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Wimbiscus: Passing on Christmas traditions


Christmas, like any respectable major holiday, is a celebration ultimately built around food.

And not just any kind of food.

High-calorie food, loaded with carbs, fat and gastrointestinal consequences.

Comfort food.

Ah, yes. Comfort food. 

Can’t have a holiday without it.

Thanksgiving has its turkey, Easter has its ham and the Fourth of July has its cookouts.

But Christmas is different.

Because, aside from the candy canes and cookies, there is no universal Christmas repast. Some people have goose. Some people have roast. Some people have lasagna. There is no common theme.

That’s because what you ingest for Christmas more often than not is tied to your ethnic background, your family’s place of national origin, or maybe just a family tradition.

Our family is a mongrelization of Eastern European cultures – Slovenian, Croatian, Lithuanian and Polish – with a sprinkling of Irish, English, Swedish and German thrown in for good measure. 

We have two traditional comfort foods at Christmas: potica, the sacred nut bread of the Slovenians, which I’ve written about ad nauseam, and pierogi.

Potica is an all-day affair, involving hours of rising dough, chopping nuts and rolling up the whole mess on floured tablecloths. Pierogi are nowhere near as complicated, though their construction is still somewhat mysterious, and every bit as messy. 

Sara’s pierogi combine unrisen potica dough, cottage cheese and eggs into massive dumplings that are first boiled and then pan-fried in butter until they’re browned and crisped, and then served piping hot and somewhat explosive with a healthy dose of salt – a great recipe for high blood pressure, diabetic coma and heart attack, all in one gloriously simple yet decadent dish.

I don’t know how to make ’em, so I don’t even try, but my mother-in-law did, and she passed that recipe on to Sara, who’s passed it on to one of our daughters – the one who doesn’t normally cook and doesn’t plan on having children, so I’m not sure how it’ll get passed on from here.

For years, pierogi was our go-to meal on Christmas Eve, followed by potica for Christmas breakfast, right after the kids opened their presents, and right before we dragged them to church.

Later the relatives would come over, indulge the kids with more gifts, and then we’d indulge in some kind of huge Christmas dinner. Afterwards we’d all collapse and wonder why we were all so tired.

In all honesty, the holiday was pretty stressful, filled with last-minute toy assembly, house cleaning and baking, all leading to a momentary orgy of unwrapping chaos and unbridled joy. In between there was a fair bit of fighting and a fair bit of anger and a fair bit of disappointment, but the funny thing is you never seemed to remember the bad parts of Christmases past by the time the next Christmas rolled around.

I think that’s where comfort foods come in. They lull away the stress, numb the pain and help strengthen the nostalgic link to the past by coating holiday memories in a soft, sentimental glow.

Maybe it has something to do with preserving family traditions. 

Maybe it has something to do with embracing the holiday ideal. 

Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s just the tryptophan.

So Merry Christmas, and may all your holiday memories be served pan-fried, well salted and dripping in hot butter.

• Bill Wimbiscus, former reporter and editor for The Herald-News, has lived in Joliet for 25 years. He can be reached at

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