One City’s World of Traditions

Jessica Lee Green, middle, and her grandmother and daughter prepare for Armenian Thanksgiving. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

When I was growing up, the holidays began Thanksgiving Day during the Macy’s parade, when our giant, old, fake tree would appear from the attic and I’d sort out the branches into color-coded piles. As I’ve gotten older and had kids, traditions have changed. Moving to Somerville six years ago gave us a new set of traditions: a tree from the Somerville High School sale at Foss Park, visiting the inflatable decorations several times a day, and so many new families to celebrate with. We spend less time watching the parade and more time hosting Friendsgivings with the neighbors—although I do miss the parade floats (and cable TV!).

For many Somerville folks, the season officially starts with the Gobble Gobble Gobble, a four-mile race sponsored by the Somerville Road Runners. Starting in Davis Square, the race attracts many enthusiastic Somerville residents—in various states of turkey dressing—and benefits Project Soup.

Roz Puleo is my Gobble Gobble Gobble running buddy. A long-time Somervillen and a nurse practitioner, she owns a cycling education company with her husband. They’ve run every year as her family has grown, a familiar sight with the double running stroller carrying their children, ages four and one. Although they’re temporarily living outside Somerville, they’ll be returning for the race since it’s become an important family tradition.

They’re not the only people to get the Somerville bug. For Kristen Strezo, co-chair of the Somerville Commission for Women, and her partner Robert Filippo, their Hanukkah bush is incomplete without a tiny ornamental can of Fluff to commemorate Somerville’s annual Fluff Festival. Union Square is an important part of the holiday season for Maggie Norcross Devin and Tim Devin, who begin December with a trip to Gracie’s for ice cream and then walk their tree home from Ricky’s in Union Square. The city and its rituals have worked their way into holiday traditions for many families, regardless of whether they’re ’Ville transplants or natives.

Bringing Traditions Home

For Jessica Lee Green, who has lived in Somerville most of her life, the holidays start the weekend before American Thanksgiving.

Green and her husband, Andre, who serves on the Somerville School Committee, live in her grandmother’s childhood home in Ten Hills. She says her mother grew concerned their Armenian traditions were fading as their family started to get busier and spend less time together for each holiday.

“She implemented ‘Armenian Thanksgiving’ the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Now that she’s passed, my sister and I will be continuing that tradition. It’s sort of the kick-off of the holiday season for us,” Green says. Armenian Thanksgiving isn’t all that different from our American tradition, save the food traditions passed down in Green’s family. Green’s great-grandmother, Varthui Torosian, brought these recipes to Somerville when she left Armenia after World War I.

Preparations start months before then, in August, when Green, along with her daughter, sister, and grandmother, process 220 pounds of tomatoes into the tomato juice that provides the base for many of their family recipes. It is suspected that this particular tomato juice recipe is Armenian by way of Turkey, as Torosian worked for a Turkish doctor before coming to the United States.

“Pilaf is an important component of most holiday meals in our family. And I have no idea how to make it without tomato juice.”

Neighborhood Lights

For me, though, the season doesn’t truly begin until I’ve failed to acquire tickets for the Illuminations Tour, a popular Arts Council event that consists of trolleys driving through the most ornately decorated neighborhoods of Somerville. Most folks line up for tickets hours in advance, which is nearly impossible with small kids in tow.

I polled my favorite mom group on Facebook, and the nearly impossible-to-get tickets came up again and again.

“One of my favorite traditions is sending a single child-free friend to stand in line for over an hour in Ball Square to get Illuminations Tour tickets,” Aili Contini-Field says. Meanwhile, Somerville parent Diana Jong resolves that 2017 will be the year she finally starts her new tradition: “I’m gonna get on that trolley this year!!”

Abbe Cohen Dvornik and Bert Dvornik have been on the Illuminations trolley before, but now skip the tour for quieter, light-appreciating walks as a family.

The pair, who Abbe describes as “American-mostly-secular-Jewish and Croatian-fairly-traditional-Catholic,” met at MIT. When they had children, Abbe found herself longing to do something Christmas-y, but not with the same Santa traditions that she and her husband hadn’t connected with as children.

Growing up Jewish in New Jersey, Santa reminded Abbe of a holiday her family didn’t celebrate. Bert’s memories of communist Croatia didn’t have Santa, but “Father Frost,” who also wore a red suit but gave out presents on New Year’s Day.

Both Bert and Abbe are engineers, software and mechanical/robotic, respectively. So they set about engineering a hybrid holiday they’d enjoy. Their Somerville holidays now involve a Hanukkah celebration with fried food and gifts including thrift-store treasures, little free library finds, and shiny new tomes from Porter Square Books. This ritual pairs with a Christmas that features Midnight Mass, early morning presents, and then a breakfast of cookies after the kids sleep in. No red-suited gift-givers visit, but they do put up a tree.

As a child Bert put up his tree on Christmas Eve, a tradition that needed some adjustment here.

“We have long since learned that if you try buying a tree on the 23rd or 24th in a city where nobody else sets up on the 24th, you wind up with a Charlie Brown tree that they couldn’t sell,” Abbe says. So now they buy it early and stash it outside until they’re ready, then go to town decorating with cheesy music blasting.

“Under our tree is possibly the only lovingly homemade nativity set made by a crafty Jew using polymer clay in the entire world,” she says.

Evolving Traditions

But for some, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Tiffany Costa is a lifelong Somerville resident and doesn’t have to go far to visit family these days—her parents live downstairs in their Winter Hill home. Her traditions are born from the mix of what she and her siblings loved and hated as kids.

“Growing up, we had a love-hate relationship with the holidays,” Costa says. Visiting family was always fun, but meant foregoing playtime with new toys. Memories of fun days with her cousins at her grandparents’ were colored with the longing of unopened boxes at home.

Christmas with her husband, Kenny, and their four kids now involves a big dinner on Christmas Eve while tracking and calling Santa on an app. Presents are opened Christmas morning. After breakfast downstairs with Nana and Papa, it’s back upstairs to take everything out of the box and play all day. Costa knows the importance of play, as she’s been director of a daycare center for many years. She laughs, “At some point, we take showers, get dressed, eat our own dinner … but the kids are never taken away from their toys!”

This story appears in the November/December print issue of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription.

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