When I was growing up, Christmas was always celebrated on Christmas Day. As much as my brother and I would beg my father to let us open "just one gift" on Christmas Eve, the answer was always no. While we feigned disappointment, I think the prolonged suspense helped make Christmas morning all that more special. My fondest Christmas memory of this time in my life was the year I turned 16. I had looked forward to my 16th birthday since I was 8 --- no joke. And while the Sweet Sixteen birthday was not all that I hoped it would be, that Christmas more than made up for it. I had decided that I wanted an old-fashioned Christmas that year and my family was kind enough to indulge my wish. We went to a Christmas Tree farm and cut our own tree (typically we decorate with artificial trees), and my grandmother hand-crocheted several ornaments to help decorate it. That evening we went to the midnight Christmas Eve service and when we exited the church it was snowing!! It was going to be a White Christmas - a real dream come true.
I will never forget the first Christmas that I spent with my husband's family. We were not yet engaged, but I was treated as a part of the family from almost the beginning. His family is 100% Italian --- something that I have always highly valued as my ancestry is a mish-mash of ethnicities. His grandmother always prepared her celebration on Christmas Eve and she would spend hours in the kitchen preparing the Vigil. Being devout Catholics (at least at some point in their lives), the vigil included only pasta and fish -- no meat. While this was an unusual feast, I cherished the tradition and have incorporated it as a part of our family Christmas celebration ever since.
The first course is Aioli --- angel hair pasta served with an anchovy sauce. I know it doesn't sound very appealing, but it is absolutely delicious. Geoff's grandmother always made Bacala -- fish fritters made of salted cod. While this was easily found in the Italian section of Bridgeport, CT, her hometown, bacala is not readily available here in the beef-eating midwest. For a number of years Cora would actually mail us the bacala about two weeks before Christmas. I would carefully soak the fish in water for the
required 3 to 4 days, frequently replacing the old water with fresh. About 5 years ago we decided to forego the bacala fritters and replace them with fresh boiled shrimp and crab legs. This is a true delicacy for the family, and a dish that all look forward to eating. I also make Spinach Bread from Cora's old recipe collection that is simple, yet festive. Dessert includes not only holiday cookies, but an Italian specialty called Strufoli --- or honey balls. They are not difficult to make, but very time consuming. My husband absolutely loves them however, and I don't think he would consider it Christmas without them. So, as a labor of love, I make them every year just for him.
Over the years it has gradually become tradition for my kids to sleep together in the basement on Christmas Eve. They ARE allowed to open one gift on this night before Christmas -- typically the one that includes a new pair of Christmas PJs and a new DVD to watch during the night. They are "banished" to the basement around 10:00 so that Geoff and I can wrap all the stocking gifts while we watch A Preacher's Wife, It's a Wonderful Life, and/or A Christmas Story. We usually finish around 12:30 or 1:00 --- set out Santa --- and go to bed.
While I expected this latter tradition to slowly fade as the children got older, I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised two years ago when my eldest daughter, who is now married, planned the overnight stay -- her husband included -- because she did not want to miss the silly sibling early morning antics, nor did she want to miss the opening of Santa. At our house, Santa leaves a stocking for everyone: grandma --- dogs ---- parents --- and kids of all ages. Apparently this is something that Megan has enjoyed and she has vowed to keep the tradition going long after Geoff and I have faded away. Who would have known that such a simple routine would have developed into such a symbolic tradition over time.
Another whimsical idea that has evolved into a Totoro tradition is the making of gingerbread houses. What began as a fun activity to distract the children from the endless wait to Christmas, has gradually become a ministry activity to meet people who are new to our lives, and now to grow closer to families who have become a significant part of our lives. Every year since 1991, I have made a minimum of one gingerbread house per child, with the maximum number of houses being 12 when my daughter invited several friends from school to take part in our annual tradition. The house just doesn't smell like Christmas until I bake the gingerbread, and we would not recognize the season if the table weren't covered with symmetrical stacks of gingerbread pieces ready for assembly. Each child (well now, each grown up who is a child at heart) receives a cardboard base, 6 pieces of gingerbread, and a pastry bag filled with royal icing. Newcomers are given a quick lesson on proper pastry bag etiquette, and then everyone quickly assembles their house. The dining table is laden with the necessary candies, cereal, and metallic dragees to decorate an entire gingerbread village. The festivities usually last about 2 hours, and the culinary creations are always unique. Our tradition is to leave the Gingerbread House up for the holidays, and then eat it on New Year's Day.
So on this special day --- 10 days before Christmas and the advent of a new decade of my life --- I look back in awesome wonder at all the warm holidays of the past, while I look forward to many more familial gatherings in the future. I thank you for stopping by and sharing in this celebration with me.