As the Holiday season commences, the family rituals that were part of my childhood remain with me. I grew up in Philadelphia with a small immediate family – my father had died suddenly when my mother was pregnant with me, and I was a surprise baby. Not only was my mother was much older, but she had thought she could not conceive again. My only sibling born 21 years before me. As a young child my mother, grandmother and I lived together and when my grandmother passed, my brother returned home after a divorce. My father was an Italian-American and my mother was not. She converted to Catholicism so that she could be part of the Italian family which at that time still resisted those that were not also Italian. There were many traditions in our family that was embedded in Italian-American culture. All the brothers and their children and their children would come together for loud, love filled, food-centric gatherings. Religion was important, and church attendance on Christmas Eve was mandatory. The feast on the 12 fishes on Christmas Eve was a tradition, where smelts, calamari, scungilli, baccala and other fishes were served at My aunt and Uncle’s house, and they called it an open-house.
When my uncle passed away, we saw a change in traditions. While our extended family Christmas Eve feast ended, our smaller immediate family began a new Christmas Eve tradition, We altered the 12 fishes to become more to our tastes. Shrimp and crabs became staples. We would also serve some unusual items each Christmas Eve and we would all join in the cooking. One year it was a whole pig which we could not eat after looking at the poor thing. Another year was buffalo tacos. Christmas Eve was held at my mother’s home and grew each year – our Jewish friends and family joined us and new friends and family as well. We always would open one present on Christmas Eve, and would wait until Christmas day for the rest. We always bought a new ornament for the tree. Christmas day was always at our house, and we served escarole soup, ravioli, meatballs and sausage. Our desserts would always include a pumpkin pie with my cousin’s recipe, and my mother’s famous Jewish Apple cake, and eventually my signature dish pumpkin crème brule. We shared lots of family time going to purchase our food, going to the Italian market for cheeses and sausage, then the Italian store for our beloved marinated mozzarella, and then to a local bakery, Villari’s for their homemade bread.
One of our favorite activities was annual Christmas cookie baking, when my mother and I would bake 20-30 dozen cookies to share as Christmas presents and just enjoy. The whole family would pass through the kitchen at some point, helping and enjoying the fresh cookies. We always put a tree up about 2 weeks before Christmas and wrapped all our presents under the artificial tree. The presents that arrived from Santa were not wrapped. As I grew older and married, I realized that everyone did the holidays differently. In my husband’s family, all the presents came wrapped and a live tree was expected. We also began having a live tree. When I had my child, we joyously included him in our rituals, and he got an ornament each year, picked out our live tree and joined us in baking and eating Christmas cookies. We made sure to make tins of cookies for all his teacher, aids, and bus attendants and more as he grew older his friends joined us for our annual Christian eve party.
This year will be an unusual Holiday, as my mother passed last year. As we try to redefine the Holidays, my son and I are looking forward to eating and baking cookies. Our Christmas eve party may not happen, but we will enjoy our ravioli dinner, my sons now favorite food, instead. I plan to continue these traditions as we incorporate new ones.