Monday, December 19, 2011

So This is Christmas

A week after my daughter was born, I wrote her a letter. I used a word to represent each letter of the alphabet. Each word is an action I hope she chooses to take during her life. Here's what I wrote for the letter "O:"
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
My parents made sure Christmas Eve was always special. The fish and the gifts and the memories. Ah, the memories... not all of them fond. You see, we're no Norman Rockwell family. We have our warts just like everyone else. There was the year my niece screamed bloody murder because we had skipped a part in the Nativity play she was producing (I was Joseph and my performance was spot on.) There was the year one of my sisters nearly choked to death on a fish bone, requiring the Heimlich Maneuver (the downside of eating nothing but fish). There was the year my dad got irrationally angry and threw a fit because there was only hazelnut coffee made. (that's genetic.... hazelnut makes me mad too.)

1996: I slept through it (but look at all that hair!)
I started to make a joke out of it, placing odds on who would "ruin" Christmas each year. One year, believe it or not, it was me. I came down with a deathly sinus infection and high fever.

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.


  1. What kind of 7 fish are we talking about? Because there's a big difference between 7 very big fish and 7 goldfish. And also would 7 goldfish crackers ever count.

    Thanks for sharing this. Happy holidays to you and your family ;)

  2. Crab cakes, shrimp salad, Stuffed mushrooms, scallops, lobster tails, tuna and clams. Mmmmmmm.

  3. Our tradition on Christmas Eve is my in laws keeping my kids up way too late. We eat dinner around 10:00 and the kids go to bed while NORAD Santa is in Califirnia. Merry Christmas.

  4. This is an absolutely beautiful post. I'm sorry that your dad is not with you in person anymore. He is obviously with you, in spirit. Your traditions sound lovely. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas. Enjoy yor fishes. ;)

  5. Ooo I like Christina's idea of the goldfish, but it looks like you have all 7 fish under control... I'm a Catholic, but not a fan of seafood so I have to find more creative options during lent lol.

    I'm so sorry your Peanut can't spend Christmas Eve with her Popsie. Can I ask how he died? It's horrible that it was so unexpected!! I can't imagine how hard it must be, but your right, his traditions live through you.

    On Christmas Eve my mom lets everyone open one gift and it's always pajamas to wear that night and into Christmas morning. :o)

    For Love of Cupcakes

  6. Inspiring Post today. Thank you. It wasa message I needed to hear.

  7. Loved this (as usual). I didn't realize you were a fellow Italian. My family doesn't do the seven fishes, but I can definitely relate to the sentiments of Christmas tradition without really knowing why. It's the Italian way.

    Sweet and moving story about your father--sounds like an amazing guy. You had a great example.

    I, too, would also like to say that hazelnut angers me. It's the easiest way to nastify coffee, and it's not allowed in my house.

  8. This is a really lovely post. We recently lost my father-in-law, who was basically the center of our family. Your words really hit home for me because this will be our first Christmas without him.

  9. Thanks, everyone. I really love this post. @Jamie: he had a heart attack on 1/4/03. @Chunky Mama: Hang in there. Hug the kids. It gets easier eventually. And @Twinfamy: while my dad wasn't perfect, he did set a good example of someone who worked hard for and loved his family. And yes. Hazelnut coffee is an abomination.

  10. Eloquent tale of what sound like wonderful family memories. As a Jew, I had never heard of the Seven Fishes tradition and found it pretty interesting when I looked it up. Of course I'm allergic to seafood so it wouldn't do me any good anyway.

    Your father sounds like quite a man. I'm sure he'd be proud of the legacy you have continued and built upon.

    Merry (early) X-mas Eve!

    JJ – The Dude of the House
    Twitter: @DudeOfTheHouse

  11. Beautiful, beautiful. I love that you are adamant about continuing traditions. That's something that I'm lazy about, and I really want to be more conscientious. We're the part of the family that lives far away, so it's hard to assert certain traditions. And my sister leaves to be with her husband's family, so we haven't had OUR family together for years. It's time for some combo-new traditions over here too, methinks.

    Thank you for this.


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