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]

Holiday Travel: 5 wacky winter activities and traditions

Spice up your holiday traditions with one of these wacky winter activities in Paris, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and other cities around the world.

Lighted Farm Implement Parade
Where: Yakima Valley, WA
Holiday parades are a dime a dozen, but this one can’t help but make you smile. More than 50 farm implements (as in tractors), trucks, and floats participate in this 21-year-old tradition in Sunnyside, WA.
Cost: Free
When: 6 p.m. Dec. 4, 2010

Roving Snowcat Food Trucks
Where: Mammoth Mountain, CA
Starting Dec. 18, Roving Mammoth snowcat food trucks will serve breakfast, lunch, and snacks (including churros, burritos, and calzones) to skiers and snowboarders on Mammoth Mountain. Non-alcoholic beverages will also be sold, but you’ll have to save your après-ski cocktails for after you unstrap your skis and snowboards.
Cost: A one-day ski lift ticket is $92 for adults, $69 for teens, and $46 for kids 7-12; kids 6 and under are free.

Snow Bar
Where: Paris
The Hilton Arc de Triomphe, about a 10-minute walk from the world’s most famous arch, has transformed its outdoor courtyard into a winter wonderland. Expect snow makers, a cozy chalet bar with cocktails, and hostesses dressed up like Mrs. Claus.
When: Dec. 2, 2010-Jan. 1, 2011
Cost: Rooms start at 295 euros ($385) per night in December.

Pool-Turned-Ice Skating Rink
Where: Los Angeles
The W Los Angeles-Westwood has once again transformed its pool deck into an ice skating rink. The hybrid ice rink means that if you fall, you won’t feel cold or wet. The Snowy Snack Bar also lets you decorate your own gingerbread men or mini holiday cupcakes (add $10 per person).
Cost: $10 for a one-hour session with skate rentals; open to the public
When: Until Jan. 2, 2011

Chocolate Carousel
Where: Las Vegas, Nevada
A life-size (and fully functional) carousel made with chocolate and sugar is part of the annual Holiday Village at the Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas. Alas, the drool-worthy carousel isn’t meant for rides, but you can admire the intricate handiwork up close.
Cost: Free and open to the public
When: Until Dec. 25, 2010

[Photo: Courtesy Daily Sun News, Sunnyside]


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.”