Now that I’m 92 and don’t have other responsibilities, I start wondering what Christmas meant to me when I was a child, what it meant to my children and to my grandchild. Questions arise as to what Christmas really was for my Jewish friends (it is only recently that I learned about Hanukkah), to others who had grown up without any special religious faith, like me, or with a completely different one.
I wonder now what I really thought of Jesus, except for the references received from our teachers in our daily readings of psalms, the Lord’s prayer and the oath of allegiance, when you just take what they tell you for granted.
Christmas for me always meant a tree. A tree to be chosen in our hemlock grove and dragged home through the snow. Set up in the living room, there would be lights, not lit until Christmas Eve, and real candles. Even in my New York years, there was always a tree, albeit very small. Later, when I moved to Italy and married into an Italian family, the tree was accepted as long as there was also a manger scene with Joseph, Mary and the Child, shepherds and the Three Kings.
Christmas meant songs sung only then, at least in the US, and strangely enough a poem. Twas the night before Christmas – now I wonder who introduced me to that. Probably my second or third grade teacher. Songs flooded the ether and were everywhere. At home, Christmas Eve had to be Silent Night. But then my sister and I would act out and sing others: We three kings of Orient are, Away in a manger, O little town of Bethlehem (we probably had no idea where Bethlehem was) and Bing Crosby with White Christmas, much to my father’s disapproval of this type of popular music. Just as we would act out the Christmas pageant we had witnessed at the college where my father taught – taking turns being Gabriel and Mary of the Annunciation. For us elements in a fairy tale.
Christmas of course also meant gifts, originally brought by Santa until we adults took over his role and chose gifts for others. Choosing the appropriate presents kept us busy for weeks before the 24th.
There are always certain foods associated with the holidays and made only then. In Italy for instance, there are the fava bean-shaped almond cookies, le fave dei morti, that appear in shops around All Saints Day, and only then. Christmas for me, as it had been for my parents and was now also for my children, reflected my German heritage and had the fragrance of butter and oatmeal cookies, Stollen with cardamom, candied citrus fruits and nuts and cinnamon. Later when I was the pivotal figure, it meant making two versions of my mother’s Christmas bread, for one of my sons doesn’t like raisins, and the other doesn’t like candied fruit. And my oldest, Claudio, always makes pan nociato, a walnut and cheese bread.
As we were superseded by our own little ones, the tree remained, the manger scene grew, music continued to fill the air even though the only Italian song I can think of is Tu scendi dalle stelle, played on bagpipes and flutes as shepherds from the Abbruzzo or Calabria or Puglia with sheepskin vests and breeches wandered the streets.
Christmas was always anticipation. Gifts hidden from prying eyes in out of bounds places. Attempts to continue traditions for my children in Perugia where it was of course the manger scene that mattered and not the tree. But we did always have a tree. One year my older son was given a cowboy outfit and started make-believe shooting his pistol at the presepio figures before we could convince him that this was contrary to the idea of Christmas.
And then my granddaughter. We would leave a red tasseled cap up on the stairs explaining that Santa had lost it in his haste to leave. Perhaps for her the most unforgettable Christmas was when her uncle from America gave her a tractor with a cart. She was speechless and when she went to bed taped a sheet of paper on it saying “Don’t touch. Private property.” She must have been almost four.
The tree was always the same tree, that grew from year to year and it got to be a problem getting it in through the door and up on the table.
Christmas was something to be shared and faculty from the U of Arizona or other guests joined our family on Christmas Eve.
In deference to those who believed, we also tried to have all the gifts distributed and unwrapped so those who wanted, could go to midnight mass.
With the advent of Covid. it became more difficult for friends to come and share the traditional Italian Christmas eve dinner of fish and chickpea soup, to be followed by exchanges of presents lovingly chosen with individual tastes in mind. At a certain point. I wondered if giving presents still made sense, but then when I also wondered if we should have Thanksgiving, generally an affair with a host of study abroad students, my son wrote in answer to my doubts: “well yes, I’d like Thanksgiving, otherwise we’ll end up with Christmas where we don’t give presents since everyone has everything … or Easter without chocolate eggs since the children are elsewhere … and as for birthdays, good for those who remember them …”
Of course, we did have Thanksgiving even if it was just the four of us and a monster chicken, with the addition of a turkey leg, made do for the turkey, and at Christmas there will be some kind of tree, on which we will hang my granddaughter’s reindeer, brought years ago from New York and presents, bought perhaps last minute, will be exchanged. Hopefully with Covid on the wane, by Easter we can once more invite someone far from home to share our chocolate Easter eggs.
So let me continue Christmas when those who have flown the nest come temporarily back and we make a try at a normal Christmas Eve, even though my sons have had their fill of Silent Night and would rather have songs more to their liking.