Four Island families share their Christmas traditions

It's a tradition for the Athearns to cut down a Christmas tree from their property. Here, in 1990, from left to right are: Prudence, Simon, Dot Galley (an aunt), Debbie with Rachel the dog, Daniel (under tree, cutting). — Photo by Jim Athearn

Mary-Jean Miner’s Nog and Song

A music lover who delights in lifting her voice in song, it is little wonder that Mary-Jean Miner’s Christmas celebration rings with the joyful noise of carols. She launched her annual Nog and Song gathering in 1981 when she and her late husband, the Rev. Ken Miner, lived in Scituate.

“Several of us who sang in church choirs and the local Choral Art Society mentioned that we would like to get together and sing music that we wanted to sing,” Ms. Miner recalled. “I offered to make eggnog and have the group over.”

A festive musical tradition was born. The party began with 19 friends joining in nog, song and socializing. Over the years the group grew. Nog and Song has celebrated the season every year since, missing only one when the Miners had no piano.

The Miners moved to the Vineyard in 1991 when Ken was appointed pastor at the Trinity Methodist Church in the Campground. Nog and Song arrived with them.

Musical, fun-loving Vineyarders were quick to embrace the festivity. Many longtime Nog and Song followers continue even now to make the yearly trip from off-Island. For many years some brought a ham, dried peas and other ingredients, so Ms. Miner could make pea soup to serve the following evening for those who stayed over. She still prepares breakfast the next morning.

One year it stormed. Boats were cancelled. But the party went on with a handful of Vineyard guests. After her husband’s death in 1997, Ms. Miner kept the party going, lifting spirits for all who missed him. Numbers range from 30 up to 72 revelers crammed into the small house.

Ms. Miner cooks specialties and concocts her signature fluffy egg nog for the event, offering one non-alcoholic bowl, the other deceptively potent. The round dining table is laden with a potluck extravaganza of festive foods.

Along with jollity, non-stop conversation, and laughter, the party has a sweet, old-fashioned flavor. Ms. Miner’s cozy Vineyard Haven home glows with Christmas lights and candles. The tree is abundantly trimmed with colorful family ornaments. Friends cluster closely around the piano, joining in song as pianist friends play the old familiar carols.

With guests from Ms. Miner’s musical groups – Island Community Chorus, Federated Church choir, and Vintage Voices – the singing soars, strong voices encouraging those less confident.

“We have had grandkids and other babies arrive in carriers to spend much of the evening sleeping,” said Ms. Miner. “One of those babies came her first Christmas, when we lived in the parsonage in Oak Bluffs. Several years ago, she came again, with her mom and a friend from high school. Everyone loves to make music at holiday time, it seems!”

Sylvia Metell’s big family party

Sylvia Metell’s big family party is very different from the Christmas celebrations of her childhood. But it continues the tradition of bringing the extended family together.

Every mid-December for the past 30 years, Ms. Metell has welcomed up to 50 relatives of all ages to her home. Along with her five siblings there are cousins, children, and grandchildren who range from seven years to six months old, and her daughter Sarah is expecting in March. Ms. Metell’s mother, Fortunata “Nata” Metell, a smiling, sparkly-eyed matriarch is an honored guest.

Relatives arrive early at Ms. Metell’s Oak Bluffs home for the late Saturday afternoon party. Some gather in the kitchen to cook and bring potluck dishes. The buffet features baked ham, and plenty of appetizers and sides. Spinach balls, creamed chipped beef, stuffed mushrooms, and sweet pumpkin-cream cheese rolls are favorites.

“It’s all those nasty things you wouldn’t eat normally,” laughed Ms. Metell. “We’re a health-conscious family, but when it comes to the Christmas party all those things come out of the woodwork.”

Her mother’s macaroni and cheese is a staple with the children. Recently one brother brought fried turkey, an instant hit.

Like many others, Ms. Metell said that although the food is delicious the real focus of the party is family. Many who attend live on the Island, but a number who live elsewhere see each other only at this gathering.

“The party was designed to get the family together,” Ms. Metell said. “My Mom always instilled in us the importance of family.”

Along with feasting and catching up on news, the guests play games, enjoying friendly family rivalry. In earlier years there was a piñata and treasure hunt for children. The relatives relax by the fireplace and Christmas carols play.

Ms. Metell recalled with fond nostalgia the family celebrations years ago when older relatives, now departed, would go caroling with their guitars and fiddles, singing traditional Portuguese Christmas songs.

“I couldn’t wait to get old enough to go along with them,” she said. “That inspired the tradition I’m carrying on now.”

Ms. Metell still mourns the loss of her uncle Louis “Siggy” Paiva who played the guitar and sang – “He knew the words to every song.” She said her son, Greg, plays guitar and she is encouraging him to learn some of those old Christmas songs so there will be music at the family parties once again.

An angel in the Greens’ tree

For Carl and Beebe Green of Oak Bluffs, Christmas is all about family, church, favorite traditional foods, and one very special ornament.

Every year the Greens gather with their daughters, Alison and Danielle, grandchildren and tiny great-granddaughter for a warm family celebration. The Greens observe meaningful family traditions, whether here on the Vineyard or at one of their two daughters’ homes off-Island in Framingham or Portland, Maine.

“We always go to church on Christmas Eve, no matter where we are!” declared Ms. Green, a longtime active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven as is her husband. An eggnog toast with spicy homemade pumpkin cake is their Christmas Eve treat.

Carl and Beebe Green love to host the celebration here and they go all out decorating their comfortable home. They prepare favorite foods ahead and trim the Christmas tree – except for the finishing touch, their beautiful black angel.

Many years ago, Ms. Green spied the dark-faced angel at Grace Church’s annual Holly Day bazaar. Hand crafted by the late Bea Atkinson, the angel had golden wings and a deep green and gold gown. Ms. Green just had to have her, and the angel has graced their tree ever since.

On the years when the family gathers in Oak Bluffs the Greens’ daughters and their families arrive on Dec. 26 so the little ones can enjoy Christmas Day at home.

“We don’t put it up until everyone arrives,” Ms. Green explained. “Then we put the angel on top of the tree. We open gifts before dinner, because the children can’t wait.”

There are stockings for all, even the grownups, with a citrus fruit tucked in the

toe. Finally the family sits down to a sumptuous feast — homemade macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes mashed with pineapple and brown sugar, and corn pudding are the traditional favorites, served with turkey and ham.

The festive table is elegantly laid with Ms. Green’s cherished Lenox china set. Even when the children are not here, Ms. Green confided, she uses the special china to celebrate Christmas, “Just for Carl and me. I love to drink coffee out of those China cups. My mother started that for me and added to it over the years. Now we have enough for everyone.”

As many Athearns and Galleys as can fit in one house

When Jim and Debbie Athearn celebrate Christmas, they weave together traditions from both their families, with some new ones too. Deborah Galley of Edgartown and Jim Athearn of West Tisbury grew up on the Vineyard and were married in 1969. They own and operate Morning Glory Farm. Their three children, Prudence, Daniel, and Simon, have settled here and now have young families of their own.

They began joining family Christmas gatherings at the West Tisbury home of his parents, Elizabeth and Elmer “Mike” Athearn. In a few years, the party outgrew the small Music Street house. Jim’s brother George “Harry” Athearn and his wife, Debby hosted at their Lambert’s Cove home. These days, the family Christmas festivities take place in Chilmark, at the home of Jim’s sister, Connie Taylor.

As years passed, children came and grew, and the Athearns, like other families, found their Christmas activities changing. But they have always been committed to getting together with family members.

“We always gather with as many Athearns and Galleys as we can pull together,” said Ms. Athearn.

Ms. Athearn said that their children now embrace some traditions that she and her husband recalled from their own youths. “We always went out in the woods and cut trees,” Ms. Athearn recalled of her Edgartown childhood. Although there was always a big main tree, the youngsters could cut other, smaller trees. Our kids always had little trees in their bedrooms,” Ms. Athearn said, as Jim and his siblings did when growing up.

Today the Athearns still cut Christmas trees on the farm, customarily on Christmas Eve, as was done in Ms. Athearn’s family years ago.

“Christmas Eve was a whole day of celebration,” recalled Ms. Athearn about the days when her children were little.

Christmas Eve supper was “extremely simple” instead of her usual hearty, homemade meal. In the warm farmhouse, they hung stockings, then sat and read Christmas stories together, even as the children grew older.

Now that their children have little ones of their own, the Athearns are busy grandparents at Christmas Time, going from house to house as the seven young children (along with one new baby) wait for Santa on Christmas Eve and open gifts the next day. On Christmas Eve they join the younger families for the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury’s Nativity Pageant at the Ag Hall.

Then it’s supper and stockings at the Chilmark home of Dan and Meg, who has introduced the gift-giving elf “Bates” to all the grandchildren, who now count on his secretly delivered present on Christmas Eve.

Christmas morning is a whirlwind of gifts at the children’s houses, then a hearty breakfast at the Athearns’ Edgartown home for the immediate family. A walk through the Chilmark hills helps everyone digest the delicious eggs benedict, sausage, and fruit salad, and then it’s time to meet at Ms. Taylor’s and celebrate together once again.

While once a big dinner was served on Christmas, the family has decided to “tone it down,” said Ms. Athearn. The menu this year will emphasize lighter fare, potluck finger foods.

“We’re just gathering for the enjoyment,” said Ms. Athearn. “We’ve always felt that Christmas is not so much about food as the celebration, the sharing of gifts.”

Their Christmas ends at last in the Edgartown home they built decades ago, a tiring day perhaps but filled with love, warmth, and comfort of family that endures over the generations.


Mary-Jean Miner’s Traditional Eggnog

Plan to have wine and hot cider on hand, as this stuff is a bit much to drink all evening.

For each dozen eggs, use one box of confectioners’ sugar. Separate the eggs, setting whites aside to add later. Beat the dozen egg yolks with the sugar until pale yellow and well blended. Add one-half liter Myers’s rum and mix well. Let stand for an hour to dispel eggy flavor. Add more rum, amount as desired.

Add two quarts half and half. Chill overnight. The next day, whip egg whites and fold into egg mixture.

Just before serving, add approximately one cup Courvoisier. Grind fresh nutmeg over top, leaving the grinder next to the punch bowl for those who really like nutmeg.

Mary-Jean Miner’s Spanakopita

(Always a favorite on the Nog and Song buffet table)

2 pounds fresh spinach
3 bunches scallions
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon mint, fresh or dried
1 pound feta cheese
6 eggs
salt and pepper
20 sheets filo pastry
1/2 pound melted butter

Wash spinach, let dry, pat with paper towels, or spin dry in a salad spinner. Chop spinach fine. Sauté onions in four tablespoons butter. Add spinach. Beat eggs slightly. Add to the eggs: crumbled feta, onions, mint, salt and pepper. Add this to spinach/onion mixture.

Dribble some butter onto the bottom of a 15x11x2 inch pan. Line pan with six sheets of filo, brushing each with melted butter. Spread one third of the spinach mixture on dough, then cover with five sheets filo, buttering and spreading spinach mixture on each, then topping with filo, ending with spinach.

Top with remaining four filo sheets and remaining butter. Tuck all edges under.

Bake at 350 degrees for 55 to 60 minutes, or until golden brown.

Let spanakopita sit on a rack for a while, to make it a bit easier to cut into squares.
Watch it disappear!

Beebe Green’s Pumpkin Cake

The Green family enjoys this traditional sweet treat on Christmas Eve with eggnog. Prepare this rich cake three days before serving.

2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
1 can pumpkin
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons each: ground cloves and cinnamon

Cream together sugar and eggs. Add vegetable oil. Add pumpkin.

Sift together: flour, baking soda, salt, cloves, and cinnamon. Add dry ingredients gradually to pumpkin mixture. Mix thoroughly.

Pour batter into a 10-inch tube pan, greased and floured or treated with baking cooking spray.

Bake at 350 degrees for 55 to 60 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean when inserted into cake. Cool cake thoroughly in pan. Remove and ice with Cream Cheese Icing.

Store cake in refrigerator, covered with foil, for three days. Slice, serve and enjoy!

Cream Cheese Icing

4 ounces (1/2 brick) cream cheese
3/4 box confectioner’s sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 pound (one stick) butter, softened

Beat all together until smooth and creamy.

Beebe Green’s Corn and Oyster Casserole

This rich and savory dish is always part of Carl and BeBee Green’s Christmas dinner.

1 can creamed corn
3 eggs
1 small container shucked oysters (available at fish market)
1/2 stick butter
1/2 – l cup bread crumbs
salt and pepper

Beat eggs. Add to corn in casserole dish. Add oysters with a little juice. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cover with bread crumbs. Dot with small butter chunks.

Bake at 350 degrees 20 to 30 minutes or until set.

Sylvia Metell’s Malasadas

This traditional Portuguese fried dough is a long-standing favorite with Sylvia Metell’s big, extended family.

1 1/3 cup evaporated milk
1 1/3 cup water
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup butter
1 teaspoon plus 1/3 cup sugar
l package yeast
7 medium eggs
1 tablespoon anise or lemon extract

Mix milk, water, salt, butter, and one teaspoon sugar together in saucepan. Heat and scald. Let cool until warm. Mix in yeast.

Beat eggs well. Add 1/3 cup sugar. Continue beating. Add one tablespoon anise or lemon extract. Add warm milk mixture. Add four cups flour gradually, while beating. (At this point the dough may be frozen or refrigerated until ready to use.)

Let dough rise until doubled. It will be sticky.

Flour hands. Pick off small handfuls of dough. Flatten. Deep fry in hot vegetable oil. Turn while cooking. Fry until golden brown. Remove and drain on paper towels. Toss immediately with granulated or confectioners sugar.

The Athearns’ Cranberry Pudding

It’s a cake, not a pudding, but Jim’s grandmother, Clara Look Athearn, made this for him as a child, and Debbie learned to make it in the early years of their marriage. The original recipe was filled with “scants,” which simply means “a little less” than the amount called for.

3/4 (scant) cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2-3/4 tsp. salt
1 cup milk (not skim)
2 cups rinsed fresh cranberries
2 tsp. melted butter

For hard sauce:

1/2 cup soft butter
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 8-inch square pan.

Mix together sugar, baking powder, flour, and salt. Add milk, cranberries, and melted butter. Stir until it is well-mixed. Pour into prepared pan and bake for about 30 minutes. Let cake cook.

Meanwhile, prepare hard sauce:

Beat butter on medium speed in a small mixing bowl until fluffy. Beat in sugar and vanilla and chill. Spread on cranberry cake just before serving.