One neighborhood has been celebrating Christmas Eve together for 20 years. Another family is welcoming a new baby into their fold. Still another just can’t wait for that fresh baked ham to come out of the oven. We asked several West Windsor and Plainsboro “celebrities” how they plan to celebrate the upcoming holiday season and what traditions are important in their families.##M:[more]##

From lighting the candle’s on the Hanukkah menorah to putting linen on the Ping-Pong table to make room for extended family — one theme weaves itself throughout this diverse community with a resounding call to the season: everyone’s holiday revolves around coming together as a family.

A New Baby, A New Year

This holiday season is a very special one for West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, and his wife. They became grandparents for the first time on September 19 with the birth of grandson Grant Hseuh. Grant will be celebrating his first Christmas, New Year’s, and Lunar New Year in the coming weeks.

According to Mayor Hsueh, Christmas and New Year’s are definitely when the whole family comes together. “In our family,” he says, “we celebrate two additional Asian holidays — Lunar New Year’s and Harvest Festival in August. I’m looking forward to celebrating the holidays this year with a bigger family!”

So will there be a problem deciding which set of grandparents will get to enjoy Grant’s company over the holidays? “There is no problem,” says Hsueh, “because my daughter-in-law’s parents have a huge house. And her mother loves to cook. So there is never any argument over where we meet. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and both New Years will be celebrated there. We more or less mix together as a family. My daughter-in-law’s siblings call me and my wife Mom and Dad, and my daughter calls my in-laws Mom and Dad. They even invite my brother and his family from Long Island.”

Approximately 20 people will attend the upcoming holiday celebrations at the Mayor’s in-laws. “I’m pretty sure that throughout all of humanity, family is really the center of everything. When it comes to the holiday season, if you don’t have family, it’s very sad.”

Mayor Hsueh came to the United States in 1969, alone, as a graduate student. After two years, his wife joined him and several years later their son was born. Then, with the birth of their daughter they became a family of four. It has taken 35 years, but the Hsueh family has grown and with the addition of a daughter-in-law’s extended family, and a grandson, it continues to expand.

What will the groaning table hold at the Chinese-American holiday celebrations? “Not turkey, but roast duck, and fresh fish because the Mandarin pronunciation of the word fish is the same pronunciation as the word “surplus,” meaning prosperity ahead,” says Hsueh. “We always end the meal with fresh fruit and perhaps a choice between American dessert and a sweet Asian rice cake or almond gel.”

Hot Cider House Rules

Plainsboro Township Committee member Michael Weaver has lived in the Princeton Collection for 20 years, where the entire neighborhood celebrates Christmas Eve together. The festivities don’t start until about 11 p.m.

“We put out candles on the curb in bags so that the entire neighborhood is lit up,” says Weaver. “Everyone in the neighborhood comes to sing Christmas carols. Everyone, from little kids all the way up to adults and beyond, sings together. Then we go over to a neighbor’s house for hot cider and doughnuts.”

Remarkably, in an area as transitory as Plainsboro, the Christmas Eve tradition has been carried on for 20 years. “And the interesting thing is that many of the 65 kids who we have watched grow up in the development return every year to celebrate,” says Weaver.

Even when new families move in, the tradition continues. “When we first moved here, another family lived in the ‘hot cider’ house,” Weaver says. “When they moved and sold the house, the one stipulation was that the buyer had to continue the tradition. And, the family that has lived there now for maybe 12 years or longer, still handles this tradition.” Weaver jokes that it should be a covenant that anyone who buys that house has to continue the tradition of providing cider and doughnuts on Christmas Eve.

The Weavers celebrate what they call a “traditional” Christmas holiday. They invite all of the immediate family who can attend for dinner on Christmas Day, including parents, brothers, sisters, nephews, and nieces, from as far away as Virginia, Maryland, and the Jersey shore. The Weaver’s children come — Michael Jr., and daughter, Danielle, who lives in Atlanta and makes the trip home with her dog, Sebastian, another beloved family member. As many as 25 people make it to dinner.

Weaver says that the fact that they are able to assemble the family at least once a year with everyone attending is something that is very special. “All of the generations are there. Children, grandchildren. My mother is 83, and my father is 89 and so it is very special to have everyone there as long as you can.”

Hamming It Up

In Plainsboro Mayor Pete Cantu’s house, it’s Christmas Day that brings everyone together. The “family” includes children, grandchildren, friends, and assorted others who gather on Christmas Day to open gifts and share a holiday dinner. The number of guests can climb as high as 25 for dinner, but it varies depending on how obligations change from year to year.

“Although my background is Spanish Basque and Irish,” says Cantu, “we don’t really recreate any special dishes from my ancestry. We’re pretty much assimilated and have a typical holiday meal like everyone else.

We have the traditional turkey for Thanksgiving and then my wife cooks a huge fresh ham for Christmas dinner. Although we have hors d’oeuvres and other food to go along with it, the ham is the main dish. In fact, my son and I hover around the kitchen doorway waiting to snatch the crackling.”

Food, Glorious Food

If anyone knows West Windsor traditions, it’s Kristin Appelget, who comes from a longtime West Windsor family and is a member of the West Windsor Township Council. “When you come from a farming family who has lived in West Windsor for three generations, the traditions were there before I came around,” she says.

Fortunately, most of her family members still live close by, relieving her of the unwelcome assignment of waiting in airports and sitting in turnpike traffic during the holidays. The extended Appelget family — including brothers, sisters, parents, cousins, grandparents who are in their 80s, and great-aunts and uncles in their 90s — all attend both Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

Thanksgiving takes place at Appelget’s mother’s house, while the Christmas celebration floats to a different location from year to year. “So far I’ve successfully kept myself out of the rotation by virtue of having the smallest home. Plus they don’t want me to cook the turkey, let’s put it that way,” Appelget says.

Turkey is served during both holidays, in addition to other foods, but the star of the meal is her mother’s candied sweet potatoes, based on her maternal Grandmother Honore’s recipe.

“Christmas is always celebrated the same way,” she says. “We start with my mother’s cheese fondue on Christmas Eve, followed by services at the Dutch Neck Presbyterian Church, which we have all attended since my grandfather was a kid. (See story on the completed renovation of the church on page 30.) My immediate family meets at my mother’s Christmas morning to open our gifts. Then we eat brunch. There’s a lot of eating involved.”

She adds that the West Windsor Township’s tradition of setting off fireworks after lighting the town holiday tree is also very special.

Birthdays & Holidays

The family of West Windsor Council member Jackie Alberts celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas. For Hanukkah, each of the three Alberts children gets a pile of eight presents. Night after night, once the Menorah is lighted, each child may open one present. Sometimes Alberts chooses a theme for each night, like music or books, and has each child open a particular gift. If not, the children may open whatever gift they choose. To build the suspense, Alberts wraps all of the presents the same way. The biggest box doesn’t necessarily contain the best gift.

Actually Thanksgiving kicks off the holidays in the Alberts household. “Honestly, with two kids born in November and one born in December, my children regard their birthdays as the biggest holiday of the year,” Alberts says. “Because we have two birthdays in November, we’ve transformed Thanksgiving into our biggest holiday. The meal is just the culmination of a lot of togetherness — making up the menu together, shopping together, and cooking together.”

The kingpin of the Alberts’ Thanksgiving tradition is for everyone to sit at one table. Sometimes that means putting the best linen on the Ping-Pong table or extending the table into the hallway. Alberts says: “We don’t do kids’ tables because my grandmother never liked the idea. I am continuing a long family tradition of everyone sitting around one table. My mother did this, my grandmother did it, and now I’m doing it.” With three kids, grandparents, siblings, and various cousins and neighbors — it’s normal to have 20 people attend Thanksgiving dinner.

“I think it’s really important to have family traditions,” Alberts says. “Something memorable for the children to look back on and to continue themselves. Because what makes any holiday special are the things that you remember from your childhood. I think traditions are a great way of getting in contact with your children. There’s nothing better than cooking together. By the way, our Thanksgiving dinner always ends with a birthday cake. Because it’s really my daughter’s holiday.”

The Millers: Multi-Generational Family

While some people make an all-out attempt to create or continue holiday traditions, others don’t even realize they’re doing it — like West Windsor Council member Alison Miller.

“When my son, Jonathan, was two and my son, Solomon, was four, I started reading a child’s book every year about the story of Hanukkah,” says Miller. “We would light the Hanukkah candles and read the story that first night, or whenever else they asked to hear it. I didn’t realize that something I had done had become a tradition until my Jonathan came to me in the sixth grade and asked to take the book to school. He and a classmate presented a report on Hanukkah to the rest of the class and he read the book because, in his mind, that was our Hanukkah tradition. I hadn’t even realized that I had created a tradition. I was just trying to give the kids a sense of our shared heritage.”

Does Miller think her son will continue the Hanukkah tradition by reading the book to his own children someday? “Who knows? If it doesn’t fall apart first!”

Like the Alberts family, the Millers celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, which has presented a few challenges in sharing their heritage wit the children. “When my father (who is Jewish) moved in with us,” Miller remembers, “he would never even look at the Christmas tree — he would just pretend it wasn’t even there! However, for Hanukkah, he would give each boy one dollar the first night, two dollars the second night, and so on. They loved that.”

Miller’s father may not have appreciated the blending of religious traditions but by getting to celebrate both Christmas and Hanukkah, her boys feel they have had the best of both worlds. As the boys have gotten older, however, Miller has noticed that the Hanukkah gifts have gotten more and more expensive. So, like Jackie Alberts, she has resorted to gift-themes, including sock day and underwear day.

Miller’s husband, Richard, is one of five children. His family gets together for dinner the weekend after Thanksgiving Day. By celebrating and exchanging holiday gifts that day, everyone is freed up to spend Thanksgiving and/or Christmas with their family or their in-laws. No fuss. No muss. No guilt.

Miller also points out that traditions have a way of changing or going by the wayside as the family expands. “More recently we have created a family gift tradition. Each of us picks a name out of a hat and buys a silly gift for that person that costs less than five dollars. One year I bought my husband absolutely the ugliest Christmas tie I could find. He wore it to his family’s Christmas party and everyone praised it.”

Miller puts her finger on one of the universal truths about traditions: everyone has their own ideas about what constitutes tradition. “We have a shared tradition but we have no idea what traditions my children’s future wives will bring to the mix.”

The best tradition of all for her family Miller admits, is one that has nothing to do with the holidays — and that is having three generations living under one roof. “When I was a kid,” she says, “my parents bought a new house so that my father’s father, who was a widower, could move in with us. So I was used to having a grandfather right there. After my mother died, my father moved in with my husband and me. This was very useful because I had a live-in babysitter, making it possible for me to go to graduate school and to be an active council person. It was wonderful for my boys too because my father was someone they could tell things to who wasn’t their parent! So it really worked out very well for us. It has been a tradition in our family that it is possible for adults of different generations to live together.”

Because Miller’s children have grown up with this tradition, she looks forward to the day when her children will look to her to provide “live-in childcare.”

Holiday traditions in West Windsor and Plainsboro are much like the people who practice them. They grow and change. They expand and contract depending on the year. They are picked up and carried forward by loved ones — old and new. When it comes to tradition, it doesn’t really matter whether the “it” involves gifts or food. When you get right down to it — the only thing we really need to celebrate is each other.