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Neighbors of Kane County

Holiday traditions

Nov 01, 2017 08:30AM ● By Ben Scott

by Ben Scott

Whether religious, cultural or entirely original, many families have inherited traditions that make their holidays unique.  Sometimes these traditions are quirky or unusual and reflect a family’s distinct personality, while other families have traditions that are rooted in a special place like their hometown.

Charlie Chemes worked 
for the Batavia Public 
Works Department and 
Inspired the red Christmas

Locally, there are numerous opportunities to make lasting memories during the winter holidays. One tradition many Batavia families enjoy involves the annual search for “Charlie’s tree.” This tradition started decades ago when Batavia Water Department foreman Charlie Chemes was having a hard time finding an all-red Christmas tree to represent his family’s Mexican heritage (south of the U.S. border, trees are often decorated in red during the holiday season). Some of the guys from the Water Department heard about Charlie’s dilemma and decided to have some fun with him by hiding a fir tree decorated with red lights downtown; hiding “Charlie’s tree” became a tradition, and to this day families still hunt for the singular red tree among Batavia’s downtown light standards.

“Our holiday tradition has been to find Charlie’s tree my children’s whole lives,” said Batavia resident Debbie Ruh Nelson. “They are 22, 20 and 16 and still let me know where it is every year.”

Batavia native Alison Witt said she and her husband Peter love going to see the Mooseheart lights during the holidays. Alison and Peter grew up in Batavia and have continued this tradition with their children.

“We started doing this just the two of us, added our son Jack, then Will, and we cannot wait to bring out daughter Kate along this year,” Alison said. “We always go by the Batavia Popcorn Depot first and then head over to see the lights while eating the best popcorn around. This is one of our many traditions but our favorite tradition close to home.”

The Batavia Public 
Works Department 
erects the tree on the 
island south of the bridge
to honor the request of a 
Batavia WWII veteran.

Other Batavia holiday symbols have additional historical significance, like the large fir tree that used to stand on the island south of the Wilson St. Bridge. Back in the 1960s, the fir tree died and had to be cut down by the city. Batavia resident and WWII veteran Robert Kalina wrote an impassioned plea to the city council to replace it, recounting the way memories of the tree helped him get through a difficult Christmas spent in the trenches during the war. Kalina’s letter sparked a discussion, and eventually the Electric Department decided to run a line in a bracket in the shape of a Christmas tree on the island—another Batavia tradition which continues to this day.

Still other Batavia traditions like Batavia’s annual holiday toy drive originated because of the generosity of a few engaged citizens. In 1950, Batavia Fire Chief Bud Richter recognized that there were a lot of area kids without toys during the holidays, and he also noticed the Fire Department had some downtime in the afternoons. Thus, Richter came up with the idea to repair broken dolls, bicycles and toy trucks at the Fire Department and donate them through the Batavia Rotary Club to needy kids. Other local groups like the VFW Women’s Club helped out by making and outfitting clothing for hundreds of dolls. Today, this tradition continues in the form of the Batavia Access Toy Drive which raises thousands of dollars from donations and served over 600 kids just last year.

Alison and Peter Witt are 
passing on their favorite 
Batavia traditions to their 
young family. 

Like these longstanding Batavia traditions, many family holiday traditions go back years and evolve as each new generation adds their own unique spin to the custom. Batavia resident Jenny Scott recalled the way her family continued their celebration of the Saint Nicholas’ Day holiday after arriving in the United States from Germany and Austria in the early 20th century.

“My grandparents had thirteen children who were all married and had children of their own. It was a huge family and we used to get together on the evening of December 5th to celebrate. Since there were so many children, instead of putting boots out, St. Nick delivered the sweets in individual bags for each child. All of these bags were put in a big, galvanized tub outside the door. It was very exciting when we looked out later that evening, saw the tub and realized St. Nick had finally come. There were always good chocolates, pfeffernüsse cookies and tangerines.”

When Scott married and had a family of her own, the St. Nicholas tradition continued with the addition of an unusual Christmas tree “pickle game.”

“My mother-in-law bought me a pickle ornament years ago and told me about the tradition of The Christmas Pickle. No one is really sure where this game came from, but some say it originated in Germany. Someone hides the pickle somewhere on the Christmas tree and the first to find it wins a prize. This has turned into a huge event at our house. We go in heats of two people at a time, and the winner plays other winners until we’re down to one. It gets pretty competitive. Ornaments have gotten broken in the excitement, but now we have a rule that if you touch the tree, you’re out.” 

Like Scott, Batavia resident Marcie Callicoat’s Christmas celebrations include a large extended family.

Marcie and Neil Callicoat are creating lasting memories in Batavia for their children. 

“This family (the Bordoshuk family) has been getting together on Christmas Day for over 70 years. The celebration includes at least 50 or 60 people with aunts, ‘aunties’ (which are different than aunts), grandparents, nieces, nephews, spouses, friends, etc. The meal always includes an extensive variety of homemade family traditions like Polish sausage and sauerkraut, pierogies, a roasted turkey, amazing mashed potatoes, enchiladas and sweets that could last for months but usually don’t.”

Marcie and her husband Neil moved to Batavia four and half years ago—one of the best decisions of their life, according to Marcie. The couple has a five year old daughter who just started kindergarten at Hoover Wood and a three year old son in preschool at New Horizons. In their immediate family, the Callicoats have already developed local traditions and Marcie said the holidays are one of her family’s favorite times of year to make lasting memories.

“Every year, we attend the tree lighting ceremony downtown and drive through Mooseheart to meet Santa. The kids love the lights. These are two of my favorite Batavia traditions.

The Callicoats also go above and beyond to give back during the holidays.              

“I’m proud to share that instead of exchanging gifts, our family collects donations for a charity,” Marcie said.  “The charity is chosen by the person who hosts the party that year and the cause is always something special to that particular host. Everyone takes turns hosting and everyone pitches in.”

And Marcie said her family also has a tradition for closing out the holidays.

“Our favorite tradition to end the holiday season is a New Year’s Eve sleepover. We ring in the New Year with some of our closest friends. We each take turns hosting and we always stay in to play games and watch movies. We used to get together before kids and now we’ve continued the tradition with our children. But I have to admit it’s getting harder to stay awake!”

What are some of your favorite holiday traditions? Do you plan on continuing an old tradition or starting a new one with your family this year? Whatever your plans are, the holidays are a great time to reflect on the importance of traditions and their unique ability to bring families together while creating memories that last a lifetime.