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World of holiday tradition comes together in Mid-Valley
Christmas Lights

It would be easy for more provincial minds to think that there is only one true way to celebrate Christmas: the American way. An orgy of early-morning present unfurling. Turkey-and-dressing-based torpor. A mad inventory of swag with the idea of ascertaining what items need returning on Dec. 26, the second-busiest shopping day of the year. 

But the Roaring Fork Valley is a true melting pot, with residents and visitors alike hailing from the far reaches of the globe. Ergo: There lie among us many different perspectives toward Christmas.

With that in mind, we thought it might be fun, and maybe even illuminating, to interview a handful of foreigners living and working in the area, to ask about their Christmas traditions back home and to learn what they think of the holiday season, American style.

What we learned is that, though we clearly dominate on the early-morning present orgy-front, we are middle of the road when it comes to holiday-season gluttony.

Monika Oginski-Blanchard - Poland

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Monika Olinski-Blanchard, owner of Faboo in Basalt, says in her native Poland, a chair is left empty at Christmas Eve dinner, symbolizing that there is always room at the table for one more. - photo by John Fayhee

Though, as a child, Mary Chalverus ping-ponged between Puerto Rico, where she was born, and Seattle, it wasn’t until she was 20 years old that she ever spent a Christmas on the mainland.

“We moved to the mainland originally when I was 2, but I went back and forth,” says Chalverus, who works as an escrow officer at Stewart Title in Basalt. “My mom is Puerto Rican and was born in Puerto Rico. We moved to Seattle, but my parents got divorced. We moved back to Puerto Rico when I was 4, stayed there through when I was 6, moved back to Seattle when I was 7, moved back to Puerto Rico when I was 8 and 9. I went to all-Spanish Catholic school there and public schools over here.

“In Puerto Rico, Noche Buena — Christmas Eve — is when you really celebrate,” Chalverus continues. “We eat a lot of roasted pig — lechon asado — we drink a lot, eat a lot of pasteles, which are really common during Christmas time. Pasteles are almost like a tamale, but the masa is made out of plantain instead of corn.

“People get together and you’ve got a lot of caroling, people playing the guiro, which is a musical instrument you scrape. There are maracas and guitar players. It’s a big, fun, party. You bring your music and your party to your neighbors. It’s a lot more lively than Christmas Eve here. Some people do go to Midnight Mass.”

Christmas morning is at least partially dedicated to the time-honored holiday tradition — known the world over — of recovering from the previous night’s indiscretions.

 “We do open gifts on Christmas morning, just like here,” Chalverus says. “We have Santa Claus, but we don’t have many chimneys in Puerto Rico. Santa Claus gets in through the front door, which we leave a little bit open. We have Christmas music, but it’s not like here. It’s more lively.”

Chalverus has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for a year-and-a-half.

My fiancé convinced me to move here,” she says. “I love the sunshine. Seattle was grey. But I am used to spending Christmas on the beach. I am getting used to remoteness, not being able to get certain types of food.”

Fortunately for Chalverus, she has a lot of family flying in for Christmas. One brother is bringing a Puerto Rican Christmas staple — pork shoulder with skin, which is apparently unavailable in these parts.

Another brother is bringing an additional Puerto Rican holiday favorite: blood sausage.

“A really big day of the holiday season is Jan. 6, Three Kings Day,” Chalverus says. “It’s epiphany. It’s a huge tradition, almost as important as Christmas. When you’re a kid, you get a shoebox and you go get grass and put it in the shoebox and set it next to your bed because the camels are coming and camels have to eat. The Three Wise Men come and leave gifts and the camels eat the grass. You typically wake up with more presents and then there’ll be a little path of grass to the outside. Parents sneak in during the night and spread the grass so it looks like the camels did it.”

Stephen Isberian - Armenia

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Stephen Isberian is the owner of the Isberian Rug Company in Basalt’s South Side. Pictured with his wife Heather and daughter Taline, Isberian holds a rug upon which the Lord’s Prayer is written in Armenian. - photo by John Fayhee

Here’s the thing about Stephen Isberian, owner of Isberian Rug Company in Basalt’s South Side (he also has a store in Aspen): He was born in Chicago, not Armenia. He considers that fact to be a telling component of any narrative centered upon his ancestral homeland. Between 1914 and 1923, Armenia, located in the Caucasus region of Asia, was subjected to one of the most intense genocidal ethnic cleansings in the bloody history of mankind. Historians refer to it as the “Armenian Holocaust.”

“It’s a long story, but most of the genocide took place in 1915,” Isberian says. “The Ottoman Empire, which was in decline, essentially instigated a holocaust on Armenians, who were citizens of the empire. As a result, a significant percentage of the population became extremely displaced. The bulk ended up spread throughout the Middle East and eventually many came to the U.S. and Canada. Wherever we went, we maintained as many of our traditions as we could.”

Faith continues to play a big role in the Armenian culture’s celebration of Christmas.

“Armenia is the oldest Christian nationality in the world,” Isberian says. “In the year 301, Armenia accepted Christianity as the national religion. That was prior to Constantine. Our form of Christianity is Orthodox, with all the bells and whistles. Therefore, we primarily celebrate Christmas on Jan. 6, the day of the Epiphany. But we as a culture have always been good at assimilation. Therefore, in America, we also celebrate on Dec. 24 and 25.”

Isberian has lived in the Roaring fork Valley for 51 years. He first came west after his dad passed away.

“I just needed to get out of Chicago,” Isberian says. “I wanted to go somewhere I didn’t know anybody, so a friend and I went to Aspen. I loved it and decided to move here. I was lucky because I had a trade. My family has been in the rug business for generations. Naturally, I opened a rug shop. A lot of people come here without a trade and end up scraping by.”

At this point, Isberian Rug Company, which has custumers all over the world, is one of the longest-tenured locally owned businesses in the entire Roaring Fork Valley.

  “Because we raised our kids here, we celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 like everyone else,” says Isberian, who has traveled all over Asia — including Armenia — as part of his rug business. (He proposed to his wife, Heather, in Afghanistan.)

“We put up a tree, open presents, have stockings,” he continues. “We still do all that. But we like to maintain as many Armenian traditions as possible. We cook special foods and visit the homes of our friends. We go to church in Denver on Jan. 6. It’s a Greek church that allows us to use it. There are about 300 or 400 Armenian families in Denver. It is important for us to remember where we came from and how we came to be here.”

Isabel Catalan - Puebla, Mexico

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Isabel Catalan, with her husband Daniel and daughters Olivia and Elena, says one of the Christmas season delicacies in her native Puebla is a codfish concoction that includes tomato, potato, olives and almonds.

Isabel Catalan came to the Roaring Fork Valley two years ago when her husband Daniel got a cooking gig at Sure Thing Burger in Willits. While Daniel hails from the state of Guerrero, where Acapulco is located, Isabel is from the colonial city of Puebla.

Like most of Mexico, the Christmas traditions in Puebla cover several weeks, beginning on Dec. 12 with the celebration of el dia de la virgin de Guadalupe — the patron saint of Mexico.

Though there are regional variations — including a hajj-like pilgrimage by many people to the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City —  consistencies include the obligatory visit to the local Catholic church, the setting off of firecrackers, parades, musical performances and copious quantities of recreational imbibing, the latter of which is considered a sign of showing respect to the virgin de Guadalupe.

The holiday-season festivities re-commence on Dec. 16 with the advent of posadas — which translates to “lodging,” but, in this context, refers to the inn that plays a leading role in the nativity.

“It’s a big party,” says Catalan, who lives in El Jebel and, in addition to raising two infant daughters, has started a company making baby clothes and accessories. “There are parades and people sing and take candles and walk around the streets symbolically asking for lodging. There is a long piñata filled with fruit. We make chalupas and a hot, sweet fruit drink.”

A few days before Christmas proper, families start to gather to make what can charitably be called a copious amount of comida. One of the main dishes is bocalao, a codfish concoction that includes tomato, potato, olives and almonds.

According to Catalan, in the territory of her husband, whom she met in culinary school in Mexico, turkey is the traditional Christmas meal. 

Christmas Eve usually includes a visit to church and a trip to grandma’s house.

“We put baby Jesus into the manger with a piece of candy and sing a lullaby and pray for the baby Jesus and all people and family,” Catalan says. “Then we have a family dinner that includes spaghetti and apple salad. We will sometimes exchange some gifts between family members.”

On Christmas morning, the family eats leftovers and plays games.

More presents, which are brought by the Three Wise Men instead of Santa, are exchanged on Jan. 6. This in when rosca de reyes — a type of pastry — is baked. Inside is placed a figurine of Jesus and whoever finds it is obligated to host and dinner and make tamales for their guests. The Jesus figurine must be taken to a church by Feb. 2.

Catalan expects that, the longer her family continues to live in the Roaring Fork Valley, the more it will trend toward the American way of celebrating the holiday season.

Kate (Harris) Staskauskas - England

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Kate (Harris) Staskauskas (right) says she misses Christmas pantomimes back in England, in which men dress up in drag. Mary Chalverus (left) misses pork shoulder with skin and blood sausage, both staples in her native Puerto Rico that are unavailable in the Roaring Fork Valley. - photo by John Fayhee

On the surface, it might seem that holiday traditions in England would not be that dissimilar from those in the U.S. But, even though we mostly speak the same language, there are indeed some differences, including, but not limited to, pre-holiday men in drag and listening intently to the monarch give what amounts to a state-of-the-union address.

Staskauskas, a native of Devon married, as her surname might indicate, to a Lithuanian, has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley since 1999, when she was recruited to work at the Little Nell in Aspen.

She says Christmas in Merry Old England begins with a traditional activity well known in the U.S., but not quite the same.

“The kids will write their letters to Santa a couple weeks before Christmas,” says Staskauskas, who is a senior escrow officer at Stewart Title in Basalt. “Then you throw them on the fire and supposedly the ashes get to him that way.”

So, no adding additional burdens to what is assuredly an already-stressed postal service in the North Pole.

During the run-up to Christmas, there are these things called “pantomimes,” which are apparently somewhat difficult to explain.

“They take, say, “Jack in the Beanstalk’ or ‘Aladdin’ and it’s a lot of comedy that pretty much always has a man in drag,” Staskauskas says. “It’s a play, but all pretty much ad-libbed. You know the story and they throw random stuff in. It’s everywhere. They switch it up. If they do ‘Peter Pan,’ it will be a female Peter Pan.  

“On Christmas Eve, a lot of us go to church,” she continues. “When I was in school, the last day of school before Christmas break, we would go down to the local church and sing.”

Presents are opened on Christmas morning, pretty much the same as in the States. The mythology is basically the same: Santa shimmies his corpulent posterior down the chimney. Stocking are hung.

“Good kids get oranges, while kids that have been naughty get lumps of coal,” Staskauskas says, with a wry grin.

“On Christmas day, dinner is usually at 2 p.m.,” she continues. “We have a goose, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake. Then everyone will pretty much be in front of the television at 3 for the Queen’s speech.”

According to Staskauskas, “The Queen talks about the year and what she expects in the year ahead. She talks for about 15 minutes.”

Christmas dinner includes a festive addition called Christmas crackers that are essentially fireworks.

“You pull them apart with a neighbor at dinner,” Staskauskas says. “They definitely go ‘bang’ when you pull them apart. Inside them is a gift, a hat and a joke and everybody kind of wears their hat around the table.”

A nice addition to the British Christmas is Boxing Day, which takes place Dec. 26. Historically, this is when the lords of the manor boxed up the leftovers to give to the servants. These days, it’s dedicated to having family members over to gnaw on those leftovers, servants be damned.

“There used to be a big fox hunt on Boxing Day, after which everyone would go down to the pub,” Staskauskas says. “Then they would go home and eat more leftovers. There’s definitely a lot of alcohol involved for Christmas.”

Having lived in the States now for 20 years, Staskauskas, her husband and their 11-year-old daughter have gone native on the Christmas celebration front.

But Staskauskas misses some of the traditions of the Motherland.

“In England, Christmas is really a public holiday, here I wish you had another day to recover, most of the businesses close those two weeks. Not many places stay open at Christmas. It’s hard in this valley because everyone is working during Christmas, so you can’t spend as much time with family. Nobody would be working at home.”

This Christmas will afford Staskauskas  and her family the opportunity to rub elbows with those old traditions of posting wish lists to Santa via fire and setting off explosives at the dinner table. For the first time in 18 years, she is flying home for Christmas.

Mary Chalverus - Puerto Rico

Though, as a child, Mary Chalverus ping-ponged between Puerto Rico, where she was born, and Seattle, it wasn’t until she was 20 years old that she ever spent a Christmas on the mainland.

“We moved to the mainland originally when I was 2, but I went back and forth,” says Chalverus, who works as an escrow officer at Stewart Title in Basalt. “My mom is Puerto Rican and was born in Puerto Rico. We moved to Seattle, but my parents got divorced. We moved back to Puerto Rico when I was 4, stayed there through when I was 6, moved back to Seattle when I was 7, moved back to Puerto Rico when I was 8 and 9. I went to all-Spanish Catholic school there and public schools over here.

“In Puerto Rico, Noche Buena — Christmas Eve — is when you really celebrate,” Chalverus continues. “We eat a lot of roasted pig — lechon asado — we drink a lot, eat a lot of pasteles, which are really common during Christmas time. Pasteles are almost like a tamale, but the masa is made out of plantain instead of corn.

“People get together and you’ve got a lot of caroling, people playing the guiro, which is a musical instrument you scrape. There are maracas and guitar players. It’s a big, fun, party. You bring your music and your party to your neighbors. It’s a lot more lively than Christmas Eve here. Some people do go to Midnight Mass.”

Christmas morning is at least partially dedicated to the time-honored holiday tradition — known the world over — of recovering from the previous night’s indiscretions.

 “We do open gifts on Christmas morning, just like here,” Chalverus says. “We have Santa Claus, but we don’t have many chimneys in Puerto Rico. Santa Claus gets in through the front door, which we leave a little bit open. We have Christmas music, but it’s not like here. It’s more lively.”

Chalverus has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for a year-and-a-half.

My fiancé convinced me to move here,” she says. “I love the sunshine. Seattle was grey. But I am used to spending Christmas on the beach. I am getting used to remoteness, not being able to get certain types of food.”

Fortunately for Chalverus, she has a lot of family flying in for Christmas. One brother is bringing a Puerto Rican Christmas staple — pork shoulder with skin, which is apparently unavailable in these parts.

Another brother is bringing an additional Puerto Rican holiday favorite: blood sausage.

“A really big day of the holiday season is Jan. 6, Three Kings Day,” Chalverus says. “It’s epiphany. It’s a huge tradition, almost as important as Christmas. When you’re a kid, you get a shoebox and you go get grass and put it in the shoebox and set it next to your bed because the camels are coming and camels have to eat. The Three Wise Men come and leave gifts and the camels eat the grass. You typically wake up with more presents and then there’ll be a little path of grass to the outside. Parents sneak in during the night and spread the grass so it looks like the camels did it.”

Javier Gonzalez-Bringas - Spain

gonzalez-bringas
Javier Gonzalez-Bringas, owner of Tempranillo in Basalt, says people back in Madrid drink until 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve. He adds that people consequently sleep late on Christmas morning. - photo by John Fayhee

Javier Gonzalez-Bringas has owned Tempranillo Restaurant in downtown Basalt for 12 years. A native of Madrid, Spain, he has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for 30 years. 

“I came to open Mezzaluna in Aspen,” he says. “I was a working at the Mezzaluna in New York and the owner asked me to come here to help. I came for one winter and decided to stay. The owner, a very good friend, was happy for me. I’ve gotten married since I’ve been here and have two kids. It’s all good.”

Gonzalez-Bringas says the Christmas in his native land really kicks off, like so many places, on Dec. 24.

“There is a late dinner that is very elaborate, with six or seven courses,” Gonzalez-Bringas says. “We start to eat at maybe 10 o’clock. Normally you start with some type of consommé, followed by some cold seafood, maybe some lamb. Or you can have langostinos, baby eels, suckling pig. The meal usually goes till midnight.”

Once dessert is finished, do these nocturnal residents of the Spanish capital then retire to aid their digestion? Emphatically, no.

“Normally, we go to visit friends after dinner,” Gonzalez-Bringas says. “We stay out until 2 or 3 o’clock Christmas morning drinking wine and champagne the whole time. We start with white wine, then red wine, then champagne.”

Not surprisingly, on Christmas proper, “People get up very late. Young people go to party while older people go to church,” Gonzalez-Bringas says. 

The exchange of presents is not a big part of the Christmas tradition in Spain.

“Santa Claus does not come to Spain,” Gonzalez-Bringas. “He stops in Belgium and Holland. Traditionally, we don’t have trees like here. We normally have a nativity. We call it a ‘belen.’ It can be very elaborate, very artistic. They can fill up a whole room. There can be real rivers, camels for the Three Kings, a little house for mules and of course a Virgin. Or the whole thing can be very simple. Most every house has a belen.”

Like many places in Europe, the Christmas season extends into January.

“On Jan. 5, the Three Kings bring some presents,” Gonzalez-Bringas says. “We get up in the morning and go to the family room where all the presents are. The night before, we put a plate of food out for the Kings and milk for camels. We don’t have reindeer in Spain.

“Later on Jan. 5, we have a huge procession that goes through whole Madrid,” he continues. “It’s kind of like Mardis Gras. There are real camels from the park, a lot of music and singing and shepherds with sheep.”

Having spent three decades in the States and having raised a family in the Roaring Fork Valley, Gonzalez-Bringas has pretty much gone native with the way he celebrates Christmas.

“We do it American style,” he says. “Santa comes to my house. We do the tree, the presents, everything.”

His kids have never had the pleasure of experiencing Christmas in their father’s native land.

“There are issues working around school, and we have a restaurant,” Gonzalez-Bringas says. “It’s a very busy time of year. It would be nice to take them to Spain for Christmas some time because it's very festive."

Sabina Kamadjieva - Bulgaria

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Sabina Kamadjieva still adheres to many holiday traditions from her native Bulgaria, including saving a spot at the table for people who are deceased. - photo by John Fayhee

The Christmas season in Bulgaria is dominated by symbolism.

A native of the capital city of Sofia, Sabina Kamadjieva, who works as a server at Tempranillo Restaurant, has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley for 14 years.

“I was on my way from New York to California and never made it there,” she says. “I was 19 when I moved to New York on a student exchange program. I met my husband, who is also Bulgarian, in New York. I have two boys who were born and raised in the Valley.”

Unlike many people from foreign realms who have adopted the American way of celebrating Christmas, Kamadjieva has strived to retain as many Bulgarian customs as possible.

“Christmas is one of our biggest holidays,” she says. “It comes at the end of a 40-day period when there’s no meat eating. It’s kind of like Lent. On Christmas Eve, it’s the last day of no meat, but there are no animal products of any kind. No eggs, no milk.

“On Christmas Eve, you’ve got to put on the table either seven, nine or 11 dishes, and they have to include dishes that are growing bigger when you cook them,” Kamadjieva continues. “Like rice, barley and beans. You have to have red wine. You have to have nuts that are still in the shell so they can represent the fullness of the year ahead of you, and in each corner of the room where you have dinner, you put one un-opened walnut in each corner to represent hope that all four corners of the world are filled up.”

In addition, the meal has to include honey, so the year ahead can be sweet.

Probably the most important thing, according to Kamadjieva, is the homemade bread.

Which is where we get to the part about the dead people.

“It is simple — basically baking soda, water and flour, and you have to put one silver coin in it,” she says. “Whoever gets the coin will be the most-prosperous, healthy and luckiest person. When everyone sits at the table, the oldest male in the house will break the bread. You don’t cut it; you have to break it. The first piece is for the Virgin and the deceased. The second piece goes to the house. That piece is traditionally put near the fireplace because back in the day we didn’t do trees. But now more people are doing trees, so we put that piece of bread under the tree.”

This inclusion of the dearly departed in the Christmas Eve festivities does not end with one piece of bread.

“The most important part of Christmas Eve is that, when you set up the table, you always put an extra setting,” Kamadjieva  says. “This is for the deceased. You never ever clean up the table after Christmas Eve dinner because we believe the decreased will come and feast with us after we go to bed. You pour the deceased a little bit of red wine. You don’t put food for them on the plate. Just leave it on the table. My father passed away when I was 9. I still do it for him.

“Back in the day, the youngest males not married yet but willing to get married in the next year, they go and find a three-year oak tree and they put it in the fire and the fire has to go the whole night,” she continues.

There is additional symbolism in the realm of liquid refreshment.

“We make a special drink on Christmas Eve where we boil all sorts of dried fruit, like apples, apricots and plums, which we mix with sugar and make juice. This represents how winter dries out everything and we are getting ready for spring,” Kamadjieva says. 

Bulgarians exchange presents on Christmas morning, but it’s not the major-league to-do like in the U.S.

On Christmas Day, the family, many members of which have been surviving on lean rations for the past 40 days, start cooking lunch and dinner, which is big and festive, and which most definitely includes much in the way of animal products.

“This is one of the few holidays that I will keep the tradition as long as I can with my family,” Kamadjieva says. “With my husband being Bulgarian too, it makes it easier.”

Beto Gamboa and family - Nayarit, Mexico

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Beto Gamboa, his son Tito and sister-in-law Evelia Montoya, make operating El Korita Mexican Restaurant in Willits a family affair.

Beto Gamboa has owned and operated, along with a cast of family members, El Korita Mexican restaurant in Willits for 11 years. For nine years before that, he ran the restaurant near City Market.

He has been in the States for 38 years. He first came to California from a small mountain village in the Mexican state of Nayarit, which is basically in the same part of the country as Puerto Vallarta. He moved to the Roaring Fork Valley because he had family connections in the area.

Like virtually all of his countrymen, Gamboa grew up looking at the holiday season as a multi-week celebration.

“We did it all,” he says with a wide grin. “We went to church on Dec. 12th — the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. We made all the traditional types of food — tamales, posole and buñuelos. On the 12th, we also had dances.”

At midnight on Christmas Eve, family members hug and wish each other Merry Christmas.

“On Christmas morning, the kids open their presents,” Gamboa says. “That’s also when we eat the leftovers.”

After almost four decades north of the border, Gamboa and his family have acclimated to American holiday traditions. As such, he wanted to wish everyone in the Roaring Fork Valley a hearty Feliz Navidad.

“We are so thankful for the support we have received from this community over the years,” he says.