at the same time.

On December 6, Santa Claus–aka St. Nicholas– has his own special day. St. Nicholas Day, a holiday started to honor Bishop Nicholas, the man who used his inheritance from his wealthy family to feed the sick and clothe the poor, particularly children, back in 3rd century Greece. He started the Santa Claus tradition.

Today finds St. Nicholas visiting schools, churches and museums, plus taking part in town parades and festivals. Most of them are in Europe, but he pays visits elsewhere to spread the idea that it’s good to give–even Walt Disney World, the Epcot Center is passing the word. Here, St. Nicholas is visiting guests at the Germany Pavilion. In some places, St. Nicholas has been making visits since the middle of November, but today is the feast day.

If you want to find St. Nicholas close to you, here’s a link that lists the various countries with St. Nicholas activities. Those links lead to links of specific events. The one in the photograph actually took place last Sunday in Germany. From what I can tell the spirit of St. Nicholas is catching on with my son. Yesterday, when I showed him a Toys For Tots present I bought to give away, he didn’t say, “I want one too.”

Polish fortune-telling holiday: Get a candle, a key and a right shoe

Tonight is St. Andrew’s Eve where fortunes are told if you happen to be in Poland or around a large Polish community. These days, the fortunes are male or female friendly, but in the past were female fare. Also called Andrzejki, this holiday is thanks to St. Andrew (as in one of the disciples) who is the patron saint.

The night of fortune-telling designed to predict a person’s fate in love, wealth and marriage involves a bit of practice it seems–and a vivid imagination. The love and wealth prediction is the trickiest. People gather at parties where each tells the others’ fortunes based on information gathered from melted wax and shadows.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Get a candle. Melt the wax
  2. Turn off the lights
  3. Pour the melted wax through the hole of a key into a bowl of water. Naturally, get a key with a large hole.
  4. When the wax hardens into a shape, look at it, or the shadow that it makes to see what that person’s fortune is.

This is what you can tell if you are an intuitive fortune-teller type. The person’s country of origin (if the person speaks Polish and if you are in Poland, this might be a safe bet), the person’s future love match, and what the person’s profession will be.

If this sounds a little dicey and complicated, try shoe throwing. It’s another St. Andrew’s Eve tradition. Here’s how you do this one. Everybody at the party takes off his or her right shoe. Stand in a line across a room from a door. Throw the shoe towards the door. Whoever gets his or her shoe closer to the door will get married first. I would say if you don’t really want to get married first, don’t lob it. A gentle toss will suffice. You can always say, “Ooops, it slipped.”

Here’s another way to play this one. Starting at the wall across from the door, one person puts the heel of her shoe against the wall. Another person puts the heal of her shoe against the toe of the other person’s shoe. Another person repeats the step with her shoe. Whichever shoe is the one that reaches the door is the one that the owner will get married first. Clear as mud?

I looked around to see if I can find a particular St. Andrew’s Eve event for you to go to. Nope. I did find several articles talking about it. Here’s one from the Warsaw Voice where I culled my how tos. You can practice your Polish with this one. The cities in the U.S. and Canada mentioned as having large Polish communities are Detroit, San Francisco, Toronto and New York. This article describes even more fortune-telling games.