A Virtual Holiday with Steph Petrov

Steph Petrov is a junior in Political Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign  and current president of the local chapter of Amnesty International, a student program of the University YMCA

Like many other undergraduate students on campus, Steph is home for the holidays until the end of January. With both of her parents likely working from home during this period given the recent surge in COVID cases, Steph hopes this will create opportunities to do more things together as a family, such as revisiting familiar traditions like decorating. 

“My favorite part is definitely decorating. I absolutely love decorating for Christmas—just putting up the lights. It’s always been something I would do with my family,” Steph explains. She also hopes to adopt new traditions like taking in the sparkling wonderment of drive-thru holiday light displays around her hometown. 

Keeping holiday festivities small and celebrating remotely with extended family is nothing new for Steph, whose parents immigrated to the US from Bulgaria in the 1990s. Despite the distance, each year, she finds time together with her parents and younger brother to celebrate with grandparents, cousins, and other loved ones overseas by phone. 

Steph also embraces Bulgarian holiday traditions in the kitchen. “I have baked a Bulgarian Christmas bread every Christmas Eve since I was in high school. It’s a Bulgarian tradition to wrap a coin in aluminum foil and bake it in the bread. The coin symbolizes a prosperous new year for whomever receives it in their piece of bread.”

Want to try this Bulgarian tradition? Steph shares the recipe so you can try at home.

Christmas Eve Honey Bread

Recipe shared from Seasons and Suppers


  • 3/4 cup warm water 
  • 2 tsp. instant or dry active yeast 
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour 
  • 4 Tbsp. vegetable, canola or any neutral tasting oil 
  • 2 Tbsp. honey 
  • 1/2 tsp. salt 


Add yeast to warm water, stir and allow to sit for a few minutes. In a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, add the flour. Add the yeast/water mixture, the honey, oil and salt. Mix the dough until it comes together, adding a bit more water or flour, as necessary, then knead by hand or with your dough hook, into a soft, smooth dough. 

Place the dough into a greased bowl, cover with plastic warp and let it rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size, about 30-60 minutes. 

When the dough has doubled, place on a lightly floured surface and knead for a minute or so. Cut out and set aside a fist-sized piece of dough (to be used to make the top decorations). Knead the fortune coin (I used a whole pecan in place of a real coin) into the remaining dough and then roll into a flat round shape. Place onto a parchment lined baking sheet. 

Using the reserved piece of dough, cut small pieces and shape into the various elements to decorate the top of the bread. Decorate the bread with ears of wheat, apples, grapes or flowers. To make the top of the wheat, use some clean kitchen scissors to snip v-shaped snips into the dough. Once all your shapes are placed on the bread round, press down lightly over the top of them to flatten slightly and ensure they stick. In a small bowl, combine the honey and oil and brush liberally over the entire top of the bread. 

Bake in a preheated oven at 400° until golden and cooked through, about 20 – 25 minutes. Check the bread regularly after 10 minutes and cover the top with a piece of aluminum foil if the top is browning too much.

The Spirit of Giving

This Giving Tuesday, we recognize the many challenges our community is faced with during the pandemic. There are many options to donate to the organizations that support our residents, students, workers and our overall community vitality.

The spirit of giving goes beyond one day this holiday season. As you continue to build new traditions in 2020 due to the pandemic, consider the gift of giving. Challenge our family, friends, and co-workers to donate or volunteer for a local organization to aid on the path to recovery.

The United Way of Champaign County assembled a comprehensive list of ways you can contribute this holiday season. Among the various opportunities:

  • Adopt-A-Family Programs
  • Family Volunteering and Community Collection Drives
  • Holiday Meals
  • Coat/Clothing Drives

Your service and donations will continue to ensure safety for families and individuals who need assistance. We want to know, how will you give back in 2020?

A Virtual Holiday with Dr. Pam Lau

I did not grow up with Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is an American holiday with its attendant traditions.  Being an immigrant from Singapore, I had to learn what Thanksgiving is all about.  When my husband, Lawson, and I first arrived in Illinois as international students, church friends invited us into their homes to share in their Thanksgiving celebrations and traditions. They regaled us with stories of family and customs.  We feasted over turkey and its associated trimmings, which included dishes that were strange to my then southeast Asian palate.  Like sweet potatoes with marshmallows and brown sugar!

A major drawback about being an immigrant is that your extended family is thousands of miles away.  The traditional Thanksgiving gathering with family is simply not practical.  But drawbacks come with opportunities.  Through the church, we ministered to international students, scholars and their families.  So, we created our own extended family – a family of international friends who had no other family in the U.S.  In the early years, I would cook the American Thanksgiving meal for 75 to 80 people.  My helper team comprised mostly international women who all wanted to learn how to roast the big bird, prepare mashed potatoes, make cranberry sauce from scratch, and put together that ubiquitous green bean casserole.  International friends would contribute to the meal by bringing a sumptuous dish from their own countries. Our children grew up thinking of Thanksgiving (and Christmas) as huge international celebrations. In more recent times, we have invited international friends to celebrate Thanksgiving with us in our home.  We have downsized the crowd to 12 to 20 people due to space limitations.  After turkey and pumpkin pie, our international friends help set up our Christmas tree, a first for many of them who do not come from countries where Christmas is celebrated in homes.

Thanksgiving 2019

The current pandemic is, alas, an unwelcomed gamechanger and a major disruption to our beloved traditions.  We will not have international friends over.  I will truly miss the joy of having people from many nations present at our Thanksgiving table as well as the fun of seeing international friends decorate a Christmas tree for the first time.  Thanksgiving this year will be a four-person family affair.  Our two adult children plan to come home (as of the time of writing).  JohnMark will do a COVID test before returning; Andreana is observing a strict 14-day quarantine.  A quieter Thanksgiving. The turkey will be smaller.

Yet again, drawbacks bring opportunities. This time, the pandemic opens the opportunity to focus less on hosting and more on thankfulness. 

In spite of the pandemic and its related concerns, there is much to be thankful for.  I am so thankful for family – our family here and my sisters and their families across the ocean.  The bonds of love remain strong and are much cherished.  I am ever grateful for meaningful work, challenging but fulfilling.  For the support of colleagues and friends. For home and shelter. Health and sustenance.  Rest and refreshment.  Faith, love, and grace.  A good reminder of what really matters in the long term.

We may have to scale back celebrations, but there is no scaling back on the spirit of gratitude and thankfulness.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Dr. Lau shares her favorite holiday recipe:

Some 30 years ago, I found this mashed potato recipe in a cookbook (when cookbooks were still a thing).  I have since prepared it almost every Thanksgiving.

  • 8 potatoes, peeled and boiled until tender
  • 1 stick of butter (4 oz), softened
  • 1 cup of sour cream
  • 1 packet of cream cheese (8 oz), at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons of chopped chives
  • 1 teaspoon of garlic powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Drain and mash the potatoes with the butter, sour cream, cream cheese, chives, and spices.
  2. Spoon into a buttered casserole.
  3. Bake 40 to 50 minutes in a preheated 350°F oven, until the surface is golden.

This may be prepared the day before through step two and refrigerated.  Two hours before baking, remove from the fridge and let stand at room temperature.  Then bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 40 to 50 minutes.


A Virtual Holiday with Chancellor Robert J. Jones

Ready to celebrate a virtual Thanksgiving this week? Distanced holidays are the best gift of health you can give to your loved ones and your community this year. We’ve asked people in our community how their holiday traditions will change for 2020 to give you inspiration for your upcoming celebrations.

Giving us inspiration, and making our mouths water, is University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Chancellor Robert J. Jones, sharing his family traditions and how it will look different in 2020.

“Since my mom passed, my sister has made all of the Thanksgiving dishes that were part of our family holiday tradition. No matter where I am living, she cooks everything that can be made ahead of time, deep freezes it, loads it into suitcases and brings it to wherever we are living – she’s very popular with the Skycaps at the airport when they figure out that she’s traveling with a buffet!”

Chancellor Jones and his wife, Lynn, traditionally make Thanksgiving a whole family affair but recognize the reality that 2020 brings. “My whole family and Lynn’s whole family gather at our house, not so much to see us, but to be a part of my sister’s wonderful meals. We know it simply isn’t safe to gather in large groups this year, but we will all miss my sister’s amazing Thanksgiving dinner.”

To adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, Chancellor Jones shares, “We will talk on the phone with each other, and the family members who are lucky enough to live near my sister will drive to her house, and she’ll meet them in the driveway – wearing masks and practicing social distancing, of course. And she’ll load plates of food into their cars. My nephew is planning to drive 55 miles one way to pick up his dinner. Lynn and I will have a quiet dinner at home, and we’ll have to make do remembering the taste of those wonderful dishes my sister makes every year. I’ll have to check the freezer and see if there might still be anything left over from last year!”

Asked about his favorite dish, Chancellor Jones says, “I don’t cook, but my favorite dish on Thanksgiving is sweet potato pie. My mom always made the traditional kind, and my sister still does. She cooks the potatoes, purees them, pours them into the crust and bakes the pie. Some people do outrageous things like adding raisins or pecans. In my family that is blasphemy.”

We hope you find some of that pie in your freezer from last year! Thank you, Chancellor Jones for sharing your Thanksgiving traditions and for helping to “Spread Cheer, Not COVID.”

A Virtual Holiday with Julie Pryde

Planning a virtual alternative to your holiday plans? Good plan. Distanced holidays are the best gift of health you can give to your loved ones and your community this year. We’ve asked people in our community how their holiday traditions will change for 2020 to give you inspiration for your upcoming celebrations.

First up, Julie Pryde, the Public Health Administrator for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, who has been working hard to keep our community safe. Julie shares her holiday traditions and what she’s looking forward to this year.

“My favorite part of the winter holidays has always been cooking and having my family gather. My family has always celebrated on Christmas Eve, and then usually go to a movie or two on Christmas Day.”

When asked how these traditions will be adapted amidst the pandemic, Julie says, “We will be gathering virtually, through Zoom or Facetime.  We can still talk, catch-up, see how my littlest relatives are growing, and share stories. I will continue the tradition started at Easter of delivering a full holiday meal, complete with wine, to older friends who are staying safe in their homes.”

She adds what she hopes to be a new tradition, “I hope to be able to Zoom with my littlest nieces and nephews as they see what Santa delivered.”

We all know the role food plays in our holiday celebrations, so we asked Julie about her favorite holiday dish. “My family & I like stuffed mushroom caps. These are usually eaten on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. They are just large button mushroom caps filled with spicy sausage, chopped stems and shredded cheese. Easy to make, but so good!”

We like anything easy to prepare, especially during these trying times.

Thanks, Julie, for helping to “Spread Cheer, Not COVID.”

Quarantine Explained

With case numbers rising locally, the number of close contacts in quarantine is also on the rise. Remaining in quarantine for the recommended time is critical to keeping our case load down and preventing spread. Check out this handy graphic from the Illinois Department of Public Health to make sure you’re staying home for the right amount of time.

Thank you for continuing to do your part to keep Champaign County Safe!

Tier Three Mitigations

With a new wave of COVID-19 surging across the state of Illinois, the Midwest and the nation, Governor JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) today announced additional COVID-19 resurgence mitigations will take effect in every region across the state in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. Tier 3 mitigations build on the Resurgence Mitigation Plan released in July to suppress the spread of the virus and prevent hospitals from becoming overrun. This latest round of mitigations aims to limit gatherings and encourages residents to stay home as much as possible and follow proper safety measures when out in public. The mitigations carefully balance the paramount goal of saving lives while preserving the option for in-person learning for children and protecting as much of the economy as possible from the continued impacts of the virus.

The Tier 3 resurgence mitigations will take effect statewide at 12:01 am on Friday, November 20, 2020.

See the full list of updates in Tier Three Mitigations here.

Safely Celebrating Thanksgiving

Heading into the Thanksgiving holiday, Champaign County is seeing high positivity rate and higher hospitalizations due to COVID-19. While we all hope to gather with our family and friends during the holiday, it is critical to follow CDC guidelines and find alternatives to celebrate Thanksgiving.

The CDC released their recommendations for individuals planning to celebrate including:

  • Wearing a mask when not eating or drinking
  • Stay 6 ft apart from your guests
  • Wash your hands
  • Bring your own food, drinks, plates, cups, and utensils
  • Have a small outdoor meal with family and friends who live in your community
  • Have conversations with guests ahead of time to set expectations for celebrating together

See their full list of recommendations here.

Thank you for continuing to do your part to keep Champaign County Safe.