From Yule Logs to Latkes, Holidays Celebrate Valley Diversity
By Kate Lilienthal

As the weather cools, the days grow darker, and the holidays begin, Silicon Valley’s diversity blossoms. Families, friends and communities come together to celebrate in many ways, reaching back to places and periods often far away from where we find ourselves today.

From Christmas to Hanukah to Chinese New Year, the different traditions that dapple the valley weave a rich holiday fabric of world culture, made strong and colorful with ideas borne of diverse races and ethnicities, and the tolerance that enables them to flourish.

On Christmas Eve, for example, Mike Ricci, center and captain of the San Jose Sharks hockey team, will be feasting on seafood pasta with his wife, Beth, two small children and a handful of intimate friends. A meal of seafood pasta is a tradition passed down through generations of Ricci’s Italian family. In Mountain View, Mayor Mike Kasperzak makes a mean holiday party mix with loads of nuts and seasonings. Relatives, he claims, leave nary a nut behind (His secret: Add Cheerios to any party mix recipe. The cereal softens the flavors).

From the Russian-born Koltuns in San Jose to the Liu family celebrating Chinese New Year in Los Altos, we share with you some of the many holiday traditions unfolding across Silicon Valley. 

  • The Snow Maiden (Russian)
  • !Feliz Navidad¡

  • The Festival of Lights
  • Yule Logs
  • Chinese New Year

  • The Snow Maiden

    Alex and Alexandra Koltun, lead dancers for the San Jose Ballet and native Russians, didn’t celebrate Christmas while they were growing up. The religious occasion was banned following the Russian Communist Revolution in 1905. Instead of gathering on Christmas Eve, their families ushered in the New Year with decorated trees, presents and a splendid feast. The meal always began with piroshki, a small turnover appetizer with pastry wrapping and various fillings, such as meat, fish, cheese or vegetables. Alexandra and her father nibbled piroshki and adorned the tree while her mother prepared dinner. With a full tummy, the young Alexandra Koltun awaited the arrival of the Snow Maiden. In Russian custom on New Year’s Eve, a local woman dresses as a Snow Maiden, a fairy-princess character with long silver hair. Parents give the Snow Maiden gifts to deliver to their homes by sleigh near midnight (with her sidekick, Santa Claus).

    Alexandra Koltun, now age 32, recalls anticipating with innocent excitement the Snow Maiden’s arrival. “I just couldn’t wait to hear the sleigh bells. It was like magic,” she recalls.

    The Koltuns are expecting their first child, a son, this spring. They look forward to making piroshki and awaiting the Snow Maiden in their own young family, with or without snow.


    Piroshki is a Russian small turnover appetizer with pastry wrapping and various fillings.

    Pastry dough:
    1 envelope active dry yeast
    1/4 cup lukewarm water
    1 cup milk, room temperature
    3/4 stick butter, softened
    2 large eggs, room temperature
    1 tablespoons sugar
    1 teaspoon salt
    4-5 cups all-purpose flour

    2 tbsp. vegetable oil
    2 large onions, finely chopped
    1 pound lean ground beef
    2 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
     2 tablespoons sour cream
    2 tablespoons beef stock
    2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
    1 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
    2 tablespoons salt
    Ground black pepper to taste.
    1 large egg

    In large bowl, combine yeast and lukewarm water. Let stand until yeast is dissolved. Add milk, butter, eggs, sugar, salt. Mix well. Soften dough by adding flour. Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Place in greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in volume, about 11/2 hours.

    While the dough is rising, prepare the filling. Heat vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat Add onions and cook, stirring, until golden brown, about seven minutes. Add beef, stirring until browned, about five minutes. Remove from heat and stir in hard-boiled eggs, sour cream, beef stock, dill, parsley, salt, pepper. Lightly oil two baking sheets. Punch down the dough and divide into 48 balls.

    Roll out each ball on a floured surface to a 3 1/2-inch round. Place a heaping tablespoon of the filling in the center of each circle. Moisten one side of the round, fold it in half and pinch together. Gently shape each pie into an oval. Place the pies on the baking sheets, cover, and let rise until puffy, 30-40 minutes.

    Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly beat one egg. Brush the tops of the dumplings with the egg wash. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
    Return to top

    !Feliz Navidad¡

    As children in Michoacan, Mexico, Christmas Eve for the Molina family included a parade around the town square before midnight mass. Ponché, a Christmas fruit punch of fruit and nuts, flowed as townspeople honored the birth of Christ.

    Today, the Molinas no longer parade on Christmas Eve, but when the 12 siblings and their respective children gather on Christmas Eve in East Palo Alto, revelry fills the house, as does the delicious scent of Maria Elena Molina’s own version of Ponché, happily simmering on the stove.

    Maria Elena Molina’s Christmas Ponché

    Ponché is a Mexican holiday fruit punch of fruit and nuts.

    1 cinnamon stick
    5-6 hibiscus blossoms
    1 sugar cane stick
    3 guavas, cut in quarters
    1 cup orange pieces
    1 apple, diced
    1/2 pineapple, diced
    5-6 plums, diced
    1 cup raisins
    1/2 cup whole unsalted peanuts
    2 gallons water
    Sugar to taste

    Combine water, cinnamon stick, hibiscus blossoms, sugar cane and fruit in a heavy large saucepan. Stir in fruit and reduce heat. Bring mixture to boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Boil five minutes. Remove from heat. Add sugar to taste. For adults, a liquor such as rum or tequila, may be added if desired. Can be prepared one day ahead. If serving warm, bring to simmer in large saucepan. Pour into cups to serve. Serves 20.
    Return to top

    The Festival of Lights

    The Jewish holiday Hanukah, also known as the Festival of Lights, begins on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, which falls this year on Friday night, Dec. 19. The holiday commemorates the victory of the Jews against foreign persecutors and religious oppression.

    During Hanukah, every night for eight nights Jewish families light a candle in a candelabrum known as a menorah, symbolizing a small flask of oil. The oil was said to have burned for eight days during the rededication of the Jewish temple that had been desecrated by the foreign forces. That is why it is also traditional to eat fried foods. During the holiday, the Jelen family in Palo Alto makes latkes, or potato pancakes. Judith learned from her mother that the key to a good latke is to heat the oil very hot. The hotter the oil, the crispier the latke. Her two children Emily, 7, and Matt, 5, like to grate the potatoes.

    Potato Latkes

    Potato Latkes, or potato pancakes, is a Jewish tradition during Hanukah.

    1 pound potatoes
    1/2 cup finely chopped onion
    1 large egg, lightly beaten
    1/2 teaspoon salt
    1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil

    Accompaniments: sour cream and applesauce

    Preheat oven to 250°F.

    Peel potatoes and coarsely grate by hand, transferring to a large bowl of cold water as grated. Soak potatoes one to two minutes after last batch is added to water, then drain well in a colander. Spread grated potatoes and onion on a kitchen towel and roll up jelly-roll style. Twist towel tightly to wring out as much liquid as possible. Transfer potato mixture to a bowl and stir in egg and salt.

    Heat 1/4 cup oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking. Working in batches of four latkes, spoon 2 tablespoons potato mixture per latke into skillet, spreading into 3-inch rounds with a fork.

    Reduce heat to moderate and cook until undersides are browned, about five minutes. Turn latkes over and cook until undersides are browned, about five minutes more. Transfer to paper towels to drain and season with salt. Add more oil to skillet as needed. Keep latkes warm on a wire rack set in a shallow baking pan in oven.
    Return to top

    Yule Logs

    Elizabeth Fee, husband Sean and children Shannon, 7, and Colin,4, make brightly colored Yule logs every holiday season as gifts for the children’s teachers in Palo Alto. Elizabeth Fee learned the tradition as a child from her own mother who learned the craft from a handy neighbor.

    Yule logs are a Nordic custom dating back to the 12th century. On Christmas Eve, celebrants bring an enormous log of freshly cut wood into the house and decorate it with any items, typically ribbons, wax, pinecones and tree trimmings. The decorations symbolize personal faults, mistakes and bad choices that are then burned in the fireplace to clean the slate for the New Year.

    “Making a Yule log is an easy and fun activity and makes a cheerful Christmas decoration,” says Elizabeth.

    Yule Logs

    A Nordic custom, these logs are decorated on Christmas Eve and burned then in the fireplace.

    1 firewood-sized log
    1 large slab candle wax (may be purchased at a craft store)
    Pine tree trimmings
    Holly or mistletoe greens
    Holly berries
    Decorative ribbon (red plaid recommended)
    Melt wax in double boiler over medium heat until just melted (about three minutes). Let cool until wax is just warm to the touch. Beat with an eggbeater until wax looks like snow (about 30 seconds). Use the wax to fix decorations to the log. Splatter the log with bits of wax to look like snow.

    To clean the beaters, place in the oven on parchment paper on low heat. The wax will drip off.
    Return to top

    Chinese New Year

    Chinese New Year, the most significant holiday for ethnic Chinese, is a 15-day festival that starts with the New Moon on the first day of the new year. The celebration takes place in January and February. The Liu family of Los Altos prepares for the event by gathering four generations in the kitchen – from 85-year-old Siu-Kiu Ho Hua to her 6-month-old great-grandson Cory McCormack – to prepare the New Year’s cakes, called Nien-Gau (high cake). Nien-Gau comes in two varieties, one is steamed and gelatinous; the other is baked and more typically western. Both types fill the Liu’s kitchen counters throughout the New Year event.

    This recipe is for a baked, flour-based version of the Chinese cake.

    3 eggs
    1 cup milk
    1 cup brown sugar
    1/2 cup butter, melted
    1 tsp baking powder
    1 pound glutinous rice flour
    Shredded coconut, to taste
    1 cup raisins
    1 cup walnuts

    Beat eggs, milk, brown sugar and butter until smooth. Mix in baking powder and rice flour. Fold in coconut, raisins and walnuts. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Bake in greased 9x9-inch baking pan for 30 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Let cool completely.
    Return to top

    Kate Lilienthal is a Bay Area freelance writer. She, her husband Mark and young daughters like to celebrate all the holidays with joy and thanks.