The holiday season brings with it a wealth of memories, and for quite a few Charlotteans, those memories stretch not only over time but over continents. Here are three who are blending the customs of their former countries with the holidays as they are celebrated here.
Memories of a Swiss St. Nicholas
When she was 12, Tanja Bechtler moved to Charlotte from Switzerland, where her grandparents, Hans and Bessie Bechtler, amassed a large collection of artworks by 20th century masters. Her father, Andreas Bechtler, committed the artwork to the new Bechtler Museum of Modern Art in Charlotte, and the Bechtler Ensemble, founded by cellist Tanja, often plays museum concerts based on the works. She’s a former cellist with the Charlotte Symphony, a teacher of cello at Gardner-Webb University, wife of classical guitarist Robert Teixeira, and mother of 8-year-old Jonah Bechtler-Teixeira. As a child growing up in Switzerland, Bechtler was surrounded by her grandparents’ priceless 20th century art, but also by ancient holiday traditions that both enchanted and frightened her. There was, of course, St. Nicholas, the robed saint who befriended the poor and showed up with his donkey each Dec. 6 at her family’s home in Zurich to see whether she and her two sisters had been bad or good. The children sang and recited poems for St. Nicholas, who rewarded them with presents. But just in case they’d been bad, he had his dirty and bedraggled sidekick, Schmutzli, along to carry them off to the woods. “He’s pretty mean-looking,” Bechlter says. “If you don’t change your ways .” Instead of coming to Bechtler’s Charlotte home, St. Nicholas and Schmutzli now greet her son and other children at a Swiss Society of Charlotte celebration on a local farm. The big celebration for adults came, and still comes, on Dec. 24, when the Bechtlers gather in formal dress in the early afternoon to enjoy salmon and champagne, and play and sing traditional holiday songs. “It’s a very elegant affair in our family,” Bechtler says. “Your best china, your silver.” Bechtler’s mother, Natascha Bechtler, hosts and plays the piano. Her younger sister, Vivi Bechtler-Smith, plays piano and violin, Tanja Bechtler plays cello, and her husband and son play guitar. Her father, Andreas, “always comes and sings a few songs,” Bechtler says. The children are sent out, and when bells announce the coming of the Christ Child, they return to see the lighted tree and open their presents. A meal and Midnight Mass follow. One of Tanja Bechtler’s prized possessions is a crèche hand-carved in the traditional Swiss style. “It’s a craft that’s very old,” she says, and hers, a copy of one that stood in her grandparents’ home, is a gift from her father. Delicious Filipino customs
Dr. Nini Bautista de Garcia, a nuclear chemist and native of the Philippines, retired to Charlotte in 2000 after serving as director of research at the Philippines Atomic Energy Commission and as an Austrian-based technical officer for the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency. She has been president of the Carolinas Asian American Chamber of Commerce, president of the Filipino Community of the Carolinas, and she serves on the boards of the Charlotte History Museum and International House. She is married to Manolo Garcia, a retired developer.
Bautista’s homeland of the Philippines in Southeast Asia has been touched throughout history by a variety of cultures including that of Spain, which ruled for nearly four centuries and created a Catholic heritage. Bautista, a member of St. Matthew Catholic Church in Ballantyne, attends a pre-Christmas Mass each year with other Filipino-born Charlotteans. It’s Misa de Gallo, Mass of the Rooster, and last year was held at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in the University City area. Afterwards, there’s a potluck dinner of traditional Filipino fare. Bautista expects her sister, Grace Basilan of Charlotte, to bring babingka this year. It’s a cake made of ground rice and coconut milk, and, in a nod to the Philippines’ mix of cultures, topped with preserved duck egg, a Chinese delicacy. Add some native white cheese from the Philippines and some fresh coconut, and bibingka is “delicious,” Bautista pronounces. Filipinos signal the approach of Christmas with displays of parols, or brightly lit lanterns made of translucent Capiz shells, seeds, leaves or palms. Symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem that led to the discovery of the Christ Child, the parols hang at doorways, on posts, in gardens and on trees. “Wonderful shapes,” Bautista says. “You make them like a cathedral window. You solder them.” She hand-carried a fragile parol when she moved to Austria to work for the United Nations, only to lose it during a holiday season there. “Filipinos are very strong on extended kinship,” Bautista says, and a post-Mass Christmas visit to relatives includes godparents. The visiting children ask, “May I kiss your hand?” then bring their elders’ right hands to their own foreheads. The gesture of respect is known as “mano po,” says Bautista, and godparents are expected to reciprocate with a gift of a dollar bill. Philippine banks prepare ahead of time with a plentiful stock of crisp, new bills, Bautista says.
The miracle of Hanukkah
Donna de Groot, a North Carolina native and Myers Park High graduate, moved to Israel in 1983, where she met her husband David de Groot. They moved to Charlotte in 1990. Then, to let their two daughters, Hadas and Tali, become acquainted with Israel, they moved back from 2001-2003. Tali is now spending her “gap year” between high school and college there. The De Groots are members of Ohr Ha Torah, an Orthodox congregation, and are also associated with the Havurat Tikvah congregation here. Donna de Groot teaches Hebrew language immersion classes at Charlotte Jewish Day School.
The gift-giving associated in the U.S. with Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, is less pronounced in Israel, says De Groot. Children might get, “a little money, some shekels,” but Israelis celebrate instead “with the food and the family and lighting the candles.” Those eight candles in the Chanukiah, or special candelabrum, symbolize the “miracle of Hanukkah,” when a tiny bit of oil was sufficient to light the liberated and rededicated Second Temple in Jerusalem for eight days. De Groot, who hopes that her experiences bring Israel to life for her students, shows them two different dreidels during the holidays, which this year are Dec. 20-28. The four-sided toys are spun like tops. The first, used throughout the world, reads: “A great miracle happened there.” The Israeli version says: “A great miracle happened here.” One custom she hasn’t imported are jelly doughnuts, which are cooked street-side throughout Hanukkah. They fulfill the holiday tradition of eating something cooked in oil. Bakers set large vats outside their shops, and the scent of frying doughnuts fills the air. When they’re done, the bakers squirt the jelly in. It was really something “to have the doughnut come right out of the oil and go in your mouth,” she says. But alas, “I learned to eat them. Not make them.” So she makes potato pancakes instead, a staple of Hanukkah celebrations elsewhere. Most Jewish holidays have ties to ancient agricultural festivals and are celebrated throughout Israel, she says, by those who are religiously observant and those who are not. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, “still means something to people there,” regardless of the role of religion in their lives. Nobody drives, and “It’s like a tricycle holiday,” she says. “The 3-year-olds can ride their tricycles down the main street.”