The Cundick family’s boots stuffed with treats from Mikulás, a figure similar to Saint Nicholas. In Slovakia, Mikulás visits families on December 5, filling clean boots placed on windowsills with citrus, chocolate and nuts. Photo courtesy of Denisa Cundick

FARMINGTON — For University of Maine at Farmington (UMF) linguistics professor Denisa Cundick, the month of December is full of nostalgic childhood memories.

Cundick grew up in west Slovakia where the holiday season kicks off on Dec. 6, the name day of Mikulás, a figure similar to Saint Nicholas.

“Lots of European countries have every day on the calendar a name associated with it,” Cundick said in a Zoom interview.

On the night of Dec. 5, Slovak families place their freshly cleaned boots on the windowsill and wake up the next morning to treat-filled boots courtesy of Mikulás.

“Usually, there would be some kind of citrus fruit like an orange or a clementine and nuts and chocolates; no presents usually, or it would be something really little,” Cundick said.

This is a tradition that Cundick maintains at her home in Farmington and suspects that her three children will continue placing their boots out for Mikulás when they’re adults.

“They know that Mikulás will come here because they are Slovak and American,” Cundick said. “So Mikulás comes to all Slovak kids. I would be pretty stunned if they didn’t do that one.” 

The Cundick children waking up to their treat-filled boots at their home in Farmington. From back to front is Tomas Cundick, Daniela Cundick and Michaela Cundick. Photo courtesy of Denisa Cundick

For UMF public humanities professor Erika Rodriguez, this time of year brings up memories of traditions that communicate a complicated relationship between roots and cultural authenticity.

From her childhood in Texas, Rodriguez remembers posadas navideñas in which groups of people would walk around the neighborhood acting out Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter. The group knocks on three doors before arriving at the host family’s home who has prepared a spread of foods such as tamales and menudo and pozole soups.

“I remember the candles, the chill of the Texas air, the fun of being out at night as a child. But my memory ends before we go in,” Rodriguez said in an email. “It is like when you imagine yourself in a painting, but your imagination can’t muster up what the next scene would be.”

Rodriguez is unsure whether this memory is actually from her childhood or if she created it after reading  about posadas navideñas in a Spanish class that she took in middle school. 

“I imagine there are many immigrants’ children who have this relationship with memory and tradition,” she wrote. “False childhood memories become a tie to some ideal of authenticity. But it is a happy memory, and I keep it.”

A concrete memory that Rodriguez does have comes from a demand she made to her parents as an adult.

“I read an indigenous poem about making tamales when I was in college, and I convinced my parents that making Christmas tamales together was absolutely necessary. How could they have allowed me to grow up without this important tradition?

“My mom got my grandfather’s recipe, we made some significant changes to make it healthier, made some rum punch and stayed up until the early morning trying to figure out how to spread the dough on the corn husk and seal it. They were top-tier tamales, and we have not made them again because buying them is much, much easier,” Rodriguez said.

Cundick also has a cultural tradition that will no longer be replicated. When she was a child in Slovakia, food shops would place barrels full of live carp for sale on the sidewalk the week leading up to Christmas. Families would buy the fish a few days prior to the Christmas Eve dinner feast and keep the carp alive in the bathtub.

“As kids, we would always play with the carp in the bathtub, it was so fun! You’d get some wooden spoons and chase the carp around the bathtub and then the carp gets eaten for dinner on the 24th,” Cundick said.

Aside from fried carp, a sauerkraut and sausage soup is usually prepared on Christmas Eve which Cundick still makes for her family every year, although she is unsure if this dish will continue with her children.

“The kids haven’t quite caught on yet to the awesomeness of the sauerkraut,” she said.

The Cundick family has created their own traditions as well which include a gift exchange in which they all draw names and make a homemade present for that person. This has become an especially valued custom for the energy and thoughtfulness that goes into the gift making. 

Rodriguez also expressed the importance of her nuclear family’s year to year customs which primarily consist simply of gathering and sipping on champurrado, a warm, masa-thickened chocolate-based drink.

“And I love the Christmases without tradition, where we didn’t do anything special except put up the tree and watch movies together — the kind that blend into one single repeated memory of just feeling warm in new Christmas socks with a champurrado in hand,” she wrote. 

Khadija Elbarkaoui who is living in Auburn and completing a one-year doctorate program at UMF, is experiencing a scene like the one Rodriguez described for the first time.

Elbarkaoui is from Zagora, a town in southern Morocco and arrived in Maine in June for her program and to join her husband who is from Auburn. She has decorated her own Christmas tree for the first time and will be spending Dec. 24 and 25 with her in-laws who are excitedly sharing their family traditions with their new daughter-in-law.

It’s [Christmas] not a part of my tradition, but it’s becoming a part of it now that I’m married to an American, so we can celebrate both and I am excited about that,” she said in video chat interview.

Elbarkaoui explained that in Morocco, the big holiday that people travel home for is Eid al-Adha, ‘Feast of the Sacrifice,’ which was celebrated on July 30 this year.

“So this holiday is like the Christmas of here, so its when the family has to get together and if someone is traveling, they will come back. So that’s like our Christmas, but we don’t do a lot of decorations,” she said. 

For the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, families will sacrifice a sheep and spend the rest of the week preparing the meat into various dishes such as couscous and a prune and almond tagine, some of Elbarkaoui’s favorite foods.

This summer, Elbarkaoui was far from home for Eid al-Adha so she walked to the mosque in Lewiston.

“I walked to the mosque not for the prayer because I don’t usually go and pray a ton, but I was curious to see how they do it,” she said.So I went there, I saw some women, they prayed, came back home and made breakfast and dinner.”

Khadija Elbarkaoui has been cooking her favorite food for her in-laws in Auburn, a prune and almond tagine. The Moroccan dish is typically prepared during the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. Photo courtesy of Khadija Elbarkaoui

That night, Elbarkaoui prepared for her in-laws an Eid al-Adha BBQ dinner reminiscent of the meal being cooked by her mother back in Zagora. 

Alba Fernandez, a Spanish teaching assistant at UMF is also using food as a bridge, bringing her Argentine traditions to Maine. Christmas Eve is a typical feast day for families in Argentina with many cold dishes laid out on a table since December is the middle of the summer season in the southern hemisphere.

For her second Christmas in Farmington, Fernandez will be preparing vitel toné which she referred to as an Argentinian passion.

“It came from Italy as many Italians migrated at the end of the 1800s, at the end of that century. It consists of a really tender meat that you boil,” Fernandez said. “If it’s veal it’s better, it’s even more soft, and then you create a sauce with cream and anchovy and that’s one of the favorite dishes of Argentine people. There are a lot of memes of people holding vitel toné.”

Fernandez also described pan dulce, a sweet bread baked with nuts and fruit similar to the Italian holiday bread panettone. Bakeries start selling pan dulce in early December and people take their daily maté break throughout the month with the popular bread.

She was able to replicate this tradition with her friends when she found a locally baked Almond Stollen from Woodjie’s Bakehouse in Vienna. Fernandez said that this second year in Farmington, she is trying to transmit more of her holiday customs.

“My first Christmas here I let them surprise me. I didn’t get ready at all, I didn’t buy any presents. I wanted to live the American Christmas, but as a spectator,” Fernandez said. “I think this year, I have taken a more active role. With my friends, we have planned a multicultural Christmas with some traditions from my place and most of them American.”  

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