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One night, 7 fishes and the power of tradition

This is a great time of year for all the good things - faith, family and friends. It's also a time of great tradition, and for parents to start new traditions with their kids or continue old ones.

THIS IS a great time of year for all the good things - faith, family and friends. It's also a time of great tradition, and for parents to start new traditions with their kids or continue old ones.

Growing up in South Philly, my holiday memories include the Feast of the Seven Fishes. This tradition involved extended families sitting down to a feast with various fish as the main course. If there were actually seven fishes served, each was said to represent the seven sacraments and each fish had significance dating back to the early Christians.

I never much talked about this on my radio show until I brought on a true South Philly character and author to talk about his book, which took a humorous and loving look back at growing up in South Philly.

Joe Sbaraglia Jr., a/k/a "Joe Bag of Donuts," was the character, and his books and recollections thrilled me and my audience. Traditions hit a nerve with listeners. People remember gathering around a family dinner table, or an annual holiday trip or event. They recalled special family memories.

I also noticed that very few of the memories were "gift related." Whether the listeners were celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, the memories were special because they focused on traditions of their families.

The great response to those shows about the holidays gave me the idea five years ago to create an annual Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner. While it obviously is an occasion that has deep Italian Christmas roots, the celebration has transcended its Italian/Catholic origins, bringing together all faiths and ethnic groups for a night of good food, fellowship and celebrating the season.

Like any family tradition, this event started small. It must be resonating with people because we have been outgrowing restaurants in order to accommodate the demand.

This year the feast will be held on Monday, Dec. 16, at Vie, a great event venue on Broad Street near Green. It's an impressive menu, and I will be showing off some of my carving skills.

Our guests this year include former Sen. Rick Santorum, Bobby Rydell, Charlie Gracie, Pixanne (a/k/a Jane Norman) and Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey. Our person of the year is Wild Bill Guarnere, of "Band of Brothers" fame. It's a pretty eclectic group of public figures.

My feast has become a great tradition for family, friends, listeners and readers. Even if you can't attend my tradition, the holidays are the perfect time to start or continue to celebrate your own family traditions.

Of course, like the Seven Fishes, many traditions can revolve around food. When I do radio shows around the holidays asking listeners to share their most special memories, the majority of them are kitchen-related. They lovingly remember baking cookies or making gingerbread houses with the mom, grandmother or aunt. Ask your kids what foods they'd like to make part of your holiday feast.

Another tradition that generated enormous response was the time spent as a family watching holiday specials, reading a Christmas book each day or decorating the house as a family. One time, a radio segment on favorite Christmas movies practically filled three straight hours of my show. Films like "It's A Wonderful Life" (my all-time favorite film), "Home Alone," "A Christmas Carol" or "A Christmas Story" were big hits. Interesting (and not surprising), people did not just love a particular movie, they loved remembering watching it with a loved one. That's why traditions can be so long-lasting; they evoke strong emotional memories.

Outside of your home, Christmas is a great time to reinforce values of empathy and giving back. Go shopping with your kids to purchase a toy or gift for a child in need. Bake cookies and take them to the local police, fire or emergency rescue. Adopt a family in need or visit residents of a nursing home who might be lonely this time of year.

The key to creating any of these traditions is to realize that it's never too late to start. Don't feel that the first time you try one of these that it will be magical. Realize that these can be adapted as your kids grow a bit older. However, these are the moments that create memories and reinforce values.

I know that there is a hunger out there for families looking for ways to bond and push back against a culture that many times is not family-friendly. If the callers to my radio show all these years are any indication, no one remembers (or cares much) about getting a particular present this time of year; what they do remember, however, are the traditions and memories created with family and friends.

And unlike most gifts, the memories and traditions are enduring.