‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the community, people were caroling, touring the Christmas lights, hitting Mass early, getting a visit from Santa and indulging in food, and plenty of it. These are just a few of the ways in which locals spend their Christmas Eve. We were a little curious about how different families celebrate the night before Christmas, so we learned about various traditions throughout the local area.
This year, many in the neighborhood will be spending Christmas Eve celebrating a different holiday. The first night of Hanukkah falls on December 24 this year. Those of the Jewish faith will be spending this Christmas Eve lighting the first candle on their menorahs as they kick off the festival of lights, exchanging gifts and indulging in potato latkes and other goodies.
Many families in Broad Channel will be expecting a special visit from Santa and he’ll be arriving by fire truck. For more than 20 years, the Broad Channel Volunteer Fire Department has helped bring Santa around various houses. From about 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the volunteers of the firehouse make their rounds to homes that pre-registered for a visit from old St. Nick in a big operation. Counting on no emergencies on Christmas Eve, Captain Jill Spinelli will be dispatching her volunteers with Santa in tow. With as many as 50 homes that schedule a visit, Santa will be very busy, so he has a little help. There will be two to three fire trucks with Santas stopping at homes in Broad Channel and Rockaway and meeting with kids to give them presents from the family, and take photos of course. Spinelli will be making sure the volunteers are on schedule, but she has gone along for visits in past years. “It’s a lot of fun. The kids love it,” she said. But it’s not just fun for the kids. “As an adult, it’s always great to see kids react to Santa. It’s really funny to watch year after year because you get a range of reactions from young kids who are excited to the older kids who are jaded and can say ‘I can’t believe you’re still making me do this,’ but it’s great. It makes the kids happy. Everyone loves Santa.” There may still be some time to schedule a visit from Santa. Call Spinelli at 917-995-2390 or the firehouse at 718-474-6888 and don’t forget to return the favor to the volunteer firehouse. A $25 per family donation is encouraged.
The bay block of Beach 91st street will be expecting a visit of their own, but from the caroling members of the Knott family. Caroling around the block has been a tradition that spans several generations and it’s a huge family affair. “The Knotts have been celebrating Christmas on Christmas Eve for many years at my grandmother’s house on Beach 91st,” Kelli Knott Leary explains. “My father is one of seven, and seven in-laws as well. Then there are 20 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren and every year we meet at grandma’s house. First we eat and then Santa himself makes an appearance.”
And then they spread Christmas cheer around the block. “Some of the little ones get dressed as mini Santas, elves or reindeer and we all get together and go caroling up and down the bay block of 91st. Many residents await out arrival,” Leary said. Among those who anticipate a visit are the Mancini family. “Every year we go to my father’s house on 91st and make cookies with the kids and wait to see the carolers. It is the highlight of the season,” Zach Mancini said.
Some of the Knotts stay behind to organize gifts and make hot chocolate, so when their caroling family returns, everyone can warm up and they spend the rest of the night opening gifts. “It’s such a great evening that goes way back to when my dad was little. I can remember being little and anxiously awaiting Christmas Eve at Nanny’s,” Leary said. Unfortunately, the Knotts may forego the tradition this year. “Currently, my grandmother is not well and is staying with my aunt on Long Island. We are hoping she feels well enough that we can get her home for the day and continue the tradition,” Leary said. “Please keep her in your prayers.”
Some traditions are cultural. The Scalas participate in the Italian tradition of having a seafood feast including crab, calamari, shrimp, lobster and more. Ruth Krauthamer also gets together with her Italian friends to enjoy some fish. “Some say seven fishes, some say 12, either way it’s a lot of fish dishes,” she said.
Barbara Chojnacki and her family partake in the Polish tradition of Christmas Eve Dinner or Wigilia. “It’s the most important celebration of the year. We always set an extra place at the table for an unexpected guests. Dinner starts when the first star appears in the sky. All family members and guests start with a broken wafer (oplatek) and wish each other good health and prosperity,” Chojnacki said. Then they feast on 12 traditional dishes including red borscht with mushroom and onion stuffed dumplings, potatoes, pierogis, fish, pasta and much more, but you won’t find any meat until Christmas Day. After feasting, the family opens presents and heads to church for the late-night Mass.
Some spend Christmas Eve enjoying the holiday lights locally and in the decoration hotspots. “We go to six o’clock Mass, eat at my parents and then check out the amazing Christmas lights, “Mags Kelly said. “We go to dinner and then go see the lights,” around Rockaway, Canarsie and Dyker Heights, Scott Winik said.
For the Coris, Christmas Eve gets competitive, at least when it comes to gifts. “We do a grab bag, with stealing! Each person picks a number and after a person picks a gift from the grab bag, the next person has the option of taking a gift from the bag or stealing a gift from someone who already picked from the bag,” John Cori said.
Others keep their traditions simple as they await a bigger celebration on Christmas Day. “We drink mimosas and watch A White Christmas and Minnie’s Christmas Eve,” Casey Gallagher said. “On Christmas Eve, we sing Happy Birthday to baby Jesus, put out the milk and cookies and get to bed early so that Santa can arrive,” said Mary Beth Bertolini.
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