It's December and we are all busy with holiday plans, shopping, and for us nor'easterners, fighting the weather. For me, this time of year is heavy with memories, as I'm sure it is for many people. I come from an Italian family that is heavy on the Christmas traditions. The main day of tradition being Christmas Eve. For so many years, this entailed going to my grandparents' house for a huge feast: fish, shrimp, scuengeli (skoon-gee-lee, aka squid), artichoke hearts, cabbage and beans, soup, clams casino, spaghetti ali oliea (ah-lee-oh-lee-ya), and I'm sure I'm forgetting something else. And I know that I'm spelling a lot of that wrong, but I don't have my Italian dictionary around (ever), so just bear with me.
This evening ended up being my most anticipated evening of the entire year. I was more excited about going to Grandma's house on Christmas Eve than I was to see what I got under the tree the next morning. I would sit in my room or in the living room and watch the clock and count down the minutes until it was 4:00. We always lived close to my grandparents, so it was never a long drive. We would get out of the car, grab the presents, and try not to slip and break something on the icy steps. When we opened the door, we were welcomed by the most marvelous sights and smells I will ever know. The warmth of the house and the warmth from the kitchen seeped throughout the whole house and it was like a great big hug just for you. We would take off our coats and boots and unload the presents, kiss our hellos, then take our places around the coffee table for snacks (my aunt and I always permanently placed in front of the chips and dip). Soon my grandfather would come home from wherever it was that he had gone (often shopping for himself, because why not) and we would sit down for our big Italian feast. Oh it was so good. My grandma would spend a week getting everything ready: shopping for the fish (or sending my dad), preparing the various dishes, etc. Dinner was always accompanied with great conversation and at least one horrible joke that my grandfather told. We would stuff ourselves silly and then the men took over for the cleaning of the dishes and table while the ladies sat and chatted. Eventually we would all make enough room for some Italian cookies and coffee, then we could dig into the presents. When we were little, and my cousins were little, my grandma always turned the news on so we could see where Santa was at the moment. We all played with our presents and laughed and had a good time. Soon, the evening would wrap up and it was back home for us. We always had my grandparents over for dinner the next day and that always made me happy.
As I got older, my grandmother had more difficulties putting dinner together. When I was in college, after my grandmother's first stroke, I spent the day with her breading and frying the fish and getting things ready for her. It was the only year we did that, but I will always remember it. My clothes and hair stunk of fish, but I didn't care. I think Grandma and I ate more fish while we fried it then we actually put on the table. As my grandmother's health declined, we continued going to her house, but we all chipped in to get dinner ready and together. Once my grandfather passed, my uncle took over the job of telling the bad joke of the year (very often the joke of the man with the suit with a sleeve that was too long). More time passed and my grandmother went into a nursing home and we had to sell their house. My mother took over Christmas Eve dinner at her house and we were always able to bring my grandmother over for dinner from the home. In the summer of 2007 my grandmother passed and each Christmas season gets a little harder when we discuss Christmas Eve. I still look forward to it, but it isn't the same without my Little Grandma. I will always remember how I felt walking into that house on Christmas Eve: so overjoyed by every bit of it: the warmth, the food, the decorations, the laughter, every last second of it.
Now that I am a mother, I hope that my children have the same excitement that my brother and I had in going over to their grandparents' house on Christmas Eve. When they are old enough, I plan to tell them all about my Christmas Eve love and all about their great grandparents. If it is one tradition I am determined to pass on as a parent, it is this one. While I know my grandparents are looking down on us on all of the Christmas Eves to come, it still saddens me that they aren't here with us. But I have so many years of wonderful memories with them that I am grateful for all of it.
Not to be a downer in a time when we should be all cheerful, but I think it's only natural for us to think of those we miss and traditions we grew up with, etc. So here's to tradition, family, food, and love!