Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tullis Manor’s Ethnic Trees of Christmas

In the mid-1970s, the City of Biloxi embraced its multi-ethnic heritage and began marketing and celebrating the city’s unique culture and character through events like “The Ethnic Trees of Christmas” in the newly restored Tullis-Toleando Manor.

The celebration included British, Italian, French, Slavic and, in later years, Vietnamese and African-American trees sponsored and decorated by the city’s social and cultural groups, including the Slavonian Ladies’ Auxiliary and the Fleur de Lis Society .

My mother and aunts were members of the Slavonian Ladies’ Auxiliary’s tree committee. They were excited, but stumped. What exactly did a Slavic Christmas tree look like? As second generation Americans, their concept of the holiday was largely shaped by this country’s customs.

Somehow an aluminum tree with blue glass bulbs from Woolworth’s, like the one in my grandparents’ living room, just didn’t seem appropriate for the Tullis Manor’s stately antebellum setting. Clearly some library research was in order.

The committee found references to a “tree for the birds” popular in many snowy Slavic countries. Fruit and popcorn were cheap and easy. Still the tree lacked something. It just didn’t reflect the culture these ladies had grown up with.

In a truly inspired moment, someone hung some donut holes, which resemble the popular holiday pastry pusharates, on the tree. Someone else baked dough ornaments shaped like hrstule (bowties) another popular holiday pastry. They decorated a mantle next to the tree with South Mississippi greenery, St. Nicholas strings and statues of Croatia’s holiday saints, St. Nick and St. Lucy, from the religious shop downtown.

Actually, the shop didn’t have a St. Nicholas figurine in stock. They did have St. Patrick. A few dabs of paint turned his green robes red and his shamrock into a sprig of holly. And voila,St. Nicholas.

St. Lucy resembled a Disney princess with a flowing pink gown and abundant golden tresses. Her big blue eyes -- gouged out by her pagan torturers-- peeked up demurely from a platter she held out as if offering tea cakes.

In the end the Slavic tree wound up being a little Old Country, a little New Country – just like the Slavic residents of Point Cadet.

The ethnic trees remained a Tullis-Toleando Manor staple right up until Hurricane Katrina. The storm’s surge deposited Grand Casino’s barge right on top of the beautiful old home destroying it forever.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

St. Nicholas: My Favorite Saint

December 6 is the feast of St. Nicholas – my favorite saint. In Europe, Christmas is still considered a religious holiday, and the Feast of St. Nicholas is the day for fun and presents (although that is changing somewhat).

The generous Greek bishop comes to the aid of dowerless damsels, children, sailors, fishermen, the wrongly imprisoned and darn near anybody else who needs his help. No wonder everybody wants to throw him a party!

St. Nicholas is recognized and celebrated all over Europe. He is particularly popular in the Dalmatian region of Croatia where he is known as Sveti Nikola. You can’t walk around the block there without running into a church named after him.

Biloxi’s Dalmatian immigrants brought St. Nicholas with them to help look after their fishing boats. He performed the job admirably from his perch outside the Slavic Benevolent Association's lodge on Point Cadet until Hurricane Katrina knocked him over.

Growing up we celebrated St. Nicholas' Day and also St. Lucy’s feast day on December 13th. My mother explained that St. Nick was Santa Claus’s older, skinnier cousin. Actually, they are one and the same, but I still think of St. Nick as the "skinny cousin." Don't we all have one?

In Europe, St.Nicholas leaves children toys, candy and fruit in their shoes, stockings, or a special “St. Nicholas sack.” In our house, St. Nicholas always left our trinkets knotted on a long string.

Maybe Nona used strings as a hygienic alternative to putting food in shoes that her six kids wore (kind of gross when you think about it). She sure couldn’t afford to buy them all a “ceremonial” pair of shoes. Since several other Biloxi families also used strings, I’m inclined to think it might have been a local custom peculiar to the region they came from.

Compared to the bounty Santa Claus left at our house, his skinny cousin’s offerings were comparatively lean – but altogether magical.

Our average Nicholas string included several pieces of imported candy (my favorites were the foil-wrapped cordial-filled chocolates shaped like wine bottles), a sack of chocolate gold-foil wrapped coins (in honor of the gold coins St. Nick left for the dowerless maidens), a folk-y Christmas ornament, a flavored popcorn ball and always, ALWAYS a shiny red apple at the bottom of the string.

Apples have a symbolic association with St. Nicholas. Apple strudel is a common St. Nicholas Day treat. In old Croatia, this was a traditional day for engagements with the young man presenting a basket of apples to his intended as he popped the question. It all goes back to those three dowerless virgins. The gold St. Nick left for them is often symbolized by three gold balls, which in some paintings and statues, are depicted as apples.

As Biloxi’s Croatian families assimilated into American culture, a lot of them forsook celebrating St. Nicholas Day and rolled all their celebration over to Christmas. Sadly a number of my generation and the next never knew the joy of awakening to a Nicholas string on December 6. What a pity.

If you’d like to find out more about St. Nicholas and start a tradition of your own, I suggest you visit this site. It is an incredibly comprehensive source of St. Nicholas info. You can even find out what he really might have looked like.

And how seriously cool is it that there is an entire non-profit organization (in Michigan of all places) dedicated to promoting awareness of my favorite saint?

Photo: I ordered this ornament from the St. Nicholas Center for my Christmas tree and one just like it for my niece's Nicholas string. Their site has all kinds of great ornaments, stamps, cookie cutters, stickers, that make perfect items for Nicholas strings, stocking/shoe/sack stuffers. The site also posts some traditional recipes from the countries that celebrate this feast day.

The two recipes below are from my family's celebration.

Enjoy and have a Happy St. Nicholas Day!


The popcorn balls that graced our Nicholas strings mostly came from the Karmel Korn shop at Edgewater Mall in Biloxi, but occasionally we got these made-from-scratch popcorn balls. The Jello (lime or cherry) not only makes the balls flavorful, but festive, too, although the cherry ones usually turn out more dark pink than red.

1 cup light corn syrup
¾ cup sugar
1, 3 oz. package of Jello (cherry or lime are preferred)
2 ½ quarts of popcorn, popped

Boil corn syrup, sugar together. Add the Jello. Stir until dissolved. Remove from heat . Cool slightly. Add popcorn. Grease hands. Shape mixture into balls, working quickly. Let dry. Makes about a dozen depending on how large you make them.


Nona and Aunt Dolores were famous for their apple strudel. They always made it this time of year. Now that they're both gone, my cousin Steve makes it now.

Pastry Dough:

2 eggs, well beaten
½ stick melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup granulated sugar
3-4 cups of flour (1/2 cup self-rising to 2/3 cup of all-purpose).

For the dough: Mix first 4 ingredients together in a large bowl with electric mixer. Add flour gradually. Dough will get very stiff (add more if needed). After mixing, knead dough on a surface lightly dusted with all purpose flour. When the dough feels smooth, poke your finger in it. If the indentation fills back up quickly, it is time to roll the dough out.

Transfer dough to a lightly floured clean dishcloth. Roll dough out in a circular shape for one big roll. May also separate and roll into two circles (on separate cloths) to make two smaller rolls. Keep the dough thin but not too thin. You don’t want the apples to pierce through the crust and let all your good juices escape.

Apple Filling:

7-8 large red apples, thinly sliced
½ stick of butter, cut into pats
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup cinnamon

Apple Filling: Spread the apple slices on the dough (which is still on the cloth). Dot with butter. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. You can use more or less sugar/cinnamon depending on your taste and the sweetness of the apples.

Lift cloth and roll like a jelly roll. Place seam side down on an ungreased cookie sheet with an edge. Tuck under both ends of the strudel to keep juices in.

Dot top with more butter. Sprinkle on more sugar and cinnamon. Bake in a 350 degree oven 35-45 minutes or until slightly browned. Baste 2-3 times during baking. Cool. Slice thin to serve. Makes 1 large roll or 2 small ones.