Holiday Dream Traditions Need Rice Balls and Singer Advent Wreaths

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French Quarter at Night, New Orleans, Louisiana By Bruno Barbier buy at ART.comAs a chef and a foodie, holiday dream traditions intrigue me. To think that there is a celebration that is shared in so many corners of the world is inspiring to say the least.

Christmas. Hanukkah. Kwanza. St. Lucia day.

Holiday traditions involve food every time. It is so personal, at least to me.

And it’s about connection and tradition.

In Korea, people celebrate winter solstice. They prepare red bean porridge (Pad Jook) along with balls of rice. Overcooked rice, but that’s the way they want it. The rice balls symbolize a “new life” and a person should eat one rice ball for each year of their life. It’s a beautiful tradition and I respect it, but for me. .. that would be like 50 rice balls. . .

In one sitting?!?

Growing up in New Orleans, I was raised in a wonderful, richly traditional neighborhood called,  “Gentilly.”

Gentilly Terrace and Gardens By Infrogmation of New Orleans CC-BY-2.0  via Wikimedia CommonsIt was closer to Lake Pontchartrain than the Mississippi River. I grew up Catholic (New Orleans pronunciation: catlick). Very catlick. My mother was also Sicilian, which made the holiday traditions both heavy and fun.

My neighborhood was a mesh of black, white, Irish, German, Italian and aliens (all of us). We were tight-knit and we’d always travel together in a pack.

In my New Orleans neighborhood, each family would prepare for their traditional version of Christmas. Everyone would cook up a storm and gather together throughout the weeks leading up to the end of the year to honor each other’s holiday traditions.

Several families celebrated Advent, but Joanie’s house would be the host-house and we’d all eat there afterwards. We’d walk down the block to Joanie’s four Sundays in a row to acknowledge the coming of Christ, but we were really more excited about spinning her Lazy Susan than lighting candles and reading the from the book of Isaiah.

Advent Candles By Godong buy at Art.comMy friend, Steven, had lived next door to me since birth and he was always a part of my Christmas memories. In fact, we still consider ourselves brother and sister.

Steven would always be quiet for our walks home from the Joanie’s Sunday advent adventure and it wasn’t like him. One day, he finally spoke up.

He said,  “Maria?  I know this is an important holiday . . . but I don’t understand. Why do we go to Joanie’s and pray to the sewing machine? I kneel and see ‘Singer,’ yet I think I’m saying Catholic prayers. Isn’t Singer Jewish?”

I explained to him that the Advent wreath was sitting on top of the Singer sewing machine, that is was a Catholic thing and the following Sunday he didn’t have to sing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” if he didn’t want.

The holidays are a difficult time for many ( including myself ).   I miss my friends and family in new Orleans and the huge Christmas eve party at my home every year with food for miles.    My mom and my Aunt Bee would sit at the kitchen table making mini muffulettas for Christmas eve.  They would make 6 and eat 5 so it took a long time to get to the goal of 100+.    I of course would dream at Christmas of new toys and games but mostly I would dream about the gathering of friends and family.    I remember staring out of the big picture window in my living room waiting for our friends and family to arrive.   These memories are what make me happy this time of year.    If you are one of the many who lose your dreams during the holidays and feel sadness, it’s ok.  Your dreams are always there. There are some things you can do to have a happy holiday season:

 Bask in good memories and call friends and family if you live apart to reminisce about your holiday memories.   Create new traditions and memories with extended family where you live,  Watch Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer on tv and tell me that didn’t make you smile and feel warm.   Share a nice dinner with a good friend and keep things low key, volunteer to help others,   Celebrate a new holiday.  Since I live so far from my family and friends, and the fact that I am a Seinfeld junkie,  I celebrate Festivus.   My friends bought me the official pole and we gather and share lots of laughter and lots of good food.

 There’s plenty of time to dream,  the important thing is to do whatever feels best during the holidays.  No one said you must “celebrate” a certain way.   I personally find Christmas to be grossly commercialized, materialistic and exhausting so I take another avenue that feels peaceful. 

The memories I have of my childhood holidays are gold to me… the love, the connection, and the food.

They make me smile.

Today’s recipe is something I grew up eating every Christmas day. It was probably my favorite thing except for the anise seeds.  I would spit them out and pile them on the side of my plate.

Happy holidays wherever you are.


Italian Sausage in Red Gravy  ( it’s how we say “marinara”  in New Orleans )

You’ll need:

  • Italian sausage  ( 1 lb. per person in New Orleans, 4-6 oz. per person everywhere else )
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • Tons of chopped garlic
  • Olive oil
  • A few cans of diced tomatoes
  • 1 can of tomato paste
  • 1 can of tomato sauce
  • Oregano
  • Basil
  • Salt
  • Black Pepper
  • Sugar


Brown the sausage in a skillet with olive oil.   In a heavy bottomed pot, sauté chopped onion in olive oil.  Add garlic but be careful not to burn the garlic.  Add the tomato products  and season with all of the spices except the sugar. Add the sausage.  Cook on low for 2 hours minimum stirring occasionally and tasting.   Right before serving, add enough sugar to take away the acidity of the tomatoes

Serve over pasta ( or not ) and top with fresh grated romano or whole milk ricotta cheese


  • Love your story of “singer” – that happens as a kid all the time doesn’t it! I was lucky enough to enjoy “the love, the connection and the food” this year.

    Thanks Maria – Heather

  • Catherine

    I told my very Catholic mother your advent story and she laughed and laughed, especially since she used to set up her complete manger scene on her singer sewing machine table.  I sometimes wonder how she did it all with working as a nurse and making sure we followed holiday traditions.  We always went to midnight mass, where you’d see people who hadn’t been to church in years.  Thanks for making me remember what I loved about the holidays when I was young.


  • ImanWoods

    Beautiful. I hope your Christmas was lovely. Someday, you’re taking me on a tour of YOUR New Orleans.