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The Holidays Are a Time for Traditions Old and New

by on December 25, 2018 5:00 AM

It’s that time of the year for Italian delicacies, cookies, and desserts in the best Battista tradition in da ’Burgh. That’s Pittsburgh, for those who don’t speak “yinzish.” Pizzelles, tarallucci (wedding knots), cannoli, wandies (fried dough and powdered sugar), biscotti and a slice of my mother’s homemade banana cream pie. All calorie-free, in our minds.

This, of course, is after eating my mom’s homemade gnocchi and meatballs, braciole (Italian beef), Christmas ham, breaded smelts, stuffed artichokes, fried zucchini, green bean salad, lupini beans, roasted red peppers, finocchi (anise celery) and salad with homemade Italian dressing. That’s after nibbling on trays of fresh fruit, cut vegetables, assorted nuts, chips, chocolate covered pretzels, Torrone nougat, and other assorted cookies!

By the way, this is all AFTER we have already celebrated the Battista-Smith-Tinstman holiday feast at Karen and Mike Tinstman’s new home in Danville, Pa. My sister-in-law’s homemade wedding soup is magnifique and her bird’s nest cookies (chow mein noodles, peanut butter and butterscotch) are my favorite holiday treat.

It really is the most wonderful time of the year for those who celebrate this holiday season. For my extended family and for me it is a time for traditions, both old and new. In the ever-changing world, our families do their best to keep this holiday gathering a tradition. We remember those who have departed, and we celebrate new births as well. The “circle of life” allows us to continue to celebrate old traditions while new ones are being created. There is no sense fighting the fact that traditions will change. Sometimes it’s because of the passing of a long-time host of family gatherings or because a family member gets married and starts his or her own holiday tradition. We have two nieces who will give birth in 2019, so we know that things will change. However, with technology it’s still possible to stay connected even if we can’t be physically together.

Regardless of how your family chooses to celebrate the holiday season, I wish you the same experiences that I have enjoyed with my family. My favorite memories as a child were waking up to Christmas at our house but quickly following it up with trips to both grandmothers’ homes to exchange gifts, play with cousins and family friends, and eat some of the best homemade Italian food you can envision.  Big Grandma Battista, Nana Concetta Carolis, my mom, aunts Antoinette, Rita Mae, Mary Lou, Gerri and Joanie, and cousins Nee and Rachel, would spoil us with so many delicacies.

As we grew older, the cousins all started to have families of their own and while some of my traditions changed, new ones began. On one hand it is sad to see some traditions come to an end but it’s exciting to see new ones emerge. Some of my family and friends believe strongly that they want their children to celebrate Christmas Day in their own home. For others, it’s more important to be with extended family when possible. My wife still cries every time she sees the Folgers commercial with the son coming home to surprise his family.

In many Italian families it’s also a tradition to get together on Christmas Eve to celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes, or the Festa dei sette pesci. Ours would include some combination of fish and seafood like fried smelts, salmon, fried calamari, shrimp, crabmeat, mussels, clams, fried eel and baccala (salted codfish.)

My uncle Tulio Russo, who served the country in World War II and spent a career working for Veterans Affairs in service of others, was the patriarch of my mom’s family. My grandfather passed away before I was born so it was left to Uncle Tulio to lead the family in prayer and to do the Christmas toast. For the adults it meant whiskey or anisette. For the kids, once we reached a certain age, we could partake in a ‘sip’ of anisette or wine. I think they gave us the anisette because it tasted like flu medicine and it would act as a deterrent to ever wanting to drink hard liquor. Either way, it was a highlight when Uncle Tulio and Aunt Antoinette, Uncle Louie, Uncle Joe and Aunt Rita Mae, my father, mother, and brother and all the cousins would raise a glass and give thanks for the blessings on “La Famiglia” for another year.

Once we arrived at Big Grandma Battista’s, my father and Uncle Frank would do the honors at her house once my Grandfather Jan had passed away.

We played games, watched movies, hockey, soccer, college basketball and football until everyone fell asleep on the couch. We used to play touch football but as we got older the games moved inside and were board games or video games. Inevitably, the evening ended at my Big Grandma’s playing the card game “31” with quarters. Amazing how often Big Grandma seemed to win!

By the way, please don’t be offended if I say “Merry Christmas” to you when I see you. I truly try my best to be inclusive and additionally say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.” I would ask that if we are truly being inclusive then it is appropriate to be tolerant and respectful of my traditions as well.  Especially at this time of year we can use more compassion, civility, and compromise in the name of peace.

I also hope you will use this time of the year to remember those who have helped you in your life and to count your blessings while realizing that, for the most part, your life is probably better than the vast majority of people who are dealing with tragedy and crisis. Think of them and keep them in your prayers as you savor the good that is in your own life. I hope you will continue the traditions of holiday seasons past and be accepting of new traditions as they emerge.

Regardless, I want to wish all of you a happy holiday, merry Christmas, and a healthy, prosperous and happy New Year from the Battista Family!



Joe Battista has been an integral part of the Penn State and State College communities since 1978. He is best known for his effort to bring varsity ice hockey to Happy Valley and in the building of Pegula Ice Arena. “JoeBa” is the owner of PRAGMATIC Passion, LLC consulting, a professional speaker, success coach, and the vice president of the National Athletic and Professional Success Academy (NAPSA). He is the author of a new book, “The Power of Pragmatic Passion.” Joe lives in State College with his wife Heidi (PSU ’81 & ’83), daughter Brianna (PSU ’15), and son’s Jon (PSU ’16), and Ryan (State High Class of 2019).
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