Observe. Observe traditions, like eating seven fish on Christmas Eve... traditions are a huge part of who you are, and where you came from. Learn them. Appreciate them. Make them your own. Maintain them, while making changes to fit the times. That will make passing them on even more special.I wrote that more than four years ago. It's still true. It's come true. And will always be true.
Christmas Eve is the holiday for many Italian-Americans. More important than Christmas. It goes back to the old country. And my family is no exception. Our tradition, what makes this event so special, is the seven fishes (yes... it's fishes. This is one of the few instances where I will allow a grammatical mistake.)
We eat seven fish on Christmas Eve. But to tell you the truth, we don't really know exactly why. We're funny that way. Some say it represents the seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church. Some say it's the seven deadly sins. Others argue the seven days it took Mary and Joseph to get to Bethlehem. Then there's the seven hills of Rome theory, and the seven winds of Italy one.
I like to think of the Biblical significance of the number seven: three for the divinity plus four representing earth. Seven is the perfect number, representing Christ on Earth. I'm not super religious, but this is the explanation I prefer.
Regardless, on Christmas Eve, we eat.
|My parents made Christmas|
|1996: I slept through it (but look at all that hair!)|
But none of that mattered because we were all together. This is our family and these are our traditions, good or bad.
Then there was the one year my dad wasn't there anymore. He suddenly passed away shortly after one Christmas, in January 2003. He had a bag full of freshly purchased, heavily discounted Christmas decorations from Target in the backseat of his car. This was not a man who was ready to die. He was ready to continue the tradition. He was ready to add to it. He was already planning next Christmas.
That first Christmas Eve without him was painful. It just wasn't the same. Never would be the same. My mom, bless her heart, tried to recreate the same festive atmosphere. But how could you? She, along with the rest of us, was still heartbroken.
He was the one who prepared the antipasto. He was the one who filled the cream puffs. He was the one who wrote all of the clever tags on everyone's gifts. Everyone's. Four children, two of their spouses, four grandchildren (at the time), and of course my mom. My dad wrapped all of the gifts.
He was Father Christmas. One year, he had me convinced that times were so tough, there was no money for a new Nintendo. I was in eighth grade and that's all I wanted for Christmas. So after we had helped my sister set up Christmas morning for my niece, I took it upon myself to write her a note from Santa. In it, I added a postscript. I told her to tell her Uncle Justin sorry about the Nintendo... it just couldn't fit on the sleigh. I was resigned to not getting one, and was actually fine with it.
The next morning, there was a Nintendo under the tree. My dad, holding the note I wrote asked me, "What do you think Santa meant by this?" That is easily my favorite Christmas memory ever.
|A lot of gifts... in bags|
To this day, my mom doesn't wrap gifts. She just puts them all in gift bags. She still puts clever notes on them. Carrying on that tradition. The Peanut doesn't know any different. She just knows she gets a gigantic bag of gifts from Mema. And of course, loves it.
And so after that very sad, that very void Christmas Eve without my dad, things changed. The next year I decided to avoid Christmas Eve altogether and work. I actually volunteered so others could have off.
The year after that, My Director and I took over. We started to host.
I told my mom there were too many memories and expectations for Christmas Eve to continue at her house. That we would always be thinking of daddy anyway. And a different venue would do us good.
We had changed the tradition. And we added to it. We made it an all-day affair. Instead of cramming all of the fish into appetizers and dinner, we'd start at noon. Crab cakes, shrimp salad and mushrooms stuffed with salmon for lunch. Sauteed scallops, pasta with tuna and clams, and broiled lobster tails for dinner. In between, we open gifts and go to church.
|Peanut giving Mema a frame with family pictures|
We've made our holiday, our holiday.
Every Christmas is still not the same. But it gets a little easier to bear every year. Still, it's impossible not to wonder, not to wish, not to miss him. It breaks my heart that my daughter will never get to meet her Popsie. It breaks my heart that her childhood memories of Christmas Eve will never include him. But he does live through me. Through us. Through the stories we tell.
Through the traditions we pass on.
If you'd like to read the letter I wrote to the Peanut after she was born, click here.