Column: Passing it on and making meaning of the holidays

Why did Richard Surozenski and Bill Cummings spend the better part of last Saturday in a yellow rowboat, hauling a fully-decorated Christmas tree to the middle of Chase Creek?

For the same reason millions of Americans on the same day in November wipe the dust off their roasting pan, take the dress shoes out of the oven (where they are stored) and cook a 20-pound bird.

Tradition. The transmission of our customs and beliefs is how we make meaning of the holidays.

Transmission is the key.

Rich, who made sure there was a glowing tree floating in Chase Creek for 25 years, asked his neighbor Bill, who runs the House on Chase Creek, to observe the process, which involves securing every light with a twist-tie, wiring, floating and positioning the tree — all while taking care not to fall into the Creek before the eyes of holiday shoppers on Bridge Street.

Now Bill has stepped up to take this cherished Island tradition forward.

Holiday traditions are repeated, but they are not fixed, and every tradition had a start date. Hot fudge sundaes on New Year’s Eve was established in Terry Lucas’s family once her parents started leaving Terry and her sisters with their grandparents, who strategically deployed the treats as close to midnight as possible.

Terry, who is director of the Shelter Island Public Library, continued the tradition with her own children, now grown, who send pictures of their sundaes from wherever they are. This year Terry will travel to California on New Year’s Eve to visit her 87-year old mother.

“She has promised to have the hot fudge ready,” Terry reported.

Sometimes traditions shift when life changes the rules. Shelter Island School Superintendent Christine Finn bought a plaster decoration of a cat and mouse when she was newly single one Christmas and had left behind her decorations.

At the time her kids loved “The Cat Carol,” a sweet and silly song about a self-sacrificing cat and the mouse it sheltered. “It’s been years now, and the plaster cat and mouse still come out every year,” Christine said, “It always cheers me up and reminds me that happy, healthy kids are a blessing, and that our small family sticks together no matter what.”

Cindy Belt’s family this year successfully navigated one of the most treacherous holiday tradition busters, food allergies. With newly-diagnosed dairy and wheat allergies in the family, the varsity girls volleyball coach helped switch up the candied sweet potato to baked — to get around the butter — bumped the bread stuffing to the exterior of the bird, and spiked it with fruit and veggie appetizers arranged in the shape of turkeys to distract from the missing crackers and cheese.

It was a team effort, Cindy said: “We learned that being flexible and thinking of others instead of ‘must have the traditional dinner’ was actually pretty easy.”

Nanette Lawrenson, executive director of the Historical Society, celebrated a more intimate Thanksgiving this year than she was used to with just her daughter and new son-in-law.

“Dinner itself was the three of us followed by an evening of holiday movie watching,” Nanette said. “What I learned was the importance of who is at that table, not how many.”

Suzette Smith leads a popular fitness class on the Island, which appears to have become a tradition for Islanders, possibly motivated by the prospect of a rich meal later in the day. “I am always surprised at how many people request and actually come to my morning barre class on Thanksgiving Day,” she said.

Jacki “Always room for one more” Dunning said she takes joy in discovering and cooking her guests’ favorite Thanksgiving dishes from home to help them feel connected to their own traditions. “It tends to be a very emotional time for everyone and we all leave with a full tummy, and a full heart,” Jacki said.

Francesca Frasco, Shelter Island High School Class of 2018, is away at college, but says she’ll be sure to get back home for the holidays where her grandmother Margaret Bielic’s rainbow cookies, cream puffs and pita (a Croatian apple cake), are indispensable. Of equal importance are two of her grandma’s Christmas tree ornaments, teddy bears with the name of each grandchild.

Francesca explained that there are two ornaments, one with eight teddy bears and a second with eleven to keep pace with a burst of family fecundity and four new grandkids.

Bill Zitek digs out a large glass ball ornament that has been in his family for over a hundred years, a gnome given to him by a Swedish exchange student in the 1980s, and a figure of a yellow Labrador retriever he cared for in his veterinary practice, given to him by the dog’s family.

White lights in the windows and blue lights on the blue spruce tree, are Louise O’Regan’s and Keith Clark’s go-to decorations, along with ornaments that Keith’s daughter Kate made for them.

Writer Tom Junod lives in Atlanta, but he and his daughter Nia try to get to the Island for the holidays in time to go Christmas caroling with the Shelter Island PBA. “Believe me, there is no better way to see the Island than from the back of a truck, in the dark, in the cold, sometimes in the rain or snow, seeing who among us can possibly sing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” louder than Janine Mahoney.”

On Christmas Eve, Tom cooks. “I’m not Italian, so we usually have Four or Five Fishes and call it a night. But there’s one fish dish I cook every year. Local squid stir-fried with garlic, black pepper and fish sauce. Vietnamese calamari, dotted with cilantro green as holly, has come to mean Christmas on Shelter Island for me.”