Among our Junior League members in New Orleans, family, friends and food are at the core of who we are and how we celebrate regardless of the season. Along with our shared festive culture, each home has traditions that are heartwarmingly unique. These similarities and differences are never more evident than during the holidays when we open our doors, our hearts and our homes to share traditions, cultures and customs with family members and friends.

In 1984, JLNO Sustainer Beverly Lamb received a gingerbread house recipe from a fellow JLNO member and brought their tradition into her own home. “Susan McIntyre started gingerbread house parties years ago,” said Allison Steinfeld, Beverly’s daughter. “She shared the recipe with my mom, but she continued for years to have a weekend of open house times for friends to come by and decorate houses.” Taking her friend’s recipe and tradition, Beverly hosted her first Gingerbread House Party for her daughters, Allison and Whitney, and a group of Allison’s classmates – eight girls in all.

The children adorned their confectionary dwellings with gumdrops, M&Ms, licorice, candy canes and small plastic trees dripped with frosting. After the trimming of the houses, the girls dined on festive red and green McKenzie bread PB&J sandwiches, nibbled on the leftover candy and listened to Beverly read her holiday adaptation of the book Corduroy. This was followed by a game of Hot Candy Cane (a holiday “hot potato”) and surprisingly free reign to graffiti the walls that had been hung with examination paper Beverly’s husband had procured from his work. The party was a great success. Thus began the Lamb family’s Gingerbread House Party.

Three decades after the first gingerbread party at the Lamb home, Allison and her sister Whitney share this holiday tradition with their children at their Jambalaya and Gingerbread Party each year the weekend before Christmas. The party, which Allison began hosting in 2010, has grown and changed considerably over the past thirty years, but the festiveness of the occasion, the special memories created and the gingerbread recipe remain the same.

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Cultural Cheer
LEFT: A parishioner of Wesley United Methodist Church prepares a turkey to deliver to a home-bound family. Photo provided by: Erica Washington RIGHT: Knock, knock! Erica Washington’s parents, Donna and Leo, arrive to bring holiday cheer and a meal to a home-bound family. Photo provided by: Erica Washington BOTTOM: In Virginia, Merisa, Ryan and their son Hayden pose with The Legendary Santa. Ryan and his mother (Hayden’s grandmother) are convinced this is the same Santa they each visited as children! Photo provided by: Merisa Pasternak

Like the Lambs, Active Erica Washington and her family also incorporate food and community into their holiday season. On Christmas Eve morning, Erica, her father Leo, her mother Donna and her aunt Rita meet at Wesley United Methodist Church in Baton Rouge and prepare dinners for home bound parishioners. It is an all-day undertaking. Turkeys, vegetables, dressings and desserts are cooked, baked and plated with extra for the days following the holiday. The first year, they prepared meals for four families. Seven years later, they have doubled their good works, serving eight homes.

Once the kitchen camaraderie is completed and the catering loaded into the church’s van, meals are hand delivered by the Washingtons and their friends. This is as much a part of their tradition as the making of the food itself. Erica’s father has impressed upon her the importance of serving those in need, not just with the gift of food but also with time and attention. Meals are bequeathed with a hand shake or a hug and a short visit to bestow holiday love and cheer. In true Louisiana fashion, Erica and her family spread the bounty of the season by filling others with joy.

Sharing the merriment of a holiday table isn’t just for native Louisianans, though. Sustainer Merisa Pasternak’s family is from the Philippines, and hosted Filipino feasts during each of her childhood holidays. As part of their traditions, they took (and still take) as much pride in the preparation of the food as the sharing of it. Pancit, lumpia, whole fish, lechon and flan are served in abundance and guests are expected to share in the abundance. Partaking in the dining is viewed as an acceptance of the host’s affection and hospitality for their guests. Merisa is looking forward to hosting this banquet style Filipino tradition during Christmas this year.

Like many families, the Pasternaks travel every other year for the holidays to see family in other parts of the country. Her husband Ryan’s relatives live in Richmond, Virginia, the visiting place of the Legendary Santa since 1936. Legend has it that Santa chose the Miller and Rhoads Department Store in Downtown Richmond as his seasonal headquarters. Ryan grew up telling his Christmas wishes to the real Santa at Miller and Rhoads Department Store, and his parents did as well! As part of their visit to his family in Richmond, Ryan and Merisa take their son Hayden to see St. Nick, sharing this tradition with a third generation of Pasternaks.

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LEFT: Lisa Yip (top center) poses for a family photo with her parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, niece and nephew. RIGHT: The Yip family’s red envelopes are prepared and await the Chinese New Year fete along with birthday cupcakes for Lisa’s nephew – a joint celebration. The envelopes contain money and are given with well wishes of good fortune and prosperity. Photos provided by: Lisa Yip

Whether feasting in New Orleans or whispering wishes to Santa in Richmond, Merisa and Ryan have one constant tradition – the hanging of the greens at their home in Bayou St. John. Five years ago, they began this tradition when Merisa chaired the Morris Jeff Community School’s holiday greens fundraiser and realized a wreath was just what their front bay window was missing. The wreath (that Ryan decorates) has become an expected sight on their street and is hung the first week in December. On Twelfth Night, the Christmas decorations adorning it are removed, and Ryan bedecks it with Mardi Gras trimmings. It hangs through Fat Tuesday.

About the time the Pasternak’s wreath is getting ready to retire, Active Lisa Yip’s family is preparing for the Chinese New Year. While Lisa’s family celebrates Thanksgiving and Christmas, this Chinese holiday, also known as Spring Festival, is their most important family tradition. Each aspect of the Chinese New Year, which lasts fifteen days and, like Mardi Gras, is determined by the lunar calendar, is rooted in tradition and symbolism. In preparation for the holiday, homes are cleaned to signify the removing of the old and welcoming of the new. Red ornaments and trimmings are hung to symbolize good fortune, joy, truth and sincerity. Where festivals are held, there are Dragon dances and Lion dances with varied meanings of luck and prosperity. Fireworks, once upon a time thought to drive away evil spirits, are now displayed to represent the jubilation of the season.

As the final days of the celebration approach, the Yip Family travels from their different parts of the country to come together and attend temple as a family, last year meeting at the temple in Houston, Texas. At temple, there is a midnight service with chanting of prayers and ringing of bells by the presiding monks. The service is followed by a dinner of traditional Chinese food, each dish with its own meaning: dumplings for wealth, noodles for longevity, oranges for good luck and fortune and rice cakes for prosperity. Red envelopes containing money are exchanged, mostly by adults to children, to represent the exchanging of good luck – whether containing one penny or larger amounts, the importance is in the offering of luck to those they care about.

“It is a wonderful time surrounded by love and laughter with family and friends,” Lisa shared.

Creating confections. Cooking for the community. Passing along family recipes and sharing outings. Ringing in a New Year. With each shared tradition, we open our lives up to others and connect by celebrating our similarities and our differences.

It truly is wonderful.