Rita Dunker  enjoys a glass of  German mulled wine, “Gluhwein,” Nov. 30  at the Birmingham Winter Markt.

Rita Dunker enjoys a glass of German mulled wine, “Gluhwein,” Nov. 30 at the Birmingham Winter Markt.

Photo by Donna Dalziel

Faraway holiday traditions decorate local homes, hearts

By: Sherri Kolade | C&G Newspapers | Published December 12, 2018

 Lisa Soble Siegmann’s family  and their friends gather in her Bloomfield Hills home during a past holiday celebration.

Lisa Soble Siegmann’s family and their friends gather in her Bloomfield Hills home during a past holiday celebration.

Photo provided by Lisa Soble Siegmann

METRO  DETROIT — During Christmastime, Birmingham resident Rita Dunker, 63, doesn’t have to look far to find what takes her back to her childhood growing up in post-war Germany in the small country town of Weseke.

Dunker frequents the annual Birmingham Winter Markt, described as a European-themed wonderland in Shain Park in Birmingham.

Dunker said that the 60-booth market — modeled after the old-world Christmas markets of Europe — features potato pancakes, spiced wine and more.

“There are specialties that Germans like to eat, that you can only get during Christmastime,” she said. “Basically, it’s all centered around food at Christmas.”

There was a time, however, when food was scarce, she said of Christmases in post-war Germany.

“(It was) part of the upbringing — I didn’t expect much in terms of toys; when we got oranges, it was a big event,” she said. “They (toys) came later. Certain foods were not available.”

She fondly remembers her grandmother drying the orange peels over a heater, bringing out their aroma.

“Even though we were poor, I loved it,” she said of her holiday memories, which now revolve around the Birmingham market.

“It is important because I grew up with it — you find it (a market) in every town; the markets are part of December and getting ready for Christmas, and all centered around food and spiced wine.”

She said that for her, the Christmas season starts the first day of Advent.

“I fondly remember traditions based on Catholic traditions in Germany,” she said.

“That is when all the holiday markets go up, and that is kind of what you find in Birmingham,” she said, adding that she visited the Birmingham market Nov. 30.

“Sure enough, when you go there you find lots of people speaking German,” she said. “I go to those just to get the atmosphere back.”

Monica Gafenscu — 43, who recently moved from West Bloomfield to Westland — celebrates her Romanian, Hungarian and Italian roots with family and plenty of food.

“Both my husband and family are Romanian,” Gafenscu said.

Her mother is Romanian and Hungarian, and her late father was Italian and Romanian. During the holidays, stuffed cabbage is the quintessential dish served up in her home country and in her home.

When she was a child in Romania, her father used to cook Italian dishes.

“He used to cook fish stew; he used to make us dress in Romanian clothes,” she said, adding that her fond holiday memories center around the tasty delights of Romania. “I left my heart there. … Everything tasted different. Everything was made locally … grown locally.”

Festive foods usually on the holiday menu also include Romanian sausages, which she described as “so good and so deadly.”

Meat patties, eggplant salad and homemade bread are also served up.

“A lot of food — all the get-togethers have to be food. … Let me not mention the sweets.”

She added that an important ingredient is found in the dishes.

“We cook with all our heart,” she said. She doesn’t measure her recipes. “I can do it by the eye, pretty much.”

If you don’t have a meat grinder, you’re not Romanian, she said.

“I have an automatic one and manual one,” she said.

While she has been in America since 1979 and has lived in the Detroit area, growing up “very, very poor” with 12 siblings — eight girls and five boys — taught her to cherish family memories and each other.

“I’m the 11th (child),” she said. One of her sisters lives down South, but “everybody else lives up here — we get together when we can. If it happens, it usually happens around Christmas. ... It’s chaos, because a lot of grandkids. We try to spend as much time with the kids as possible.”

Farmington Hills husband and wife Tony and Julie Lehman said their holiday traditions also involve sharing.

“In regards to traditions, we have two traditions that come to mind: We don’t buy gifts for family. Instead, we do homemade gifts and create gift baskets,” Julie Lehman said.

“Last year we did cookies from scratch, chocolate-covered potato chips and chocolate-covered pretzels for the church family and our parents, which to us gave us time together and bonded together,” she said of the couple’s first Christmas. “To us, it personalized the gift. ... We took the time to make it and prepare it. …  I’ve never done it before, and it was a joint decision. My parents and his mom and sister did that as well.”

The couple also does a reading of the Christmas story from the Gospel of St. Luke in the Bible on Christmas Eve.

Tony Lehman said the holiday is an opportunity to give and show greater love than they would normally.

Julie Lehman said that her husband is particularly cheerful and upbeat, and goes out of his way to help people.    

“Everything we do now is new,” she said. While growing up, she didn’t have traditions at all, she said, “because I came from a split family, so it was hard to do traditions.”

She said that because she is Apostolic, to her, Christmas is about the joy of Jesus’ birth.

“That we are to celebrate this time of year his love for the world,” she said.

Lisa Soble Siegmann, the senior director of Jewish family education and engagement for the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit, said that the majority of the Jewish community celebrates Hanukkah and Passover.

“Hanukkah has become a major holiday over the years due to the commercialization of Christmas,” she said. During the darkest days of winter, the idea in Judaism is to brighten things up.

“We bring light and we bring joy with each candle of Hanukkah, because each night you add one more,” she said of the eight nights of Hanukkah. “It celebrates religious freedom, and what a wonderful, what a pertinent theme this time in this day and age.”

She added that there are a lot of fun things to do that have become tradition for her family, such as giving presents to her teenage and college-age kids.

“Some families will give something every night; I grew up with a present every night,” she said, adding that her family is making new traditions too. That includes sending a box of Hanukkah treats to her children in college.

Siegmann said her children are inviting their friends over to make the holidays bigger and brighter.

“New traditions of family inviting friends over” to make latkes, she said. “My daughter, 16, she goes to school and ... wants to have a friends night (to) make latkes and do a white elephant (party).

“We share in traditions. (It) makes the world a better place,” she said.

Staff Writer Tiffany Esshaki contributed to this report.