Our Winter Traditions

It’s just not the holidays without ___________?

Ask anyone to complete this sentence, and you likely will receive an array of answers. Often passed down from generation to generation, traditions bring people together, remind us of what’s important, and give us a chance to reflect on the past. While all people do things a little differently, their traditions focus on much the same — food, family, and fun.

For Evansville, the holiday season is a time of traditions. While some holiday activities have remained constant over time, others have changed or disappeared. Food, presents, and parties usually come to mind when we think about Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year, but this was not always the case. All three holidays were more closely connected to religion 150 years ago. In the 20th century, all three became commercialized.

Weather is an integral part in the winter season. December snowstorms like the blizzard of 1917, or the more recent one in 2004, have affected holiday activities. Although snow no longer brings out horse-drawn sleighs to city streets, other longtime winter pastimes still remain. In the middle 19th century, the Wabash and Erie Canal was the hangout for Evansville ice skaters. With the demise of the canal, skaters moved to Sweezer Pond at the mouth of Pigeon Creek and still later to Garvin Park. Back when it was called Coal Mine Hill, Reitz Hill was one of the premier places for sledding. Stringtown Hill and Oak Summit also drew sledders to their slopes.

Thanksgiving — the holiday long associated with the Pilgrim’s feast — was rooted in religion in 19th-century Evansville. Church services to give thanks for the harvest and family gatherings were the norm. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national day of thanks. One of the longest-running Thanksgiving traditions in Evansville goes largely unnoticed year after year. Since 1917, the Evansville Rescue Mission (ERM) has been serving Thanksgiving dinner to the less fortunate. The work of the ERM is a continuation of some of the earliest public celebrations of the holiday in the city. Beginning in 1862 in response to Governor Oliver P. Morton’s request for a state day of Thanksgiving, churches and individuals joined to serve holiday dinner to several hundred wounded soldiers in Evansville’s five military hospitals. This tradition evolved over the years to include soldiers’ families, orphanages, hospitals, and other institutions in the city.

The Hadi Shrine Circus is a second Evansville tradition associated with Thanksgiving. In 1934, the circus changed its spring performances to be held during the Thanksgiving season. Over the years, untold thousands have seen the circus at the Coliseum, Roberts Stadium, and now The Ford Center. In earlier days, the circus often was used to get men and children out of the house so women could prepare dinner.

One of the newer holiday traditions in Evansville serves to bridge the gap between all three holidays. In 1994, G.D. Ritzy’s Fantasy of Lights premiered with light displays in Garvin Park. The Fantasy of Lights, which runs the entire holiday season, is a family-friendly event that raises funds for
the Easterseals Rehabilitation Center.

Christmas is the holiday with evidence of both religious and increasingly secular traditions. Christmas Eve services, nativity scenes, choirs, and caroling still continue as in the past. Even more than Thanksgiving, Christmas is a time for giving and helping others. The Santa Clothes Club continues today as a tradition for helping others. In 1946, the Santa Clothes Club was begun by the YMCA and local radio station WEOA to clothe boys for winter. In 1955, television station WEHT became one of the organizers. In earlier days, the Courier Christmas Tree Fund and similar programs promoted by other newspapers and organizations pushed the idea of making Christmas a happy time for children.

Although skipped some years, Evansville has had official Christmas parades since 1932. First started during the Great Depression to bring people Downtown and into the stores, the Christmas parade for many years was the official start of the shopping season. Stores (almost all were Downtown) decorated their windows with holiday displays and all sold toys. For late-night holiday shopping, stores remained open until 8:30 p.m. but closed on Christmas Eve.

Another Christmas tradition connected with Evansville is a visit to Santa Claus, Indiana. Founded by Evansville’s Koch family in 1946, Santa Claus Land (now Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari) was the year-round Christmas place. Thousands of people from Evansville have pictures of family members taken with Santa Claus at Santa Claus Land, and countless others received letters from Santa Claus originating there. Even today, holiday mail from Evansville residents still makes the trip to Spencer County to receive the Santa Claus postmark.

In many ways, New Year is the holiday most affected by change. New Year’s Eve parties and a marathon of football bowl games have replaced what once was a more introspective holiday. In the past, New Year’s Eve was marked by watch night services at church and more subdued parties. It was a time to reflect on the past year and plan for the upcoming year. It was in this period the New Year’s resolution came into vogue. New Year’s Day was for open houses and visiting. In some circles, bachelors used the occasion to leave calling cards at the homes of single women.

Holiday traditions continue to this day in Evansville with Christmas trees, music, and food marking the season. The best traditions, or their modern incarnations, always will be with us.

Hot Potatoes

No matter the culture or religion, many traditions during the winter months have one common theme — food.

For Jeffrey Berger and his family, December is a time to celebrate Hanukkah, and there’s no better way than whipping up a batch of latkes.

“Latkes, latkes, latkes for Hanukkah,” he says. “Only in December and that is it."

Eating potato latkes during the annual holiday gained popularity with the Ashkenazi Jewish people of Eastern Europe in the mid-1800s. Latkes are not always made from potatoes; in some instances they are made with vegetables, cheeses, legumes, or starches depending on what ingredients are available. Latkes are fried in oil in recognition of the Hanukkah miracle where one-day’s worth of oil lasted for eight days.

For Berger and his family, latkes in December were and still are a special treat.

“Every year, my mom would make them for our family. We would eat until we could eat no more because we knew we had to wait another year for this yummy tradition to come around,” he says. “The house smelled for days after frying the golden-brown, delicious potato pancakes.

“She would always use shredded potatoes so every latke was crispy on the outside and oh so juicy on the inside. And, of course, we had plenty of applesauce and sour cream to put on top,” adds Berger. “She never made anything else when she made latkes because we did not eat anything but latkes.”

Today, he and his daughters continue to make latkes in the last month of the year, keeping alive the family tradition.

▲ With their children Lila, 3, and Paisley, 5, Kara and Scott Fisher of Poseyville, Indiana, walk through the rows of Christmas trees at Goebel Farms.

O,Christmas Tree

Even before they were married in 2010, Scott and Kara Fisher started a tradition that today kicks off the Christmas season for their family of four. When the couple was dating, Scott lived in a home in northern Vanderburgh County near Goebel Farms. As Christmas approached, he suggested he and Kara go there together to get a real tree for his home. As they would find out, they had very different expectations.

“Scott and I have different opinions in trees,” says Kara, who laughs as she explains she wants a short, fat tree while Scott likes tall, full trees. “He always wins. He makes fun of me that I want a Christmas bush instead of a Christmas tree. When I think about it, it would probably look ridiculous.”

Growing up, both Scott and Kara’s families had real trees, but they always were pre-cut. It was a learning — and comical — experience the first time Scott and Kara had to cut down a tree together.

“It was a little more outdoorsy than she was used to,” says Scott.

Although they skipped one year when they had an infant, the Fishers have cut down their Christmas tree since 2007. One year, Scott hacked down the tree alone because it was too cold to get the kids out of the car.

“Cutting it down by myself was a little challenging,” says Scott, adding the Goebels offered to haul the tree back to the car on a four-wheeler and trailer, but Scott wanted the full experience. “Part of the tradition is making it out with the tree.”

Now, the couple’s children — Paisley, 5, and Lila, 3 — always join in the fun. Armed with his plastic toy saw, Paisley “helps” Scott cut down the tree, usually the day after Thanksgiving.

“They probably have more fun hiding behind the trees while Scott and I pick one out,” says Kara.

Back at the family’s farm in Poseyville, Indiana, Scott trims the tree, puts it in water, and Kara gets to work. She hauls out all 15 tubs of ornaments, strings the tree with lights, and then lets the kids help her decorate the bottom with the less fragile ornaments. The fragile ones she puts at the top of the tree after the kids have gone to bed.

“Now we’re starting to get ornaments from school, little handprints, things they have made,” she says. “Of course those are my favorite.”

In addition to the real tree, the Fishers also display fake trees throughout the house — one in the kitchen, one in each of the kids’ rooms, and a small one on the island in the kitchen, which is decorated with the annual miniature Starbucks coffee mugs. To set the mood for decorating, Kara fills the air with music from Pandora’s Christmas station and keeps it playing through Christmas night.

For Kara, the presents are not the most important things under the tree. Instead, it is the nativity that belonged to her great-grandmother — the only item Kara wanted after her passing.

“It now sits under our tree and I let the kids play around it,” she says. “I don’t worry about them tearing it up; I want them to understand its meaning and have memories of their own of the nativity under the tree.”

Most of all, Kara says having children has refreshed her fervor for the holiday.

“I get to see everything from their eyes,” she says, “like it’s all brand new.”

Scott says he hopes the family’s tree-cutting tradition is something Paisley and Lila will remember forever.

“We’ll keep it going for sure,” he says. “We’ve done it this many years, and hopefully we’ll pass it down to them.”

One-Pot Wonder

Evansville is full of local holiday traditions, and with our city’s diverse group of people, we are lucky enough to experience traditions from all around the world.

Rupei Watkins moved to Evansville six years ago and originally is from Taiwan. She prepares a Chinese hot pot every winter for the Chinese New Year, which usually is in January or February. The dish is a common tradition for people from China and Taiwan.

“The hot pot is a soup dish where many ingredients are simmered in a stock. It is big enough to feed a whole family,” says Watkins.

Another tradition during the Chinese New Year, she says, is older people giving red envelopes with money to younger relatives as a gift, similar to the American gift exchange. However, the Chinese hot pot is the only tradition from Taiwan she regularly celebrates.

“I miss getting to see my family, and this dish reminds me of home. The Chinese New Year has the same atmosphere as Christmas or Thanksgiving, just with different foods and activities,” says Watkins.

Watkins says her favorite holiday in the United States is Thanksgiving and she celebrates with a traditional turkey dinner. Make your own Chinese hot pot, and just maybe, spark the start of a new tradition for your holiday season.

Christmas Vacation

Dan and Julie Devillez of St. Philip, Indiana, have hosted their family’s Christmas gathering at their home for more than 30 years. But one year in the early 1990s, while they lived in a farmhouse in Evansville, something happened that would change the way they celebrate.

“Dan always had the farmhouse decorated to the hilt with lights on the outside. When we had people over this one Christmas Eve, somebody turned the microwave on and all of a sudden all the lights went out. He had so many lights on the outside that it blew a circuit,” says Julie. “Someone said, ‘Well we’ve got the Clark Griswold house here.’”

The Griswolds are the main characters in the Christmas classic movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” released in 1989. The Griswolds host the Christmas gathering where extended family comes to visit and plans goes awry.

“It just kind of escalated from one thing to the other as far as Clark’s character is concerned,” says Julie of Dan dressing up as Clark. “We had to start playing it up. If we’re going to be the Griswolds, what do we have to do?”

The next Christmas, Dan and Julie printed out certificates for the jelly of the month club and presented each adult couple with a small jar of jelly. The following year, Dan dressed up as Cousin Eddie with a white shirt and dickey underneath, reminiscent of the scene from the movie in which Clark and Eddie talk while drinking eggnog and admiring the tree. They also had a candle carousel and punchbowl full of eggnog.

The pinnacle of the “Christmas Vacation” re-enactment was the third year. Dan was set on dressing up as Clark from the scene where he tries to capture a squirrel on the loose in the family’s home. Dan already had a cardigan sweater and gray suit pants like Clark wore, but he was missing a squirrel to put on his back.

“I was coming home from work one day and I saw this dead squirrel on the side of the road,” he says with a laugh. “I got it. I called a friend of mine who was a taxidermist and said, ‘How can I preserve this squirrel well enough to use it?’”

With his friend’s guidance, Dan prepared the squirrel, stuffed it with newspaper, and pinned it to the back of the cardigan. At Christmas and in character as a panicked Clark with the squirrel on his back, Dan shocked his family when he entered the room where his family had gathered.

“That was classic right there,” he says. “That was probably one of the funniest moments.”

Since then, other family members have joined in on the fun. While not all dress up, someone from each family gets in character, with Cousin Eddie in the bathrobe, Aunt Bethany, little Rusty, Mother-in-law Nora, and crazy Uncle Lewis appearing.

The family also hosts a Goodwill Claus gift exchange of random, odd items. The exchange is inspired from the “Christmas Vacation” scene when Clark offers to buy Cousin Eddie’s family gifts because Eddie doesn’t have money. After handing Clark a list of things to get the family, Eddie says, “If it wouldn’t be too much, I’d like to get something for you, Clark. Something real nice.” Through the years, gifts included a Dixie cup dispenser, pinecone people, old purses, and unopened packages of undergarments.

The family certainly has a sense of humor, which keeps them looking for ways to outdo previous years’ antics. This Christmas, Dan plans to dress up as Clark in the attic scene, complete with a pink bathrobe and turban while watching old family movies on a projector. He also has one other costume idea up his sleeve, but wants to keep an element of surprise.

The DeVillezes watch “Christmas Vacation” all year long, but even more frequently during the holiday season.

“We could watch it 100 times and not get tired of it,” says Julie, adding they own it on VHS, Blu-ray, and DVD.

Dan says he sometimes comes home after a day at work to watch it and relax.

“It’s something that cheers you up and makes you laugh,” he says. “You can’t beat the Griswolds.”

Why Traditions Matter

A tradition is a belief, behavior, or ritual passed down from generation to generation. But why do we place such great significance on them?

Based on the study of sociology, passing on and carrying out traditions is based on four elements — continuity, sense of belonging, a place to model values, and a way to demonstrate grounding — that provide individuals, families, and communities security. Vaugh DeCoster, a professor of social work and chairperson of the sociology department at the University of Southern Indiana, says traditions and rituals are important to our well-being, both individually and as a society.

“It ensures us that we’re part of this ongoing human existence,” he says. “They really help ground us, so we’re not just a free-floating entity.”

While we live in an age where most people connect and communicate through technology, nothing replaces physical connection. In fact, DeCoster says studies show interpersonal relationships are vital for humans’ well-being.

While busy most of the year with work, sports, and other activities, American families rarely sit together at the dinner table for a meal. Because we often express our love through food, gathering together to cook and eat turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie with those you love is a way to reconnect and reinforce what is important.

“You want to make sure there is plenty to eat, and it’s a way to express gratitude,” says DeCoster. “Traditions and rituals speak to what we value.”

DeCoster also says humans are hardwired to have a connection to and penchant for traditions because of the biological, physical response they evoke. Memories often flood our thoughts when we experience a familiar sight, sound, smell, or taste. When that happens, our bodies release serotonin, the happiness hormone.

Since many holiday gatherings involve the same foods, decorations, and people, it is no surprise they bring a sense of excitement, familiarity, and belonging to something bigger than we are.

Pasta Perfection

Most people think of Thanksgiving and get excited for the lunch, dinner, dessert, second dinner, and leftovers. The true reason to feast during Thanksgiving, however, is to celebrate family and togetherness.

Annette McDonald of Evansville celebrates Thanksgiving by making homemade noodles every year, but this tradition is more than just a meal. McDonald says these noodles relate to her grandmother Dorothy Mounts, who was a Laundromat owner, mother of seven, and an excellent cook.

“My grandmother babysat me when I was little and taught me most of my cooking skills and we made homemade noodles together,” says McDonald. “Out of all the kids and grandkids I was the only one who she taught to make the noodles.”

McDonald adds that making the noodles is a long process. After she mixes the noodles, she rolls them out, dries, cuts, unrolls, dusts with flour, and dries them again overnight. She also makes her own broth for the noodles and adds carrots, celery, and spices.

“It is a very basic recipe but I don’t know anyone who makes homemade noodles anymore. Before Thanksgiving my sons will roll out the noodles, but my daughter and I are the only two who know how to make them,” says McDonald. “My two sons probably could whip them up because they have watched me make them and helped with them. I just taught my daughter because no one else ever asked.”

McDonald says Thanksgiving is her favorite holiday because it is a time where everyone in her family gets together, which doesn’t happen often. She usually has about 20 to 25 guests for Thanksgiving but always makes enough noodles for 30 people.

“At Thanksgiving my oldest son Casey, his wife Veronica, my son Jared, my daughter Tara, mom, step-mom, aunt, two brothers and their families, and occasional guests come over to our house,” says McDonald. “We get together with family at different times of the year for the typical holidays but not always everyone at the same time. I do feel lucky that my blended family can have holidays together.”

▲ Each Christmas, Lindsay and Tom Compitello and their five children enjoy eating figgy pudding on plates once used for formal dinners at the Smithsonian Museum.

Tea Time

Christmas tea by candlelight and passing around desserts may conjure up pictures of far-away places such as London or Paris. But for Newburgh residents Tom and Lindsay Compitello, this tradition creates lasting memories with their family and helps teach their children the importance of celebrating the holidays together.

An Evansville native, Lindsay says she started the Christmas tea as a way to connect with her father’s mother, who is a native of Belgium.

“As a new bride, coming from Southern Indiana, I wanted to be more worldly,” she says. “So I started looking up other traditions, other cultures.”

Christmas tea at the Compitellos calls for large trays filled to the brim with cheeses, cured meats, and small sandwiches. Lindsay makes espressos and varieties of teas for her children and family. The group gathers around the table Tom and Lindsay built with 2-foot by 4-foot planks of wood and plumbing pipe.

Together they eat off china retired from the Smithsonian Museum as they discuss the events of their year. The china once was used for formal dinners held by the museum. Once cafes began to take the place of the dinners, the dishes were sold; Lindsay’s mother-in-law’s mother purchased a service for 18 people during the sale.

The couple has five children — three adopted and two biological — and the tradition is a way to help them teach the kids not only about the importance of family, but about understanding other cultures as well.

“It’s a way for all of us to sit around, take that deep breath, and share in the moment,” says Lindsay. “That’s quintessentially what a holiday should be — family time.”

A large part of the Christmas tea is Lindsay’s figgy pudding, a British spice cake she makes for Christmas each year. She likes to add a bit of toffee, a popular flavor in England. Lindsay has her recipe written on note cards, which have the marks of years of experimenting and notes of what works and what doesn’t. In the end, it is a dish her family and guests always look forward to.

“The kids think it’s so neat,” she says. “It’s their special little memory they carry with them.”

Start Your Own

Stumped on how to get your family in the holiday spirit? Looking for a new tradition to give back to the community? Browse through our list of new, old, or favorite traditions — we’re sure there’s an activity to bring joy to you and your family this holiday season.

Volunteer to help with Evansville Rescue Mission’s Gobbler Gathering on Nov. 22. The Mission provides boxes of food to needy families. Each box serves a family of four for three days, just in time for Thanksgiving.

After dinner, break the turkey’s “wishbone” with a loved one; whoever has the longest piece gets to make a wish.

Make a “thankful tree.” Buy decorative leaves and have each family member write down what they are thankful for and place leaves where all can view. Keep each year’s leaves, bring them back out each subsequent Thanksgiving, and have fun recalling what family members were thankful for years prior.

Watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on television.

Adopt a child from an “angel tree” to ensure he or she has gifts to open on Christmas. Many local nonprofit organizations organize their own programs.

Host a cookie exchange with friends, family, and neighbors.

Do a secret Santa gift exchange with co-workers.

Walk a dog at the Vanderburgh Humane Society or other shelter; even better, provide a lifelong home and adopt a pet.

Donate to the Santa Clothes Club. The telethon is set for Dec. 6 to raise funds that help clothe children all year long.

Go caroling at a nursing home.

Instead of going overboard on gifts, buy each person on your list something they want, something they need, something to wear, and something to read.

Volunteer to be a bell ringer for the Salvation Army of Evansville. Visit registertoring.com to sign up.

Visit area marts such as the Dickens Christmas on Franklin Street & Winter Bazaar, Evansville Museum Holiday Mart, or Historic Newburgh Celebrates Christmas. See The Guide starting on page 136 for dates.

Watch the ball drop in Times Square on television; if you’re really adventurous, travel to New York and experience it in person.

Spring clean your home, just like those who celebrate the Chinese New Year — it signifies removing the old and welcoming the new.

Prepare and enjoy the dish Hoppin’ John. Made with black-eyed peas, rice, and pork, this filling dish is a regular on New Year’s Day in the southern U.S.

Buy plain New Year’s hats and let the kids decorate them with marker, stickers, glitter, and whatever else you might have on hand.

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