Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The blends of the Christmas Season

I dig out the ornaments. I hang the wreaths. Tony fights with the outdoor lights. I laugh at his dismay. Another holiday season is upon us.   

Are you ready for the holidays? Is Sam excited for Christmas? I bet he has a long list! I smile politely and respond, “As ready as I can be, oh sure, what kid doesn’t.” Not entirely true, but close enough.

Truth is, Sam doesn’t care about holidays or gifts. Much like making new friends, he prefers the familiar to the new. He smiles at the lights of the tree but has no vested interest in when or if it ever goes up. The noise and crowds at unfamiliar homes increase his anxiety as he tries to make sense of the commotion.   

Happiness for Sam is not contingent upon gifts or the success of Christmas – or any holiday. Happiness for Sam lies with the familiar and the joy of those he loves.

I understand this.

Christmas Eve was the holiday my mother loved. It was steeped in tradition and familiar routines that played out year after year. I remember the stories behind each decoration – many old and cherished, always a few new; our Christmas tree perfectly balanced between elegant ornaments and well-worn treasures.

I remember the yellowed recipe cards for the seven fishes of Christmas Eve. “Ewww.” I would say. “That looks like eye of newt and wing of bat.” My mother would chuckle saying, “Don’t be silly. It’s octopus, not bat.” “Same difference” I would counter all while making ridiculous suction noises with my tongue. “I’m not eating that. The suction cups will get stuck in my throat.”  She would smile as she shook her head and admonish me to set the table.

Her favorite, the pasta dish with breadcrumbs and walnuts was always made last. She would say, “I could eat this every day.” “Why don’t you make it other times then,” I would ask.  The response never changed: “Because it wouldn’t be special.”

I remember our last Christmas together. I can hear her voice, briefly sad, saying, When I go, the traditions will go with me. 

Though I assured her otherwise, in some ways she was right.

As I prepare for this Christmas Eve, I remember the rituals; the process of the holiday unfolding: the endless trays of Italian cookies, the familiar conversation. The touch of my mother’s hand over mine on that last holiday demonstrating the calamari stuffing and how to soak the baccala.

I miss her pasta and walnut sauce as only she could make it. I miss her inevitable post mortem on the cookies she had baked.

Like my Sam, there are things I could watch endlessly. Like my Sam, I want to hold tightly to my mother's traditions for the “all is right with the world” sense of security they provide.

So I find the time to bake the cookies, the smell of the cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg briefly transporting me to the safety of my childhood home.  I see my mother’s face and know the pasta with walnuts is non-negotiable and must be made.  

Some traditions are left behind, it’s true, but they are never forgotten. As we build new traditions, we incorporate some of the old. We bridge the gap between Sam’s world, my world, and my mother’s world and added a little splash of Tony’s world for good measure. As Sam would say, “Is good.”

In the security of our home, we wake Christmas morning and relax, coffee in hand. Singing Jingle Bells and dancing we critique the success of this year’s batch of cookies. Do they measure up? No. They never will. But each year they improve a little as I find the hidden secrets to success.

The gifts are secondary. It's the ritual of blending old expectations with new. Creating new traditions while honoring the old. Holding on and letting go. Seeing my mother’s smile in Sam’s face. Hearing Tony laugh. Blending my past and future. Finding peace, if only for a moment.

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  1. Nice of you to add a splash of Tony in there. ;)
    You really got your "blending" in this post. I remember you telling me about your mother once. So good you have the pictures you do have--mothers are hard to catch and are often the one with the camera.

    I forgot about the hats! Maybe they're on sale now...

  2. Love hearing how you blend the old with the new...something we should all remember to do. It's so easy to get caught up in the "rush" of the holidays but it sounds like Sam has the right outlook. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and your family!

  3. Such a lovely post. I understand it so well, being a first-generation immigrant myself (born in Poland) and the Christmas traditions so deeply-rooted there are slowly fading or being replaced. My grandmother, the most firm link to the old traditions suffered a debilitating stroke couple months ago and as she is languishing between the worlds of the living and the dead, I am long for the years of my childhood when she was well and very rooted in rituals and traditions.
    Thank you for the reminder.

    1. Thanks. Traditions are how I think we connect our past with our future - even if it means we only hang on to a little. It is how we carry a little piece of those we love with us as we continue on. I hope things get better for your grandmother. I know how much you must miss having her play an active role. I hope you enjoy the holidays.