‘Tis the Season(ing)

Contributors share their traditions in food, friends and family

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Smelling grandma’s pumpkin pie. Spotting the elf on a shelf. Serving dinner at the soup kitchen. Playing board games. The thought of any one tradition can careen us into our childhood on a wave of nostalgia in an instant. These traditions and many more are what make us love holidays so much — not necessarily the gifts, but the actions; the traditions.

Food plays a vital part in our traditions. From burgers and hot dogs on the Fourth of July to pizza and wings on game days, we associate certain feelings, moods and traditions with what we fill our bellies with.

But why is food such a staple?

Food, at its core, is human necessity. To give food is to give sustenance and life. The act of sharing food itself is considered one of the most natural forms of showing love and respect. The act of sharing a table with someone is humbling, to let your guard down and enjoy a meal is one of solidarity.

Pair that fact with the cultural significance of passing down recipes, techniques and customs, and the importance of what’s sitting on the table doesn’t seem so random.

Here at SET, we’re a family. Maybe the slightly dysfunctional, National Lampoon-type of family, but a family nonetheless. We’ve gathered together at the table now to talk about our traditions — what sets us apart, what makes us the same. And for those of us who have yet to make our traditions, we’re sure to steal some great ideas.

An Italian Christmas

“‘Twas the morning of Christmas Eve and in grandmother’s house, the kitchen was bustling with every female in the house.

Pots and pans were clanging, Christmas carols were playing and the aroma of homemade meatballs nearly the size of baseballs gave off steam that billowed from the oven.

You see, growing up in a family with a rich Italian heritage, Christmas was far from non-traditional around our house. Spaghetti has always been a staple item on the Christmas Eve dinner menu of my mom’s side since long before I came along. And it’s not just any spaghetti dinner.  I’m talking homemade sauce, meatballs and bread, all served on fancy china that’s normally only used for this time of year.

While the spaghetti was always a favorite in my younger years, I’ve grown to become a fan of the antipasto platter — grandmother’s pre-meal — as I’ve grown older. Basically, the platter is an appetizer tray full of olives, peppers, various Italian cheeses such as provolone, and meats like pepperoni and salami. Now, mom, do you see why it’s always so hard to stay awake at midnight mass?

Perhaps my most favorite is the plate that comes from the dessert table. Authentic pizzelles, chocolate biscotti, shortbread cookies, and divinity.

With that, I think I’ve officially just gone into a food coma.

— Ashley Graves


Non-traditional traditions

We never cook the traditional foods like turkey and ham for our holiday meals. It sounds completely ordinary, but I love it because it keeps the holidays interesting.


My dad is the one to cook in my family, so whatever he chooses to make for the holidays we eat. One of my dad’s most popular dishes is his Italian sausage and peppers. This is a meal that I have eaten my entire life and love so very much.


My dad usually will start with any sausage he prefers and then injects them with a mixture of red wine and balsamic vinegar. He will let the sausages sit, allowing the juices to seep into the sausage. He then pours the rest of the sauce in the pan with some olive oil, followed by the sausages with onions, garlic, different-colored peppers, oregano, bay leaves, basil, salt and pepper. He lets the sausages bake for one hour uncovered, then rotates and bakes them until they are brown on all sides.


A dish like this is bound to make your taste buds water, and I am happy that this dish along with many others is sacred to my family.


— Emma Hall


Lele McCary’s favorite tradition is celebrating Kwanzaa, an African-American heritage holiday taking place December 26-January 1. [LELE MCCARY/SET MAGAZINE]

Joyous Kwanzaa

Humans have many traditions and several different ways to express who they are.

Every year, while some people enjoy their traditions of putting up decorations around the house, going trick-or-treating, waking up early for Black Friday, putting the Christmas tree up or fasting, I am preparing for my tradition, Kwanzaa.

This year, Kwanzaa takes place December 26 through January 1. In the days leading up to the holiday, I wash the unity cup and make sure I have candles that will light up and stand on the Kinara (the candle holder).

I either get grape juice or sparkling grape juice for the unity cup. I also go to the library or use books that I already have that I admire, and I put them on the table with the other symbols of cultural heritage.

No Kwanzaa would be complete without the last step: I always invite my family to join me in the celebration of Kwanzaa.

— Lele McCary


Black Friday in the Mountains

One tradition in my family is going to visit the Smoky Mountains the weekend after Thanksgiving.


Early on the morning of Black Friday, while most people are scavenging stores for the best deals, my family piles up in our Suburban and heads east. We meet up with my grandparents, aunt and cousins and stay in a mountain-side cabin.


This is a time of fellowship, laughter, games, football and lots of food as we enjoy being together in such a picturesque setting. We also go to a dinner theater show, ride go-carts and play putt-putt.


This tradition started 15 years ago when my great-grandmother passed away, and we wanted a way to remember her while being together. I hope this tradition continues for many years to come, as it has become one of my favorites.


— Allie Sockwell


Chains and turkey legs

It’s always around the same time every year, either the first or second weekend in December. My family and I would wake up early, sometimes before the sun was even out, to travel all the way to Franklin, Tennessee, for the “Dickens of a Christmas” festival.

Every year, downtown Franklin is cut off from the rest of the city. Shops and vendors would be decorated up and down the streets selling homemade soaps and art, with horse drawn carriages traveling back and forth. Even actors, dressed and performing as characters from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” would roam the streets.

I remember as a kid hiding from Jacob Marley as he slung around his chains and moaned haunting phrases. Tiny Tim was cool, though, and the Ghost of Christmas Present, too (he always had a large turkey leg in hand).

Hot chocolate and kettle corn were sold on the corners, and even roasted chestnuts, too, but I wasn’t a big fan. You could even see a movie for a dollar at the Franklin Theatre, but it usually featured only the classics, such as “Miracle on 34th Street” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.” One time, they showed “Elf,” which was and still is my favorite.


We still go every year, and nowadays we have my sister’s kids who are now growing up in the tradition. I wonder if Jacob Marley’s chains freaks them out, too?

— Spencer Brooks

Part of editor Kali Daniel’s favorite Thanksgiving tradition involves watching ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ for her mom’s cowardly lion impression if nothing else.


Film for the holidays

I was one of those kids who could watch the same movie over and over and over again, never tiring of the same images — looking back, that ability probably relies on my family’s traditions with movies.

Thanksgiving meant my mom expected “The Wizard of Oz.” Christmas Eve at my grandparents’ house meant “A Christmas Story.” Christmas with my dad meant either “Elf” or “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” but usually both. And Christmas Eve with my mom meant we watched my favorite, “The Year Without a Santa Claus” followed by her favorite, “The Polar Express.”

During these movies, the snacks were just as critical. On Thanksgiving we graze on leftovers from the turkey and ham. My mom heats up rolls and drizzles honey over them, then we make sweet sandwiches paired with whatever fruits and veggies we can find.

Thanksgiving is always the standard spread: green beans, mashed potatoes, turkey and ham, rolls. The star of the show, though, are my grandmother’s sweet potatoes. Topped with candied pecans and a thick layer of buttery brown sugar, the side was more of a dessert. It became such a staple in my childhood that when I learned the more common topping was marshmallows, I genuinely had a difficult time processing the combination.

Christmas is where my family’s traditions come alive, particularly as the child of a divided home — yeah, I was one of those kids with four Christmases. But there were always the same traditions. From sharing the love with an Angel Tree pick, to my mother’s “Bubble Blitz,” — cream cheese, cinnamon and pecan-stuffed biscuits — to exclaiming “it’s a box!” any time someone unwrapped a box-shaped gift on Christmas day, the memories I made through traditions in my family are doubtless ones I’ll keep going for decades.

— Kali Daniel