Dec 6, 2018

Family Traditions

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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.

Dec 10, 2018Edited: Dec 10, 2018

BIRTHDAYS WERE OUR CHRISTMAS

I come from what others would consider a “large” family; there are seven of us, three girls and four boys. Although taking care of seven children, particularly seven children close in age can be taxing, my parents always made sure we were cared for and love. Birthdays were no exception; my friends always called me spoiled because my parents treated our birthday like it was a holiday. Growing up I was never accustom to participating in commercial celebrations such as Christmas. As a family we never decked the halls or hung missletoe, and as children we didn’t write letters or leave cookies for “Santa.” We grew up knowing there wasn’t a grown man shimming down our chimney with reigned deer weighing enough to cave a house parking at the roof top. Although I knew none of those things were real or meant anything, I still wanted the gifts. But I knew December would soon conclude and in a few months my “Christmas” would arrive with all the “boughs of holly.”

 

February 4, 1992 was the earliest life anniversary I can remember- aka my birthday. I was at my grandmother’s house and everything was covered in pink. Pink balloons, pink strimer, a pink crown and a pink dress. Mickey and Minnie Mouse mascots were plastered all over every napkin, cup and table cloth; this was my Christmas. I remember a countless number of guests: uncles, aunts, first cousins, second cousins and so on. I remember the mountains of food which suffocated the counters and table tops. I remember the laughter and song shared from my many relatives flooding the room with warmth and love. The best part was the cake; my Mickey and Minnie ice cream cake-and it was pink! It sat there on the counter staring at me and I gazing back. My mother and grandmother decorating the cake with a number two candle while scattering the not so special candles throughout its surface. They lit the candles and called everyone around the table and started singing; “Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear Brittni, happy birthday to you!” I made a wish; not sure what that wish was but it didn’t matter. I blew out the candles with every breath and it was time to eat.

 

Ever since my 2nd birthday party, my parents made a scene out of our “special day.” They always go to that one Acme that sells the birthday cards and spend hours at a time reading each one until they find the “right one“ and purchase two; one from the parents and the other from the siblings. They attempt to sneak around the house and make sure everyone signs the card forging any signature of those absentee. My mother goes to the bakery and purchases our favorite cake making sure the clerk spells “Happy Bithday... (insert name)” correctly. She waits until we get home from school, work, or what ever the daily venture, and as soon as she hears us come in, she scatters and serquesters the rest of our siblings to the kitchen. The candles are lit, lights go out and our name is called. Everyone starts to sing; “Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear (insert name), happy birthday to you!” We blow out our candles not sure what to wish for and then it‘s time to eat. We take the first cut and go through the gifts; cards are always first. All cards are read and thanks are given.

 

November 6, 2018 was my mother’s 56th birthday. My sisters and I were sure to make a scene out her “special day.” After work we scattered through the stores trying to figure out what to get her after she said she did not want anything. My sister spent about an hour at the flower shop going through arragements that best expressed “I Love You.” I spent too much time in that one card isle reading all the cards just to find the right one and purchased two; one from me and one from my sisters. We went to Tiffany’s Bakery and bought the cupcakes we knew she liked. We snuck in the house and serquestered my siblings to the kitchen to sign the card and flood the cupcakes with trick candles. We tiptoed through the hall till we reached her bedroom singing happy birthday. Our mother blew out the candles; after a few tries while we hovered over her. It was time for her to recieve her gifts; cards first. We watched as she read each one and hugged everyone of us as she gave her thanks. This was her Christmas.

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