It eclipsed Thanksgiving, dwarfed my birthday and made the following day’s celebration all but an afterthought. Beyond a mere holiday or expression of faith, Christmas Eve represented the delicious convergence of the three distinct cultures that formed my family upbringing.
A little bit about be me: I was an oops baby, a first generation American GenXer born third in line, and 22 years into the marriage of Anna and Matthew, my Italian mom and Polish dad, who were united by destiny and the second World War. Enlisted in the Polish underground since his teens, dad fought alongside British forces for the Allied cause. Ultimately, he found himself in Chieti, mom’s ancient hometown on Italy’s Adriatic coast, which, like Rome, had been declared an Open City. When the allies prevailed, my newlywed parents emigrated to England, and ultimately, New York’s Hudson Valley to begin a new life.
As an adolescent, I found my mash-up heritage to be more than vaguely uncool. Rather than appreciate my lineage as a descendant of the Greatest Generation, I instead lamented my parents’ heavy accents and old-world, take-no-prisoners parenting style. Especially during heated arguments, we could – and often would – include up to three different languages in a single sentence.
And though I was born in Sleepy Hollow, looking typically “American,” at least in the 1970’s sense, seemed frustratingly beyond my reach. Both sides of my family were bemused by my dark looks, which have been interpreted as Persian, Spanish, French, Lebanese and South American, depending on the eye of the beholder. But on December 24 at least, I was happy and free to be exactly who I was: a first generation American-Italian-Polish-girl from the ‘burbs.
Each year, after weeks of anticipation, days of cooking and hours of set up, we gathered at a “Vigilia” table gleaming with tapered candlelight, Polish crystal and mom’s poinsettia china. The meal always began on a super-Catholic note: with a literal – and sacramental – breaking of the bread. In this case, Oplatek, or Polish communion wafers, etched with nativity scenes. Tradition called for each family member to exchange pieces of the paper-thin host, along with a Christmas greeting and a kiss.
Next came the only American part of our meal, a groovy 1970’s Shrimp Cocktail: nestled in a bed of iceberg lettuce, with slices of hardboiled egg, tomato, black olives, and dollop of Louis Dressing (look it up, it’s fabulous). For the soup course, we boomeranged back to Eastern Europe: Borscht with Ushki – dark, earthy, wild mushroom dumplings bathed in gorgeous burgundy-colored beetroot soup.
Then a hard swerve south with Pasta alla Puttanesca – anchovy, caper and olive laden “prostitute” pasta, making an ironic appearance. The main course included an assortment of fried goodies, including baccala, whiting, anchovy fritters and Polish breaded cauliflower.
We took an intermission from the gluttony to open presents and then it was back to the table for Panettone, sweet Italian bread dotted with raisins; Strufala, tiny fried Italian dough puffs, drenched in honey; and Piernik, Polish chocolate gingerbread with roots stretching back to the 1300s, in my father’s hometown of Torun.
You may be thinking that gastronomically, this dinner was a hot mess – and you wouldn’t be wrong. But for me, this meal was a strange and beautiful representation of everything we were: Northern European, Southern European and North American. It was so very us.
Now that I’m supposedly grown up, I often dread the holidays for the same reasons many first world people do. The consumption, the heavy expectation, the bills, and as an introvert, the socializing, sometimes under duress. And while I enjoy keeping my family traditions alive for my sons, what I dread most is the reminder that my parents, as well as that one perfect feast per year, are gone. But one precious gift – a realization – endures. We are most American, when we bring the best of ourselves and our traditions here – to share and meld with others.
In recent years, there’s been an added poignancy for me in the lead up to Vigilia. Immigrants, like my parents, now have a hostile government added to their list of challenges. Dreamers, and their dreams, face threats previously unimaginable. Rights, which once seemed sacrosanct and self-evident, no longer feel quite as secure. Measures large and small are being taken to confront these assaults. But it occurs to me that the holiday season offers another small, yet essential way of resisting that shouldn’t be overlooked: it’s to unapologetically celebrate who you are.