The trees are shaking off their browned leaves, there is a distinct chill in the air, everything is peppermint and gingerbread and all about Santa Claus. It feels as though our hands are always cold. The pinkness in my cheeks, chapped lips and transition to warm cups of coffee has me nostalgic. I’m not sure if it feels the same for you, but for me, when the air finds a chill, something in me starts to crack open and head toward the sentimental. Maybe it’s the end of the year — looking back on 12 calendar pages tossed in the trash with wistful remembrance. Or maybe the month of Dec. ignites an evocative, half shell of emotion in all of us.
Much of this sentimentality finds its roots in tradition. The stories of our life, the trifles of our upbringing and the pieces of history we pack in our bags even when we move far away are grounded in tradition. For my family, tradition starts with food. I’m sure it’s simply in our Italian blood, and the knack for cooking and inherent love for flavor were all curated somewhere in Southern Italy ages ago. But ever since I can remember, traditions were always centered around food. Every holiday and event, every means for celebrating — even if it was just a Sunday afternoon where we all had the privilege of being together — beat along with the idea that food and wine and good company could be the antidote to the world. If you paged through the scripture of my family history, you would be advised to always invite anyone inside who had nowhere to go and always celebrate with good food and good wine. You would be reminded that salt, reggiano parmigiano, heat and red wine are your friends when you are bent over a stove. You would learn about the selfless act of cooking for others. Somewhere in there, you would learn about me.
At this time of year, these thoughts take me to the holidays, namely, Christmas Eve, which in and of itself is a larger tradition for my family than Christmas day is. I wonder often where traditions begin. We seem to accept them as fact, much like mathematical equations. All of us have some piece of tradition, be it shattered or whole, be it long gone or still with us. Certain things we just know. At our home on Christmas Eve, anyone who doesn’t have somewhere to go is invited. Once you’ve been invited you never get removed from the invite list, even if we haven’t spoken in a year, even if you’ve moved away and moved on. You can simply never be uninvited. That’s just tradition.
So even if it’s the only time all year I see them, I can expect the same motley, loveable crew every year — same time, same place. There’s dancing and drinking and gift giving and perhaps most importantly, food. So much food that I often wonder if we’ll ever learn our lesson and prepare less than the outrageous amount we do. But the more the merrier seems to be the motto of the whole night every year — in regards to food, chilled glasses of wine and good company. If I could bottle up a feeling, it would be the one inside the white house on River Road every Christmas Eve. It is the epitome of what warmth feels like.
I wonder where this all began, where a tradition so specific and idiosyncratic in its nature found its beginning. My father, the spearhead of the bubbly, lively Dec. 24 affair is half-Jewish, half-Catholic and perhaps the most fond of Christmas anyone has ever been. This Christmas spirit began when he was raised by a Jewish mother and a Catholic father who didn’t believe in going to church. My dad tells me my grandfather found God in his kitchen every day. On Christmas Eve, our home is a non-denominational affair — with people identifying as every religion coming together to celebrate. If you don’t celebrate Christmas, if you believe Jesus roamed the earth and pray to him every morning, or you’re waiting for him still, or you don’t believe in him at all — you are welcome. It’s a peculiar and spectacular sight to see — an amalgamation of languages and cultures and ideas and love and music all pouring from the cracks in our walls. Merry Christmas, indeed.
When I traced my father’s history, which required light prodding and sweet memories, I found it all started with the Feast of the Seven Fishes, or Festa dei Sett Pesci, which is the Italian-American celebration of Christmas Eve which is a meal supplemented with dishes of seafood. The meal typically consists of seven different seafood dishes, originating in Southern Italy, where it is known simply as The Vigil or (La Vigilia). The tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve began from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from eating meat on the eve of a feast day. Observant Catholics would instead turn to fish, and today, the meal has become a feast of seven, eight or even nine specific fishes that are considered to be traditional. Most Italian Fish Feasts commence with white fish in lemon and garlic, followed by clams and mussels mingling with ropes of spaghetti spattered in spicy tomato sauce, and a number of other fish dishes that may feel without end. I should tell you that I’ve never celebrated Christmas Eve with a traditional Festa dei Sette Pesci, but it is important in bringing you down the line of my life, nonetheless.
Before I was born, when my father and his brother were boys, they celebrated with a traditional Feast of the Seven Fishes, cooked by their father at the home in which they grew up. Much like my family’s festivities today, their Christmas Eve had a doors open policy — the strategic over-preparation of food to ensure they wouldn’t run out. Everyone leaving full of love and food, balancing tupperware containers of leftovers on their way out. My dad tells me my grandfather believed that people, no matter who they are or what they are, should have somewhere to go on Christmas Eve, to be around people who love them. Around good food and good wine, which in our family scripture are said to be the ultimate offerings of peace and harmony. I’m trying to imagine what this would look like — a late ’70s picture in my mind, perhaps cigar smoke and laughter fills the air; seven, eight, nine, 10 fish dishes lining the dining room table; white fish buttered and sauteed and fried and glazed to perfection; pasta with basil and crab sauce; a loaf of haphazardly torn crispy baguette sitting among a pool of grassy olive oil, all crackling as they cool, with my grandfather’s grace echoing into the warm air. I wondered what my grandmother did as my grandfather spent his afternoons and evenings with God in the kitchen, mixing and praying. Mixing and praying. I never met her, my dad and uncle lost her when they were my age, but a lot of people think she and I are quite similar. Isn’t it strange that our eyes came from someone long gone? I asked my dad what her role in this Christmas Eve production was, especially considering being Jewish, she didn’t grow up celebrating Christmas herself.
“She was the master of ceremonies,” he said without much of a thought, and I wished to plug a cable into his mind and watch his memories project on a drop down screen. “She made people dance. She made people stay. She was the reason the evening would run past 10:00 or 11:00 at night.” I could feel his nostalgia effusing from the other end of the phone, from nearly one thousand miles away. “She was the best happy person in the world.” I feel as though her spirit must still be alive in the hardwood floor of our family room, where all of our hooligans and family members, friends old and new, twirl and dance to brassy Bruce Springsteen tracks and holiday classics before dinner on Christmas Eve every year.
My uncle tells me the story of a year he was sent out with a wad of cash from the restaurant to pick up a mink coat that my grandfather was giving my grandmother for Christmas Eve. They always exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve because much like a small child, the anticipation killed her. My grandfather wrapped the coat in a garbage bag. My uncle said he remembers her face when she opened it, she cried and then slept in it.
When my grandmother passed away, my father, uncle and grandfather moved into a different home — one that I can remember visiting as a small girl. It was in this house that the tradition first began to mold and shift. It is here that my mother and her family were invited in, bringing with them their own customs and scripture. Interesting how the people we meet and fall in love with have traditions too, the marriage of two holiday traditions gives birth to a completely new one, all fresh-faced and sparkling. My maternal grandmother says some of her first memories of my paternal grandfather are at his home sharing the Feast of the Seven Fishes. She told me about the table — a stark image — being as long as it had to be in order to fit every guest around it. My grandfather vehemently opposed splitting up the family for meals, so instead everyone was elbow to elbow. Italians believe in closeness. I think most prominently in her memory, and perhaps the most special moments of her first Feasts of the Seven Fishes was how fully her family was invited to be a part of my father’s. My grandmother says her favorite memories of Christmas Eves passed are the table settings, a strategic element to my Grandfather’s success as a celebrator and a gatherer. He always sat my mother’s grandfather right next to him, bridging the two families together at a deeper level than just the union of my parents.
As time evolved, the table in my grandfather’s house grew too small. Suddenly with children and spouses and new friends to invite inside, the Feast of the Seven Fishes didn’t fit at his table. Once more, the tradition took a new shape, a new face, always keeping the same beating heart as it forged on through the years. My grandfather relocated the Christmas Eve celebration to his Italian restaurant, shutting the doors to the public, which is a rarity as the restaurant business thrives on Christmas Eve. Here he could fit more friends, a growing family and more spirit than he could before. But with new palettes and small children the tradition of Seven Fishes didn’t feel right either. He altered the menu — still holding a candle to the past and those lost, but reconfiguring to fit a newer group — serving a variety of fish dishes, adding chicken and pastas, fresh veggies and red meat, and of course, thick, soft layers of lasagna and crispy, salty eggplant parmesan. My uncle remembers enormous shrimp cocktail, which makes me smile, because we still have that at my house every year. He tells me about snow crab claws the size of your hands, a mountain of them, piled high on ice. He tells me about clam sauce. His intention always that there would be something for everyone when they stepped into his front doors, wherever those front doors were, whomever the folks were coming in from the cold.
It makes more sense to me now where this Christmas Eve came from — how it was born, who gave it breath, who gave it life. Why I’ve never had a Feast of Seven Fishes, despite the fact that I feel entitled to one. How we mix grief and sentimentality, love and trifles of history and come up with new ways to celebrate ancient whisperings. What is a meal but nourishment? What is nourishment but necessity? What is a dish but ingredients on a plate? What is Seven Fishes that is not crispy eggplant parmigiana and gigantic shrimp cocktail? Do we find God in the kitchen? Do we find Him in our floorboards? Is this recipe always evolving, as things ebb and flow, always standing firm in its roots? Is that my grandmother’s laugh, is it her eyes? What is tradition without loss? Without love? Without reshaping and growing and pushing past and pushing towards?
What did the 24th look like back in 1977, and what is the same now as then?
The details have changed. They always do. The faces have changed too, because that is just the way the wind should blow. There is no Jewish grandmother in a mink coat wrapped in a garbage bag, dancing till she falls. There is no grandfather with worn hands, serving seven, eight, nine fishes. But the truth in it is the same; the flavors are the same. It all comes back to the scripture, the recipes, the food, the knowledge that in ingredients and wine and flavor we grieve, we love, we celebrate, we come together. It is still an open doors policy: You are still always welcome, all of you, any of you. There will be something to eat, something to drink, someone to talk to who you’ll only see once a year, every year. I hope you can come. Everyone is invited.