The togetherness, thankfulness, and
tradition of fall and winter celebrations
grow with each generation.


As autumn and winter descend on the Great Lakes Bay Region, we begin to look forward to holidays—much like our early ancestors once did during their rare leisure time between fall harvesting and spring sowing. Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa especially give us reason to gather with our families, friends, and communities—and pay tribute to our history.

Polish Harvest Festival

Deacon Stanley Kuczynski of Our Lady of Czestochowa Catholic Parish in Bay City shares that each October, Polish-Americans celebrate with a traditional Harvest Festival (dozynki). The celebration begins with the Heritage Mass of Thanksgiving, featuring Polish hymns and prayers for prosperity of the United States and Poland. In church, a harvest wreath, sheaves of wheat, baskets of fruit, and loaves of bread are carried in a procession and placed at the foot of the altar. After mass, the celebration continues at the parish hall with a presentation of the wreath, dinner, singing, and dancing.

Polish Meatballs

5 eggs, beaten
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 sleeve of soda crackers, finely crushed
1 tablespoon sweet marjoram
Salt and pepper to taste
5 pounds of veal and pork (combined), ground

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Combine beaten eggs, finely diced onion, crushed soda crackers, and seasonings. Add ground veal and pork, and mix well. Shape into small balls. Brown lightly in oil.

Place in layers in a covered roaster. Bake for about one hour.

(Recipe from the collection of Margie Grzegorczyk, Kawkawlin, Bay County.)

Thanksgiving Day

Days of thanksgiving trace back to ancestral harvest celebrations held abroad. In the United States, Thanksgiving Day was nationalized by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, following the Battle of Gettysburg.

Today's Thanksgiving Day include parades, football, and signals the start of the holiday shopping season. Family gatherings, giving thanks, and bountiful dinners are at the core of the celebration, as is remembering others less fortunate. American traditional food dishes of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, cranberries, squash, and pumpkin pie remain staples for most Thanksgiving meals in our region.

Alice Buchalter, Freeland, shares that she and her Jewish family also include traditional challah for bread. They give a traditional prayer over the bread, then "say a prayer thanking God for preserving us and granting us the right to live and celebrate this special day," Buchalter explains.

Grandma Zehnder's Sage Dressing

3 quarts dry white bread, broken into small pieces
1 ½ cups yellow onion, diced
1 ½ cups celery, diced
8 ounces butter or margarine
¾ tablespoon Zehnders® chicken seasoning
3 teaspoons ground black pepper
½ tablespoon rubbed sage
2 teaspoons dry marjoram
2 teaspoons garlic salt
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups finely diced chicken
1 to 1 ½ quarts chicken broth

Preheat oven to 350°F.

At least three days prior to preparing dinner, set bread out on baking sheet to dry.

In a pan, sauté onions and celery in butter until tender. Add spices and seasoning, sautéing an additional two minutes.

Place dry bread pieces in a large mixing bowl. Stir in sautéed vegetable mixture. Fold in beaten eggs and meat.

Pour one quart of chicken broth over dry bread. Gently fold until liquid is absorbed. Add more broth as needed. Bread should be sloppy wet and puddle in the corners when ready.

Place dressing in a 3-inch or deeper baking dish.

Bake for one hour. Crust will form and dressing will rise when done.

(Recipe adapted from Zehnders® of Frankenmth: A Collection of Zehnder's Most Iconic Recipes, 2014.)


The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days in late November or late December of the secular calendar. Hanukkah commemorates the cleansing and rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Jewish revolt and victory over Syria-Greece in 164 BCE. After reclaiming the damaged Temple, the Jewish people had to create a new Temple lamp to restore the perpetual light, but they could find only enough holy oil to burn for one day. The lamp, however, miraculously burned for eight days—enough time to obtain more special oil.

Celebrations of Hanukkah generally take place within homes. The major ritual involves the lighting of the eight-candled menorah. Other customs include giving children small gifts each night of the holiday, singing the traditional song, "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah," and playing children's games of dreidel (spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side) for small prizes such as candy, nuts, and pennies.

During Hanukkah it is customary to eat foods fried in oil, especially latkes (potato pancakes), or sufganiyot (Israeli jelly-filled donuts), to pay tribute to the miracle of the holy oil. Other popular Hanukkah foods include beef brisket, short ribs, and noodle kugel.


5 medium potatoes, peeled and placed in cold water
1 medium onion
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon salt
Dash of pepper
2 tablespoons flour or matzo meal
Vegetable oil, for frying

Grate potatoes and onion by hand on the coarse side of a grater.

Place potato and onion mixture in a towel. Twist the towel to remove as much liquid as possible. (This helps ensure that latkes are crisp.) Put in a medium mixing bowl.

Add beaten egg, salt and pepper, and flour or matzo meal to potato and onion mixture. Mix together well.

Add oil to a pan, and heat to medium. Drop latke batter by tablespoons into hot oil. Brown on one side, and then turn and brown on other side. Drain on paper towels.

Serve with applesauce and/or sour cream.

(Recipe adapted from collections of Sanford Buchalter, Saginaw, and Alice Buchalter, Freeland, Saginaw County.)

Christmas Eve

Christmas celebrations in America developed slowly since early Puritans did not approve of frivolity. This changed when Germans and Irish arrived in the 19th century. Now, Christmas Eve and Christmas celebrations are both religious and secular.

In the religious sense, Christmas is the most popular occasion of the Christian church year. Christmas Eve services, with some held near midnight to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, often include jubilant worship, special decorations, nativity scenes, and religious Christmas carols or music. Our Lady of Czestochowa, Bay City, holds an annual Polish Christmas Eve dinner (Wigilia) where guests participate in the ancient, beloved Polish tradition of sharing the Christmas wafer (oplatek) and many best wishes.

Mexican-American traditional foods derive from Spanish versus European culture. Delia Montoya of Bay City shares that Mexican-American families often gather to make large amounts of traditional tamales to enjoy on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day.


3 cups masa harina tortilla flour
2 cups water
1 cup lard or shortening
1 teaspoon salt

Soak cornhusks for 30 minutes in hot water. Remove husks from water.

Mix together tortilla flour and water. Cover and let stand 20 minutes.

In a large mixing bowl, beat together lard and salt until fluffy. Beat in flour mixture until well combined.

Measure 2 tablespoons dough onto each cornhusk. Spread to a 5-inch-by-3-inch rectangle. Spread with meat or sweet filling if desired.

Roll up cornhusk. Tie ends.

Place tamales standing up on rack in steamer or electric skillet. Add water to just below rack level. Bring to boiling. Cover and steam for 40-45 minutes or until tamale pulls away from wrapper. Add water as needed.

(Recipe adapted from Better Homes and Gardens Mexican Cook Book, Meredith Corporation, 1977.)

Christmas Day

As a national holiday, Christmas is enjoyed for its many social, festive, and economic aspects. Today's many Melting Pot-type customs include greeting cards and Advent count-down-to-Christmas calendars (German origin), massive sales/shopping in festively decorated stores, widely broadcast Christmas songs, extensive acts of charity, holiday-themed entertainment, beautiful poinsettia flowers (Mexico origin), decorated Christmas trees (German origin), Santa Claus, gift exchanges, and meals that feature cultural foods.

In some homes and at special church services, foreign-language Christmas songs or hymns are sung, such as German "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night"), Polish "Dzisiaj w Betlejem" ("Today in Bethlehem"), and Spanish "Alegría para el mundo" ("Joy to the World"). Traditional foods are often part of the festivities.

Many ethnic foods resurface during holidays, especially Christmas. Some traditional German foods include fruit-filled stollen bread, deep-fried eisenkuechles (rosettes), chewy gingerbread-like lebkuchen, embossed anise-flavored springerle; small spicy pfefferneuse, and zuckerstickerly (iced sugar cookies).


1 cup corn syrup
1 cup dark molasses
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
4 ½ teaspoons baking soda in ½ cup warm water
4 ½ tablespoons vinegar
½ teaspoon anise oil
Flour to stiffen (about 5 to 6 cups)
1 teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon cloves
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ pound candied citron
½ pound whole almonds (for topping)

In a large mixing bowl, blend together corn syrup and dark molasses. Stir in sugar, eggs, baking soda in water, vinegar, and anise oil.

In another mixing bowl (at least 2 quarts), combine 5 cups of flour with the ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and salt. Gradually add flour mixture to the molasses mixture. Add additional flour to stiffen. Stir in the candied citron. Cover dough and chill overnight.

In the morning, preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease cookie sheets.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out dough to about ½ inch and cut into 1 ½-inch-by- 2 ½-inch rectangles. (A pizza cutter or fluted pastry wheel works well.) Place cookies 1 inch apart on prepared cookie sheets. Gently press 1 almond on top of each cookie.

Bake for about 13-14 minutes, or until no imprint remains when touched lightly.

(Recipe adapted from Maria Gehringer Schmidt Halter (1869-1942) collection, Frankenlust Township and Bay City, Bay County.)


Kwanzaa, primarily practiced in regional homes, is a non-religious seven-day African-American and Pan-African annual celebration that was created in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga.

In Kwanzaa: A Celebration of Family, Community and Culture (1998), Karenga writes that the holiday's Swahili name Kwanzaa (first fruits) is based on age-old agricultural celebrations in Africa. "Kwanzaa is a time for ingathering of African-Americans for celebration of their heritage and their achievements, reverence for the Creator and creation, commemoration of the past, recommitment to cultural ideals, and celebration of the good," he writes.

Kwanzaa promotes the Nguzo Saba (Seven Principles) of the African culture, with each day of celebration dedicated to practicing one principle: Umoja (unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity), Imani (faith), and Karama (feast).

Seven symbols accompany the seven days: Mazao (The Crops), Mkeka (The Mat), Kinara (The Candle Holder), Muhindi (The Corn), Mishumaa Saba (The Seven Candles), the Kikombe cha Umoja (The Unity Cup), and Zawadi (The Gifts). Normally, handmade or educational gifts are given to children who earn them for performing year-round responsibilities and for living up to the Seven Principles.

In Saginaw, on the final evening of Kwanzaa, Karamas are held in homes to gather together families and friends, who bring traditional dishes to pass and give thanks to the Creator.

Rhonda Butler of Saginaw and others share that African-American traditional foods enjoyed during holidays include greens, turkey, ham hocks, ham, black-eyed peas, chitterlings, yams, corn bread, sweet potato pie, pound cake, molasses cake, peach cobbler, and egg custard pie.

Sweet Potato Pie

1 unbaked 9-inch pie crust
3 large sweet potatoes
½ cup unsalted butter, melted
½ cup dark corn syrup
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
2 eggs
½ cup buttermilk
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt

Wash sweet potatoes and cook with the peelings on in cold water until just tender. Cool.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Peel potatoes. Add to a large mixing bowl and mash. Add melted butter, corn syrup, and sugar, and then beat with a mixer until smooth, removing any stringy parts.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add buttermilk, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, vanilla extract, and salt. Beat until smooth, and then pour filling into prepared crust.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool completely on a wire rack.

(Recipe adapted from Saginaw-raised Patty Pinner's Sweets: A collection of soul food desserts and memories, Ten Speed Press, 2003.)

African-American Watch Night Services

Rhonda Butler explains that on New Year's Eve many Saginaw area African-Americans participate in Watch Night Services, which are church services of thankfulness and remembrance that take place around 7-10 p.m. to midnight. This tradition traces back to December 31, 1862 (Freedom's Eve), when Black slaves and free Blacks gathered in churches and homes to await the news that the Emancipation Proclamation was actually law. At exactly midnight on January 1, 1863, all slaves in the Confederate States were declared legally free.

Butler notes, however, that due to slow communication difficulties "Juneteenth" (June 19, 1865) is considered the date when the last slaves in America were freed.

Marsha Stewart of Detroit adds that Watch Night Services also continue at the Wheatland Church of Christ (est. 1869), just west of Isabella County, and are attended by descendants of the "Old Settlers," the earliest African-American settlers in Isabella, Mecosta, and Montcalm counties.

Molasses Gingerbread

¾ cup shortening
¾ cup sugar
1 egg
2 ½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon cloves
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup dark molasses
1 cup hot water

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch square pan and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, cream together shortening and sugar. Add egg and beat well.

In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, spices, and salt.

Combine molasses and hot water. Add alternately with the flour mixture to the shortening mixture. Pour batter into greased pan.

Bake for 50-60 minutes. Cool, and then frost if desired.

(Recipe adapted from Caroline Norman Cook, descendant of the Norman Todd families, in the Old Settlers Cookbook, 1991.)

New Year's Eve and New Year's Day

The American Book of Days by (Stephen G. Christianson, 2000) explains that, "One Old World custom carried to America was to toll the passing of the year just before midnight."

This annual custom continues at New York City's Times Square, where festive crowds participate in the broadly televised countdown to midnight that features the descent of a massive Waterford crystal ball. Here in the Great Lakes Bay Region, Midnight on Main in Midland features a countdown to a ball drop, too.

"Auld Lang Syne" is usually sung at midnight. New Year's Eve general festivities also include parties, near-midnight gatherings, and fireworks. Making New Year's resolutions, watching college football bowl games and parades, and eating cultural foods are also part of typical celebrations.

Delia Montoya shares that on New Year's Eve, Mexican-Americans traditionally enjoy homemade buñuelos (elephant ears) pastries and Mexican hot chocolate.

Our Jewish neighbors celebrate New Year (Rosh Hashanah) in September or October, according to the Jewish lunisolar calendar.

Buñuelos (Fried Sugar Tortillas)

3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
¾ cup milk
¼ cup butter or margarine
2 eggs, beaten
Vegetable oil for deep frying

Mix flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. Heat milk and butter in a saucepan to boiling. Cool. Stir in beaten eggs.

Add egg mixture to flour mixture. Stir with a fork until dough holds together. Knead dough on a floured surface for about 2-3 minutes until smooth. Shape into 20 balls. Roll each ball into a 4-inch circle.

Deep fry tortillas until lightly browned on each side. Drain on paper towels, and sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar while still hot.

(Recipe adapted from Better Homes and Gardens Mexican Cook Book, Meredith Corporation, 1977.)

Note: Contributor Delia Montoya shares that easy-to-make Nestlé® Chocolate Abuelita® (Grandmother's), Mexican hot chocolate, is available in Mexican food sections at area grocery stores.

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