Growing up in Florida’s beautiful Gulf Coast was extraordinary. The holiday season was the most wonderful time of the year in our beloved city. From holiday traditions and rituals, to the great food and drinks, to my beloved family and friends, I have beautiful memories living in the Gulf Coast.
My Mom and Grandmother loved the holidays, and they decorated our home accordingly. They especially loved the Christmas holiday season, and they made sure that my six siblings and I always had great holidays. We usually kicked off the Christmas holiday season shortly after Thanksgiving. I remember my family going to a “tree farm” or shopping center annually to shop for our Christmas tree. It was always a joy searching for the perfect tree with the perfect aroma. Once we got home, we would listen to Christmas music, wrap gifts, bake Christmas cookies and decorate our tree and our home.
My Mom loved shopping and so did my beloved grandmother. They would often shop for our Christmas presents while we were at school. When we became teenagers, an annual tradition was going Christmas shopping with my Mom & Grandmother on Black Friday to choose our own Christmas present. I’ll never forget the trips to Sears, J.C. Penney’s and Gayfers. I remember one year I received a designer burgundy Aigner leather jacket. Another year, I received a teal-colored Velvet pantsuit and another Christmas, a beautiful off-white suit.
Preparing for the holiday season is a job in itself, especially if entertaining is involved. However, Christmas Eve was always fun! We baked cakes, sugar cookies and chocolate chip cookies, watched my Mom slave over the hot stove to make her famous fudge, and reminisce about how much our father loved her fudge, and eventually we started cooking some of the dishes for Christmas dinner – all before attending Midnight Mass.
As far as church traditions, we grew up Catholic, and we attended church service on Christmas Eve. We loved going to church on Christmas Eve, so we could stay at home and play with our gifts all day on Christmas. Midnight Mass was always an amazing experience for me, and it was filled with some of your favorite Christmas songs, an inspiring message, candle lighting and the church filled with the intoxicating smell of frankincense and myrrh incense. I loved the Christmas service. Everything was so beautiful! There was also a short Christmas play or skit. Some years, we would attend church on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I remember my friends going to church on Christmas Day and participating in a Christmas play. After Midnight Mass, my Mom would allow us to open one gift before we retired for the night. Of course, as we got older, we received less gifts and it wasn’t quite as fun opening a gift on Christmas Eve. So, that tradition eventually faded away.
When it comes to food traditions in my family, several items come to mind. Gumbo, Egg Nog and a plethora of Cakes. One tradition that I hold dear to my heart is my Grandmother cooking a big pot of Gumbo. This dish is highly-celebrated and appreciated in my home and many others in the Gulf Coast states. It was an all day project that we enjoyed indulging in. From gathering the robust ingredients to chopping vegetables and meat (okra, Andouille Sausage, chicken), to preparing the “holy trinity” (sauteed chopped celery, onions, and bell pepper), to making the perfect “roux”, this was the utmost experience. “Roux” is flour that’s browned in oil to thicken and flavor the gumbo and other Cajun dishes. The roux is the foundation of the Gumbo and one must be ready and alert to stir continuously for at least 30-40 minutes… Although the color of a roux is often debated among gumbo aficionados, my Grandmother insisted that the roux be cooked to a deep mahogany brown or a Chocolate brown to obtain the richest flavor. You had to be extremely attentive and not burn or scorch the roux or you would have to start over…
Gumbo was prepared often in our home, and Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it. Still today, I love to cook up a big pot of Gumbo for my family. In our culture, Gumbo was considered a delicacy and sometimes we would make Chicken Gumbo, Chicken and Beef Gumbo, and other times it would be Seafood Gumbo filled with Andouille Sausage, chicken, crabs, crab legs, and shrimp from the Gulf Coast. Occasionally, my Grandmother would throw in some oysters. The Gumbo was served over rice. Some like french bread or crackers with their bowl of Gumbo. There’s something really special about a pot of soul soothing Gumbo. My Grandmother always found time to share stories about our ancestors when we were making Gumbo, and every time I eat a bowl of Gumbo, I feel I’m eating history. Gumbo isn’t just gumbo. It’s a pot full of love, family, ancestors, Creole and Cajun roots, all wrapped up in one big pot.
Needless to say, I feel extremely blessed to have learned how to make Gumbo and to be the one in the family that often cooks up a big pot of Gumbo and have my family and friends over to enjoy. Over the years, my family have spent the holidays in New Orleans, Pensacola and Tallahassee, Florida, and enjoyed Gumbo at different family member’s home. My sister and two of my sister-in-laws both love to cook Gumbo, too! I cook Gumbo for Christmas, New Year’s Day and other special celebrations, and throughout the year just because it’s my favorite meal.
The traditional Christmas Dinner was also served each year. This included Turkey, honey-baked Ham, Cornbread Dressing, Oyster Dressing, Macaroni & Cheese, Collard Greens, Potato Salad, Green Bean Casserole, Sweet Potatoes Souffle’, Cranberry sauce, Hot rolls, Sweet Tea and Lemonade. We all had our favorite dish to cook.
“Queen of Fruitcakes”
My Grandmother Ethel was the “Queen of Fruitcakes” and she gifted our family and her friends with her tasty fruitcake that she drowned with Rum every single year. Fruitcake was definitely a tradition in our family and many other families in the Gulf Coast. I remember the fruitcake being really colorful and heavy, and I recall the sweet smell of fruit and Rum. After the fruitcake was baked, Grandmother Ethel would pour alcohol on the cake and wrap the fruitcake tightly in foil and put it in a holiday tin. A lot of people didn’t care for fruitcake, but if you tasted my Grandmother’s fruitcake you would change your mind. My only regret is no one in my family was taught how to make her famous fruitcake before she made her transition. We would have loved to pass it down to the next generation.
Some of the favorite cakes in our home were German Chocolate Cake and Carrot Cake. I would make these two cakes every Thanksgiving and Christmas. My sister would make the best Cream Cheese Pound Cake and 7-Up Pound Cake. As I got older, I started whipping up a Red Velvet Cake. We were pretty good at baking cakes. My Mom and Grandmother Leona taught us how to cook at an early age. My Mom would teach us how to cook some of her favorite meals, too.
Another holiday tradition in our family was making Eggnog or Egg Nog. How can one celebrate the holidays without a nice glass of Egg Nog spiked with Brandy, Bourbon, or Rum? My Grandmother made homemade Egg Nog and we indulged in it throughout the holiday season. Of course the minors in the house had to enjoy it without the shot of alcohol. In case you have never experienced Egg Nog, it is a rich, chilled sweetened, dairy-based beverage made with milk, cream, sugar, whipped egg whites and egg yolks. You can also buy it at your local grocery store, but the homemade Egg Nog is much better than the store bought concoction. Decades later, and my family still enjoys Egg Nog.
When I lived in the Gulf Coast area or if my family spent the holidays in Pensacola, Florida, I would often find myself at Pensacola Beach, Navarre Beach, or Fort Walton Beach. I’m the beach lover in the family, so I always found a way to escape to the beach after dinner, whether it was Christmas or New Year’s Day. I enjoy spending time on the beach meditating and enjoying the ocean.
Lastly, my family recently started a special holiday tradition spending Thanksgiving at the beach in Destin,Florida. We rented a house or condo and celebrated with a traditional turkey and dressing meal. Although its chilly around Thanksgiving, we still enjoy going to the beach and everyone in my family seem to really enjoy trying something new and establishing new roots.
Although these are just some of the holiday traditions that my family observed in the Gulf Coast, there are many more. Creating and sharing holiday traditions with your loved ones can be rewarding. After all, it’s a great time to relax, spend quality time together, and just enjoy each other’s company. What holiday traditions have you and your family established and passed down?