By Laura J. Cummings & L.J. Bury
Memories of childhood Christmases light up our souls — the festive lights, the familiar melodies, the sacred stories, the dinner feasts and sugar cookies with sprinkles…and of course, the anticipation of opening all those presents!
While many Estero residents have established new holiday traditions for their families to enjoy here in Southwest Florida, it’s those nostalgic moments from long ago which often bring the warmest feelings and the brightest smiles.
A Philippine Christmas
“Christmas Eve was magical for us kids,” says Copperleaf at The Brooks resident Josie Rezabek in a dreamy voice as she relives the memories. She closes her eyes, looks up, smiles…and the story just flows.
“Every Christmas Eve, we would get dressed up and head out to Midnight Mass,” she reminisces about the joy of celebrating the holidays in Manila, where she lived with her parents and two sisters.
When mass was over, the children eagerly ran over to the vendors who set up festive kiosks all around the church.
“They sold the most amazing food, like our native bibingkang, a type of pancake in banana leaves cooked right there over open fires, purple sweet sticky rice, steamed rice cakes and assorted fruit. Oh, and there was every kind of candy and sweet imaginable!” Josie recalls.
“Vendors took a lot of pride in selling their handcrafted goods, all lovingly made.”
When the family arrived at home, the dining table was beautifully set and filled with traditional foods like Arroz Valenciana (similar to paella), boneless chicken Relleno stuffed with pork, Morcon pork tenderloin, milkfish escabeche, adobo, and local brewery beer and whiskey for the adults.
“After dinner, we would sit outside where all the porches were decorated with large papier-mâché stars and bright lanterns. Then, at bedtime, we put our shoes by the door and found treats in them Christmas morning.”
There were no mounds of presents like children in America receive, but Josie was given large oranges, assorted fruit and occasionally nuts, which came only at Christmas time. “We were glad to get them,” she says.
Come Christmas morning, it was time to go visiting.
“We would first visit our grandparents, who were revered as our elders, and we’d go house-to-house to visit our relatives,” recalls Josie. Children would receive small tokens at each home, but her grandfather always presented them a real gold coin. “We immediately spent it on candy.”
Today Rezabek insists on serving the traditional American Turkey with all the trimmings, but she cooks an occasional Philippine meal as she and her family celebrate the holidays in Estero.
Sitting on her sofa with her daughter, Gail, Josie reaches over to grab her hand. “It’s really all about family and remembering why that’s important.”
The Best Christmas Gift Ever
Linda Tecco-Roach’s birthday falls seven days before Christmas, which always meant a December filled with celebrations.
“My entire family, including grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins, were together for most of the holiday season every year,” she recalls.
Linda will never forget the time Santa stopped by her birthday party to wish her a very special “Happy Birthday” and to make sure all the children were being “good boys and girls.”
“I was so astounded that Santa knew it was my birthday and that he took the time to visit me,” she recalls. “I was also a little concerned that he was away from the North Pole and this might impact toy production and delivery on Christmas Day!”
Santa assured the children that he was on schedule and would still be able to deliver presents to all the good boys and girls on Christmas Eve. What a relief!
The best gift Santa ever brought Linda arrived on the Christmas right after she turned seven. For months, she had been begging for “Toodles with the Peek-a-Boo Eyes” — the one that came in pajamas, to be specific, which, of course, was much harder to find.
“Toodles stands about 25 inches high, so she was a lot for a small seven-year-old to handle, but I loved her so,” recalls Linda, smiling at the memory. “I played endlessly with Toodles, and she was so meaningful to me that, as the many years went by, I was never able to part with her.”
Toodles now resides in the closet of Linda’s guest bedroom in her home at Spring Run at The Brooks. “No, I no longer play with Toodles,” she assures, “but every time I see her, I get to relive many happy childhood memories.”
Grandma’s Gift Wrapping Game
Another Spring Run resident, Jim Rock, says his favorite Christmas memories come not from his own childhood but rather from the joy of watching his three children — and subsequently his grandchildren — delight in opening their presents on Christmas morning. Much of the fun comes from Grandma’s gift wrapping game, now a longstanding tradition.
Jim’s wife, Sheryl, doesn’t put any tags on the presents. The children must crack her code.
“Nobody gets to open their gifts until the gifts are stacked by types of wrapping paper; then they must guess which stack belongs to each person before anyone is allowed to open their presents,” explains Jim. “This 25-plus year tradition has been great fun even as the kids have grown up.”
Whenever the family is together, it’s special, he says. They recently celebrated “100 Christmases” with Sheryl’s mother and four generations of family members.
Here in Estero, the Rocks’ favorite holiday activity is treating the staff at Spring Run Golf Club to a day off. Employees enjoy an afternoon of golf while members man the kitchen and bar, serving the staff for a change.
“It’s just a great event for a great staff,” says Jim. “We enjoy the fruits of life in paradise and are served so well by this staff.”
A Toast to the Holidays
Jim and Sharon Lowry also enjoy celebrating the holidays in “paradise,” sitting on their Belle Lago lanai in shorts and then driving around to look at the decorated palm trees and holiday lights.
The real joy of the season starts with a weeklong visit from their all of their children and grandchildren.
“I receive the same ‘best gift’ every holiday season,” says Jim. “We are going on 20 years since the children have been on their own, living in different parts of the country, but they make the effort to get back to us each year for the holidays.”
Christmas Eve dinners are particularly special, lasting for hours and usually involving some type of blind wine tasting game. It’s become a Lowry holiday tradition. Then it’s time for board games and plenty of scrumptious desserts.
Jim’s all-time favorite holiday memory, however, dates back to the first New Years Eve he and Sharon spent together as a married couple. After all, none of this Christmas family festivity would be possible without a love story first.
Jim had finished grad school just before Christmas, Sharon was seven months pregnant, and they needed to be in Oklahoma by January third for Jim to start his first job.
“We packed up our little Toyota with our possessions over the Christmas holiday and headed out from Pittsburgh during what turned out to be a widespread snow storm,” Jim recalls. “At one point, Sharon had to get in the back seat, so we could get a little extra traction on some slick road.”
The newlyweds made it to “somewhere in Missouri or Kentucky” by New Year’s Eve, settling into a hotel for the night. “I remember getting some food from a quick mart and watching the Time’s Square ball drop with Sharon and our soon-to-be son,” reminisces Jim. “It wasn’t the largest or fanciest New Year’s Eve party we have ever attended, but it will always be the best.”
Southwest Florida Festivities
Now it’s time to make some new holiday memories. And Southwest Florida offers plenty of festive events. Linda Tecco-Roach’s favorite activity is attending the children’s mass at Our Lady of Light on Christmas Eve. Although she doesn’t have children of her own, she delights in watching local children reenact the birth of Jesus.
“The children are very serious, very dramatic, and so adorable,” she says. “Watching the faces of the proud parents and grandparents is a special Christmas treat.”
The Willoughby family has a longstanding tradition of gathering at the home of family friend Kathy McGath to watch the annual Bonita Springs Christmas Boat Parade along the Imperial River.
“It’s an enjoyable time, friends and family all joining together watching the boats cruise by,” says Ryan Willoughby, president of the Fountain Lakes Community Association. “It’s always different, always unique.”
For Neil and Jean Severance, of Pelican Sound, a favorite seasonal treat is the Holiday Pops concert at Artis-Naples with the Naples Philharmonic. Like many other local retirees, they consider the birth of their children and grandchildren their greatest gifts. Spending the holidays with family is what makes it special.
“It is a joy to see innocent children surprised and delighted, though sometimes overwhelmed, by attention and opportunity to receive and explore new gifts. The younger children just dive into the experience,” observes Neil. “As we grow older, the season of giving expands, we hope, and children receive some joy about giving gifts and seeing their thoughtfulness appreciated. It is the hoped for spirit.”