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Holiday traditions and nutrition

Kolasa, Kathy

Wednesday, December 19, 2018


Q: We lost most of our belongings in Florence. Your Christmas column was safely tucked in a holiday memory book. Could you re-run it for us? MG, Craven County

A: I was touched to get your email. I hope your struggles are or will soon be behind you. We know many are still struggling but resilient. A shout out to the generous spirit of eastern North Carolinians contributing to the recovery.

My husband Patrick and I wish you a warm “Merry Christmas” and winter holidays and a new year filled with better days. I have written several times about honoring our traditions to nourish our soul. The storms cannot steal those memories from us. Take to heart the message of a column several years ago, “as you make new memories, I hope you will be able to think of old ones with a smile”. You didn’t say which column you had saved so here are bits and pieces from earlier columns.

Most of us find joy in traditional food feasts. While at times I sound like a “food cop” to many of you, I have spent my career studying how food and food ceremonies nourish the body and soul of people of all cultures. Immigrants to our country or those of us who move to a different part of the country often turn to traditional ways of feasting at holidays.

Pat and I have lived in eastern North Carolina since 1983, yet I still include a little Polish American tradition in our holiday celebration. When I was a child in Detroit, my family would go to babcia’s (grandmother) house for the Christmas Eve or Wigilia dinner. The meal with the entire Kolasa clan would begin with the ceremony of “breaking the bread.” The oplatek communion like wafer, imprinted with the Nativity scene, would be shared with everyone at the table. The ceremony was quite solemn and loving at the adult table and quite rowdy at the kid’s table. Since this night is considered a vigil, there would always be an empty place at the table with straw under the tablecloth waiting for baby Jesus. As kids we couldn’t wait until we were old enough to go to midnight mass and have an early celebratory breakfast.

We have all grown and my brothers and sister have also left Detroit and our parents are gone. We married into families with other traditions and adopted some of those creating a unique tradition. The distances between our homes is great so the whole clan hasn’t gathered in person for Christmas for years. We do share greetings on the phone. We still break the oplateck, no longer purchased from nuns at school (it was a fundraiser for them) but by mail order.

If you were at our home for a meal, you would be introduced to this warm greeting. The special meatless night of creamed herring, mushroom soup, pierogi, and fish and chrustfaworski (light, delicate, angel wing pastries) is a memory. Babcia made the pierogi for the kids because most of us didn’t like eating fish at the time. I skip the pierogi now — they are a lot of work and store bought just aren’t the same.

Periodically Pat and I travel to Tucson for the holiday. Before his retirement, my brother Dick — the general manager of a country club, ensured there was a special Polish dish or two on the fabulous Christmas Eve buffet.

In Polish-American Detroit, Christmas Day was a quiet day reserved for Mass followed by visiting. No playing with new toys allowed. Christmas was about Jesus, family, and friends… and it was mom’s birthday, too. Friends and relatives would drop in for an “open house” where turkey, ham, Polish sausage, rye bread, Christmas babka (coffee cake) egg nog, and holiday cookies and special candies were served. My sister and I laugh how mom never baked cookies except at Christmas, and then they were too pretty to eat. She carefully decorated Santa cookies with raisins for eyes, red sugar for cheeks, lips and cap and white icing for eyebrows with coconut added for beard. Each Santa was wrapped and hung on the cookie tree with a red ribbon waiting for each child who visited to carry home their special cookie. When my sis and I are together, we use the well-worn cutters and bake a few cookies to share the memory.

I clipped an article from a Polish American newspaper with the headline “holiday traditions could ease modern day tensions.” But traditions change. Some changes are welcomed, some we are slow to accept. Our ancestors ate foods needed for their survival. They often had too much fat (needed for scarce calories) or too much salt (for food preservation). In today’s world those practices may increase our risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer and obesity. We can and should if they delight us — enjoy those foods, in moderation, at the holiday — honoring old family traditions. But, it’s important to find healthier “every day foods” so we can thrive.

In 2019, I am hoping that eating healthy will be the norm rather than the exception for more people in our community. But for now, pause to remember those impacted by this year’s disasters and give generously to the food pantries and banks. Remember a loved one or friend that you are missing this holiday season, taking time to enjoy a memory of a special food or beverage you shared — with a smile.


Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.


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