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Writing & Photography by Amy Baker

Artwork by Marilena Perilli

The holidays are often filled with gatherings – some of which we love and some of which we loathe, numerous activities we’re required to attend, a rush to complete overwhelming shopping lists and an unnecessary pressure to make things “perfect.” But, this year, instead of giving into the chaos, we encourage you to take a step back and focus on what really matters: spending time with your loved ones. To inspire you, we asked people in our community to share memories of meaningful connections they’ve made during the holiday season.


Naâma Laufer

South Salem, Co-owner, My Portuguese Market

NL: Our Thanksgiving table is a huge mishmash of cultures. There are often about six languages spoken around the table. We have many friends and family who arrive from the city, Bed-Stuy, and Westchester. Today I’m even wearing a dress designed by my friend of twenty years who often attends, Natalia Stegaru — the name behind the label Natalyeea. She’s part of our expanded family, so it is always special when she joins our table.

CT: It sounds like an eclectic and interesting group of people around your table with connections to so many different cultures. Does the meal reflect that?

NL: We serve an American meal with a hint of Portugal, and we source everything locally – everyone is happy. And we all wear our ugly sweaters, which we change out of before the meal starts.

CT: Ugly sweaters?

NL: The uglier, the better! My husband Luis started the tradition when he found one featuring a reindeer with hanging legs. Mine has a cow with a jingle bell.

Barry Graziano

Regional Manager, Houlihan Lawrence, Armonk/Katonah/Croton-on-Hudson

BG: One particular connection is with my two boys — we have a tradition to chop down our Christmas tree every year. These events are so meaningful to me, starting from the first one when my oldest, now 17, was still in a stroller. We take a walk through the woods and explore the field until we find the perfect one, regardless of size, shape or color. Their tree choices as young boys were interesting, to say the least.

CT: And how about in later years?

BG: As they got older, their choices became more traditional and more perfect. They love to assist in chopping down the tree, dragging it back to the car, and loading it up. When we get home, it’s hot chocolate and family time, and eventually decorating the tree together. These times spent together are so important to us.

Deanna Marano

Co-owner, La Maison Fête, Bedford

DM: Christmas memories of my mom are what stick out for me. My mother is ALL about entertaining. The day after Thanksgiving, she would transition the entire home. It’s the best memory for me, helping her change over the house for the holidays, decorating the mantels and cupboards with all the Christmas decor, the accessories, even the hand towels in the powder room. She would take out her Spode Christmas China and always say, “You girls are going to have this one day! You’re going to keep the tradition going.” She just truly embraced the holiday, and she still does with ALL holidays; she made it so beautiful and special for us as kids. I feel CT Have you continued this tradition in your own home?

DM: I really try to embrace it with my kids as much as possible. I don’t have the Spode China yet, but I still get to enjoy it with my mother. Plus, I’d rather have hers down the road anyway – chips and all.

Becki Davis

Singer/songwriter, Katonah

BD: I remember a special connection with my younger sister one Christmas. She had to take the last semester of her senior year of college off due to debilitating migraines. She didn’t go back in the fall because she was depressed about having missed graduating, PLUS she didn’t have the financial means for tuition. We had a heart-to-heart while watching our favorite Christmas marathon show, “A Christmas Story,” on TNT, and it led to me co-signing a student loan for her and getting her enrolled to go back to finish up her last semester. A true sister bonding moment.

CT: Did she eventually graduate?

BD: She was back in school in January, much to everyone’s surprise – including herself! She’s now a nurse practitioner and more educated than any of us. She just had that rough patch and needed a little help to get over the hurdle. 

Andrea Caballero

Owner, Gloss Salon, Katonah

AC: I actually feel a special connection to my staff during the holiday season. We are together all year long, but during the holidays, we always put time aside for a Secret Santa party, despite how busy we all are. It is so much fun, and it’s important for us to relax and enjoy an evening with each other without the distractions of work.

CT: What is the evening like together? Are you all bonding and laughing? 

AC: Yes, indeed! You know… I also feel a special connection to this town AND all the shopkeepers. Everyone is so friendly, and even though it is such a busy time, we also share the joy of the season. I’m so grateful to feel so connected to this community.

Christine McKenney

Pound Ridge, Substitute teacher, St. Matthew’s Preschool, Bedford

CM: Okay, so my favorite holiday is Christmas. I was born on Christmas, hence my middle name, Noel. And my husband and I raised our children on Jingle Lane in Bedford. 

I would say my most meaningful connections during the holiday season, besides those with my own family, are with my friends. I’ve held an annual Christmas cookie swap party with all my girlfriends since our kids were young, and the laughs and sense of community from those get-togethers mean the world to me. And of course, all my friends’ kids LOVE reaping the benefits afterwards.

CT: Now that your kids have flown the coop, do you continue the cookie swap?

CM: Yes! These friendships mean everything to me. My mantra is, “Behind every successful woman is a tribe of other successful women who have her back.” I still have female friends from elementary school. Boyfriends come and go – sometimes husbands come and go – but your female friendships, IF you’re blessed and cherish them, can last a lifetime. I have instilled this in my daughter, Emerson, who has had the same posse since middle school.

Rick Fortuna

Pound Ridge, Owner, Richard Thomas Clothing, Katonah

RF: Every Christmas Eve, I make a seafood Fra Diavolo with lobster, shrimp, scallops and calamari. It’s not the seven fishes… it’s Fra Diavolo. One Christmas, I said it’s becoming a bit too much for me — because you have to buy the seafood THAT day, etcetera  — and everybody in the family just went nuts! “You CANNOT cancel it… you have to make it!” So now I still do it every Christmas Eve, and my entire family is there, including my wife, three daughters, five grandchildren, two son-in-laws, AND four dogs.

CT: Wow! I hope someone at least helps you prepare it now.

RF: They all help in one way or another. I’m alone in the kitchen, but they all pop in to talk to me, and I honestly feel a special connection to each of them over the course of the evening. I have the fireplaces going in the family room and living room. They are all watching the children, drinking great wine, eating apps and roaming from one room to the next. I truly enjoy creating this meal for everyone.

Debbie Frishman

Co-owner, Progressive Animal Hospital, Somers

DF: We had an older client named Marlene who had two budgie birds, Shalom and Shaina. On one visit just after Thanksgiving, Marlene shared that she was a cancer survivor but had to return to Mt. Sinai for testing due to some health issues. I could tell she was very nervous, and she was clearly moved when I gave her the crystal energy healing bracelet I happened to be wearing at the time. She was incredibly touched, and she said she always felt so welcomed and comfortable at our clinic and that it was “bashert” that connected us together.

CT: Bashert?

DF: Yes, it is a Yiddish word that basically means “meant to be.” I totally agreed, as we had so much in common — our faith, family in Florida, etc. A few weeks later, her husband started having health issues and was told by his doctor that he should not be around the birds any longer. Marlene was devastated — these birds were the loves of her life — and she asked us to help her find a home for them. So my husband, Andrew — the doctor here, said, “Well, the birds will stay here!” And then, it was as if we had saved her life. She could NOT get over it. And, oh, the overpouring of gratitude when she brought the birds and their cage. She even spent three hours setting up the cage and then bought us lunch.

CT: Wow. Does Marlene keep in touch with you or the birds?

DF: EVERY single week. We email each other every Friday so I can give her updates on how the birds are doing. She says they are OUR birds now, but I tell her they will ALWAYS be hers. We are just providing them a good home, and if her situation ever changes, she can take them back home with her. 

This article was published in the November/December 2023 print edition of Connect to Northern Westchester.

Amy Baker
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Amy Baker is a Katonah-based freelance writer who forged her journey in 2006 with USA Today, after finding herself stranded with two young kids at Heathrow airport following a thwarted terrorist attack. An avid international traveler before and since, her globetrotting adventures to off-the-path destinations (Iraq, Brunei, etc.) sparked a passion for photography, which she showcases via her blog, Little Travelers Notebook. “The beauty of travel, beyond the gorgeous landscapes and cuisines, are the fascinating people I’ve met and all their stories,” she says.