Every family has its own way of celebrating the winter holidays. But what happens when two different cultures converge through marriage? Although my husband and I both grew up celebrating Christmas, this is exactly what happened to us 15 years ago when we started dating.
It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that my childhood Christmas traditions were all centered around Italian food. Although we lived 3,000 miles from my mother’s family when I was growing up, she brought her Italian and New York heritage to San Diego. Sweet ricotta cakes infused with citrus, struffula (small fried egg dough cakes covered in honey and candies), and sandies (pecan shortbreads dusted with powdered sugar) graced our dessert table. Meanwhile, Christmas Eve was a seafood extravaganza — as it is for most Italian Catholics — and we dedicated ourselves to frying clams, shrimp, octopus, and calamari; stuffing whole baby squids and gently cooking them in a savory marinara sauce; baking freshly made pizzas; and frying ricotta and sausage calzones in vats of hot olive oil. The preparations all started a few days before Christmas Eve, when my mom would start soaking salted cod so she could make Baccalà– a chilled cod salad with vinegar peppers, celery and other delights. We had enough food, and wine, for at least 20 people.
On Christmas morning, we would excitedly open our presents, and then just as enthusiastically eat reheated pizza and calzones for breakfast along with a meatball or two from my mother’s simmering gravy. After a few hours on the stove, the gravy would be ready and we would sit down for our holiday meal which included — along with the gravy — either lasagna or baked ziti, prosciutto pie (ricotta and prosciutto baked into a homemade olive oil dough crust), chicken cacciatore, a mashed potato soufflé, eggplant parmesan, and a few other tidbits.
Those big Italian Christmas meals make up some of my most vivid holiday memories. I loved them and always thought I would one day mimic my mother’s Neopolitan feasts, down to the smallest details, when I was old enough to host my own Christmas dinners. But something unexpected threw a wrench into the works of this plan: I married someone with completely different holiday traditions than my own.
After marrying a Midwestern boy who ate ham on Christmas Eve and rib roast on Christmas Day, my eyes were opened to the fact that there were other ways to make a Christmas dinner. Sure, Anglo-American culture, depicted in movies and books, always showed people eating turkeys and roasts for Christmas dinner. Old Scrooge gives the Cratchits a turkey as big as Tiny Tim at the end of A Christmas Carol and even the Grinch gets to carve the roast beast. Yet although I was familiar with these stories, I had never had that type of Christmas meal: what appeared to be the norm in most American households seemed more like an oddity to me.
My husband and I spent our first few years together enjoying holidays at our parents’ houses, partaking in an Italian Christmas one year and then switching off to an Anglo one the next. I usually made dessert at my in-laws’ house, but left the job of cooking the roast beast up to my mother-in-law. But now that we have young children, we find ourselves hosting and cooking the holiday meals at our own house more often than not. So in an attempt to have our children grow up experiencing both their Italian and Midwestern heritages, we celebrate each of our family’s Christmas traditions. The holiday starts with a very Italian Christmas Eve, followed the next day by a standing rib roast or Beef Wellington with all the trimmings, including a nice steamed pudding or trifle for dessert.
One thing that has surprised me through all this is how much I have come to really love our Anglo Christmas dinners. Persimmon pudding has even become one of my favorite holiday desserts. Sure, the foods my mother made on Christmas are part of my cultural identity and embody flavors and tastes that I will always love and want to pass on to my own children, but I now simply save that menu for another occasion, usually Easter. I sometimes wonder what my daughters will do when it’s their turn to host their own Christmas events. In the meantime, I’m trying to raise them with some shared traditions from both parents, along with some that are unique to our own family as well.