Niagara Gazette

December 26, 2013

CHRISTMAS CULTURE: So many different ways to celebrate in the Niagara region

Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Each year, as families gather for Christmas in the Niagara region, old traditions are dusted off and new ones are begun.

Some stick closely to traditions handed down from generation to generation, while others pick and choose from a hodge podge of different cultures and religious denominations in their Christmas celebration.


For Filomena Liberale of Niagara Falls, Christmas means filling a room in her home with a Christmas village of miniature houses and churches she began collecting when she lived in Italy. This year, the village was enlarged by a small farm added by her grandson, evidence that traditions become beloved by engaging the young.

For the Liberale family, Christmas will also include two festive meals, and likely husband Ottaviano’s homemade wine. Filomena will cook the traditional seven fishes the night before Christmas, with a menu that overflows with seafood such as fried haddock, clams casino, calamari and squid that Ottaviano cooks over the fireplace. The meal will include traditional cookies Filomena bakes.

Fish is served in many Italian homes on the night before Christmas, and seems to be one of those traditions that has ambiguous origins.  

“Italians always do fish on Christmas Eve,” said Marie Bevilacqua of Niagara Falls. “I make pasta and clams, baccala, shrimp, fried fish. I make seven fish. I don’t know why.”

Italian cookbook author Michele Scicolone was quoted in Edible Manhattan about her research into the pre-Christmas meal. Even the Italians weren’t sure.  

“All over Italy I’d ask, ‘Do you eat the seven fish on Christmas Eve?’ and the response was always, ‘We eat a lot of fish!’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, but are there seven?’ and they’d look at me like, ‘What is she trying to say?’ ”

Perhaps the tradition is based simply on the fact that it’s been done for a really long time. As traditions go, many are changed or reinvented as families blend and merge with other cultures.

Virginia Rufran of Niagara Falls, who celebrates Christmas with her large Italian family every year, has a favorite new tradition on the day after Christmas. “We have leftover day for the adults,” she said with a laugh. “That’s the one tradition I really enjoy.  It’s less stressful and you don’t have to buy gifts.”

Greek Orthodox

Dot Lombardi of Lockport, a former Catholic who is now a member at the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lewiston, has enjoyed learning new holiday traditions, such as the parish party held earlier this month to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas. The event included little chocolates wrapped in gold for the children to signify the gifts the saint used to leave for poor families, tucked into shoes they would place outside their doors.

Lombardi joined the Orthodox church because she liked that its doctrine can be traced back to the apostles. Her pastor, the Rev. Paul Solberg said 70 percent of his church’s priests are converts from other religions drawn to the Orthodox church because its doctrine hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. With such deep roots, holiday traditions are steeped in centuries of practice.

“Forty days before Christmas we abstain from certain foods like meat, dairy, fish, wine and olive oil,” the pastor said.

When questioned as to what that leaves on a menu, he smiled.

“If I can abstain from steak and eggs, or a ham and cheese omelet, I can use that event to remind me to pray.”

Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt

It’s not just the Greek Orthodox observers who fast for a period of time before celebrating Christmas.

Adel Sadek a lay minister at St. Mary & St. Moses Coptic Orthodox church in North Tonawanda, said members of his congregation abstain from meat — fish is OK — and dairy products for the 43 days before Christmas.

“That’s typical of the Orthodox church ... before any major holiday we have a preparation,” he said. “We try to focus on the meaning of the season”

The Coptic church follows the Julian calendar, meaning Christmas is observed Jan. 7 instead of Dec. 25.

The entire month leading up to Christmas is known as kiahk, and “during that month there is a focus on the gospel readings and the events surrounding the birth of Christ,” Sadek said.

Each Saturday night during the month the congregation has kiahk praises and every Sunday they observe the advent. Christmas eve — Jan. 6 — features two masses or liturgies, one in the morning and one that lasts four hours from 8 p.m. until midnight.

The final liturgy of the day is followed by a feast for the entire congregation in the basement of the church that features traditional Egyptian foods. And yes, meat and dairy are back on the menu for this feast, Sadek said.

On Christmas day, congregants gather with family and friends, and often commit to charitable practices, like visiting nursing homes.

And though Christmas is celebrated on a different day than many other Christian denominations, it’s not far removed from the real meaning of the season.

“Some people say the word ‘Christmas’ has its origin in the Coptic language,” Sadek said. “ ‘Mass’ (in Coptic) means to be born ... birth of Christ.”


Julie Obermiller of Barker hails from Polish and German heritage, and the Polish side of her family always celebrated age-old Christmas traditions.

“Of all the traditions shared by my Polish grandparents, the Christmas Wigilia, or star vigil, remains the center of the season. Before the Christmas morning unwrapping of presents, or even the midnight mass that celebrates the coming of the Christ child on Christmas Eve, those of Polish descent will have celebrated Wigilia. It is a time when families gather to share long-held traditions and to wait for the coming of a star.

“Wherever we gathered the family for the meal, the table was set in a special way. Straw was lightly layered onto the table and covered with a special white cloth used only on this day. The straw symbolized the bed of the baby Jesus. I have always followed the tradition of setting an empty place at the table, in case a wandering guest should visit. A light or candle is kept in a window in welcome, following the Polish adage ‘a guest in the home is God in the home.’ ”

Obermiller said that her grandmother spent many days preparing and and cooking for Wigilia, and the table had to be ready before the first star was seen in the sky. Every part of the meal is placed on the table because it’s unlucky to leave the table from the start to the end of the meal; an old superstition.

At sunset, usually the youngest child waits by a window for the appearance of the first star in the eastern sky (Gwiazdka) to appear and announces it to everyone. That’s when the feast celebrating the birth of the Christ child begins.

“Whatever the final meal, which ends up being a blend of traditional and modern, the most important part for me is the breaking of the wafer. As the feast, or vigil, begins, family members break a traditional wafer called oplatek, a thin, unleavened wafer similar to the Roman Catholic communion host. They are usually white (tan) or pink and have images of the baby Jesus, Mary and the angels stamped into them.

“Guests break off pieces of each other’s wafer, sharing wishes of joy and abundance and forgiving past disagreements, starting with the eldest family member. Not a taste of food is eaten until the wafers have been shared. The pink wafer is generally shared with pets; in the old country it was the barnyard animals because they were the first to greet the baby Jesus at midnight,” Obermiller said.

Wigilia is traditionally a meatless meal, carried over from strict Catholic traditions of abstinence and fast in Europe. The tradition calls for 12 courses, and everyone must taste and share each dish.

The different dishes represent the four regions providing sustenance all year — mushrooms from the forest, grain from the fields, fruit from the orchards, and fish from the lakes and sea.

At Obermiller’s home, carol-singing always took place after the meal, before the family departed to attend Midnight Mass.


Irish traditions also place heavy significance upon lighting a candle in the window on Christmas Eve, said Margaret McGrath, an Irish language teacher at the University at Buffalo and Buffalo Irish Center.

McGrath, who grew up in Donegal, Ireland, and moved to the United States when she was 16, said seeing the candles lit in windows as her family walked home from midnight mass was always a magical moment for her.

The candle is meant to be an invention for any passersby who might need rest or refreshment.

“That to me has always been what Christmas was all about ... welcoming the Christ child and being focused on that,” McGrath said.

In traditional Irish homes, children didn’t expect toys and gifts on Christmas morning, but instead received fruits, nuts and hard candies, items that are often given as stocking stuffers in the United States.

Traditional Irish foods include plum pudding and a special cake filled with rich fruits.

“Some of these things (like the plum pudding) were lent to us by our friends the British when they were inhabiting our land,” she said.


While Irish homes didn’t traditionally feature a Christmas tree until recent years, the German tradition leaves the tree decorating up to Santa when he visits Christmas Eve.

Wilma Lass, of the Heritage Museum of the North German Historical Society in Wheatfield, said that as a child, she was surprised to find the Christmas tree all set up and decorated when she returned home from the school’s Christmas Eve program.

“You didn’t celebrate the birth of a baby until the baby came,” she said.

Instead of a typical sermon on Christmas Eve meal at church, schoolchildren sing hymns and recite verses, and are then given gifts of nuts and chocolates. The Christmas Eve is typically a light one due to the service, but a large meal — typically featuring goose — is shared Christmas day.

The advent is very important in the German tradition, and a candle is lit on each of the four Sundays before Christmas on an advent wreath.

Sunday Lifestyle editor Danielle Haynes, and features editors Anne Calos and Michele DeLuca contributed to this report. Contact them at