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Seasonal traditions speak to deeper levels of humanity

| Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
Rodney Bryant of Yukon stands for a portrait dressed as Santa and holding a parachute at his home on Wednesday, December 18, 2013. Bryant plans to resume the tradition of skydiving dressed as Santa that his father started years ago.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
The Yothers family have been keeping their Christmas traditions alive for over 90 years.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The Spungen and Balcerek families pose for a portrait while illustrating a Schmege Brothers family custom of looking at the Christmas tree at the Balcerek's home in Forest Hills on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. The two families have been celebrating traditions that stemmed from the Schmedge Brothers Christmas comedy sketch with John Candy and Eugene Levi on SCTV during the 1980's. Pictured from left to right are Cliff Spungen, 52, of Mount Lebanon, Ben Balcerek, 17, and Tom Balcerek, 55, both of Forest Hills, Jan Spungen, 52, of Mount Lebanon, and Emily and Marcy Balcerek, 20 and 55 respectively, both of Forest Hills.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The Balcerek family keeps a hat on top of their Christmas tree in an ode to Schmege Brothers Christmas tradition, as seen at the Balcerek's home in Forest Hills on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. The Balcerek and Spungen families have been celebrating traditions that stemmed from the Shmenge Brothers Christmas comedy sketch with John Candy and Eugene Levy on SCTV during the 1980's.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
A photo album shows photos from the late 1980's of the Balcerek and Spungen families' celebrations of Schmege Brothers Christmas traditions past, as seen at the Balcerek's home in Forest Hills on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. Pictured at the top left are the ceremonial exchanging of the socks, and at bottom left, a dance under the 'budgie'. At right is a photo of both families together in 1997 during another Schmedge Brothers Christmas celebration.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The Balcerek family keeps bird hanging from a doorway as their 'budgie', an ode to Schmege Brothers Christmas tradition, as seen at the Balcerek's home in Forest Hills on Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013. The Balcerek and Spungen families have been celebrating traditions that stemmed from the Schmedge Brothers Christmas comedy sketch with John Candy and Eugene Levi on SCTV during the 1980's.

In this season of traditions, some are homespun and heartfelt, some quirky and comical.

They are embodied in the sweet, flaky cookies baked each year from a recipe jotted down decades ago on a now-tattered, butter-stained scrap of paper.

They're found in a box of mismatched ornaments crafted by children long since grown to adulthood.

Year after year, they are there amid the funny stories, the gaudy reindeer sweaters and Christmas Eve toasts that make up the fabric of our holiday celebrations.

Despite the predictability, something moves us to carry on these rituals of the season.

But why?

It's simple human instinct, according to one expert.

“They give us a sense of comfort, a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves,” said Barbara H. Fiese, a University of Illinois psychology professor and author of a book about family traditions. “They can connect us to generations that are no longer there.”

“You look forward to it, anticipate it, plan for it. … You build up the emotions,” she said. “You bring people together, get to relive those experiences.”

Traditions add meaning and character to celebrations, said Meg Cox, author of “The Book of New Family Traditions: How to Create Great Rituals for Holidays and Every Day.”

“They are the definition of our family. The best ones come from a deep place,” she said.

Wigilia

Dorothy Nitkiewicz of Mt. Pleasant needs two stoves to cook the traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner she has prepared for her family for six decades.

Called Wigilia, the meatless meal features an odd number of dishes served at a table that has an even number of place settings. The extra setting is for the Christ child.

“We put straw under the tablecloth to symbolize the manger,” said her daughter, Paulette Nitkiewicz, 54, of Mt. Pleasant, a registered nurse.

Nitkiewicz, 82, plans to serve three types of pierogis, sauerkraut, potatoes, peas, cod, and nut and poppyseed rolls to about 8-10 people this year.

The meal begins with the breaking of the Oplatek, a traditional wafer, by the head of the household, Dorothy Nitkiewicz's husband, Leo, 85. Family members pass it to each other, taking a piece, much like a communion wafer in church.

“This is a big deal,” said Paulette Nitkiewicz. “Christmas Eve for us is Christmas.”

A slice of heaven

Although Mary Lynn Yothers of Mt. Pleasant Township is the first to admit that it's been tough to carry on the many Christmas traditions of her Slovak family, there are some that she'll never fall by the wayside.

One is the Bobalki, the balls of baked dough that Yothers, 55, calls a “little slice of heaven.”

Bobalki can be sweet, with ground poppyseeds and honey, or savory, with sauerkraut and onion.

Before Yothers, a chiropractor, and almost three dozen family members sit down to eat Christmas Eve dinner, they light stogies and down a bottle or two of champagne.

“I really don't know how to smoke a cigar. We sort of pretend,” said Yothers, who believes her mother, Betty, and aunt, Peg Yurcovik, a couple of pranksters, started the tradition about 30 years ago.

Despite their more Americanized Christmas, the family carries on some traditions more than 90 years old.

The extended family gathers on Christmas Eve for Mass, dinner and a visit from Santa.

“Christmas Eve is non-negotiable,” Yothers said.

A Schmenge Christmas

When it comes to Christmas traditions, Tom Balcerek and his wife, Marcy, just might be off the charts.

“A lot of people would think we are crazy, but it's fun,” Marcy Balcerek, 55, said of the couple's faithful re-creation of a holiday tradition her husband saw in a 1980s television skit.

For more than 25 years, the Balcereks have hosted a “Schmenge Brothers Christmas” at their Forest Hills home. The brothers, Stan and Yosh, played by John Candy and Eugene Levi, were a fictional polka duo featured on Second City TV.

Tom Balcerek, 55, a trade publication editor, saw the skit while a student at Notre Dame and was hooked.

“I was tickled by the Schmenges,” he said. “I'm half Polish.”

The Schmenge brothers were immigrants from Leutonia, a fictional, nondescript Eastern European land where a total lack of trees led to the invention of the artificial Christmas tree. They celebrated Christmas with a symbolic egg, a feast of “falutniks” and an exchange of socks by male family members. They ate a turkey-sized cabbage roll and coffee.

The Balcereks and their friends, Jan and Cliff Spungen of Mt. Lebanon, follow these customs. The families hope their children will carry on with them.

It “brings a sense of friendship, of caring for other people” and has helped two families “become one,” said Marcy Balcerek, a social worker.

“No matter what happens during the year, we know we're going to get together for this,” said Cliff Spungen, 52, an attorney. “It gives us a tradition, and traditions are important.”

Side-by-side

The traditional Christmas Eve gathering of the D'Amico clan has played out for decades in two side-by-side Canonsburg homes, said Linda Romano, 49, of Cecil.

The home of her parents, Mario and Gloria D'Amico, was next door to that of her grandmother, Pasqualina D'Amico, an Italian immigrant, where the family gathered for more than five decades. When Paqualina died in 1995, Romano's sister, Lisa Speer and her husband, Harvey, moved into the house and began hosting the gathering.

In that time, little has changed, partly in homage to the grandmother who began it all.

Romano said she and her family can't imagine it any other way.

The traditional meatless meal includes squid, pasta, smelts, dried and salted cod, baked fish, and fried bread dough.

“It wouldn't feel like Christmas without it,” said Romano.

Parachuting Santa

Rodney Bryant is willing to jump out of a plane to carry on a tradition his father began. The son of the late Charles “Chuck” Bryant, known for delighting children by parachuting into Norwin Towne Square and Olympia Shopping Center dressed as Santa, is preparing to resume his father's tradition in 2014.

“I'm working on a couple of jumps,” said Bryant, 48, of Yukon.

A union carpenter, Bryant has parachuted for 17 years and has 1,300 jumps. He played an elf to his dad's Santa on about two dozen jumps.

Chuck Bryant, 61, a pilot who flew out of Bouquet Airport, died in 2003 in a Father's Day plane crash that killed several others.

Carrying on his father's tradition is important for many reasons, Bryant said.

He wants to re-establish the tradition that was so much a part of his father's life. But more than anything, Bryant sees it as a tribute to his father.

“He touched a lot of people when he did these jumps, and I miss him a lot,” he said. “It will make me feel closer to him.”

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646.

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