The holidays have always been about family, food and traditions. For me, that mostly meant Christmas Eve gatherings of 20 or more cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, for a feast guided by the Italian custom of seven fishes, and a tree piled high with presents. There was always a sense of abundance—of love, of family, of food, and yes, of gifts to be exchanged, but also of mischief and fun.
The gatherings evolved, but there were things we could count on every year. Uncles who taught us how to loft paper airplanes down on the guests, played Italian love songs on the harmonica, and danced the tarantella in rooms too full of furniture and people to be safe. Aunts who busied themselves with cooking, cooking and more cooking. There were cannoli from the North End of Boston that melted in your mouth with their creamy deliciousness, and chestnuts that were forgotten in the oven, brought to the table burnt long after everyone had eaten more than they possibly could. There were adults who wanted to sit with another glass of wine while restless kids couldn’t wait to attack the pile of gifts under the tree. And there was love, so much love.
The center of gravity for those gatherings shifted when my grandparents died and my great aunt and uncle moved south, unable to tolerate the New England winters anymore. The family was diminished and splintering while we struggled to hold onto the old traditions. And when my generation dispersed and started having kids of our own, the center could no longer hold—the disparate needs of a far-flung family were too much to overcome for a night of traditions.
Over time, new traditions emerged. We added menorahs and dreidels and latkes to the holiday repertoire, celebrating with Charlie’s family as well as mine. We tried to recreate the Christmas Eve feasts of my youth by traveling to my sister’s house, spending far too many hours in the car to spend a couple nights in a hotel, bringing four households together around a feast that never quite lived up to memory.
Some years we stayed put so the kids could wake up on Christmas morning in their own house and experience the joys of a languorous Christmas morning in pajamas. And sometimes we skipped the holidays altogether to visit an exotic location our hectic schedules wouldn’t otherwise allow.
The Christmas between chemo infusions, we stayed put. My doctor had warned me that I wouldn’t know until the last minute whether or not my white blood cell count would be strong enough to sustain interaction with other people, or if my energy levels would be strong enough for travel. When I got the all-clear a few days before Christmas, we threw a last-minute party.
Most people that celebrate Christmas make plans for the occasion well in advance, so those that were able to join us generally viewed it as a secular holiday and were delighted to have a someplace to go. But in my household, it was extra special. I was responding well to treatment and we were excited to have the worst of it all behind us. We did up the house, donned festive attire and I put on my best-looking—but itchiest—wig. People brought food. We poured drinks. Conversation flowed, and for a few hours, we forget that we were in the middle of a big ordeal.
I finished treatment and recovered. I traded my wig for real hair, and five holiday seasons have come and gone. In the intervening years, we’ve alternated between traveling to New England and traveling afar, sharing the holiday with family or with newly made foreign friends. But this year, here we are again in the middle of a big ordeal, this one, a pandemic. We are staying put so we don’t risk sharing germs with my 94-year-old mother.
Traditions on Hold
But there won’t be a party this year. There will just be four of us, the “Core Four” as we like to say, (although, perhaps we should spell it “Coure”, the Italian word for heart, for we are the four closest in our hearts). We could complain about being unable to travel, unable to share the holiday with our extended family, unable to see friends and unable to enjoy our traditions. Like so many others, we’ve put them all on hold this year and hope to resume our lives again soon.
I’m not sure what we will cook or how we will deck the halls—there are no pandemic traditions to observe and the feast of my memories requires many hands resulting in far too much food for four. But I know that there will be a sense of abundance—of love, of family, of food, and yes, of gifts to be exchanged—but also of mischief and fun.
Wishing you all the joy of family, food and fun, however you celebrate this very non-traditional pandemic holiday season.