Nuclear Families Discover Fusion at Christmas Dinner

Christmas was always the biggest holiday of the year for us as kids. The sights, sounds, aromas, flavors and spirit of the holiday were everywhere. We thought a lot about gifts and letters to Santa, but we also knew that the birth of God’s son, the Christ child, was the real meaning of the holiday. We learned that just as God gave us His most precious gift, we celebrated the birth of His baby, Jesus, by giving gifts to one another. We were too young to contemplate Santa’s absence in the Bible story, and persisted in believing he’d come down our chimney, despite rumors at school that the guy in the store wasn’t Santa at all.

Sunday School Pageants and Choir rehearsals kept us – and our parents – busy preparing for Christmas Eve Candle Light Service. School teachers coached and dressed us up as Biblical characters for our annual Christmas-Hanukkah Celebration. It wasn’t “inclusive” by today’s standards, but we all learned something about each others’ faiths and traditions. Classmates from years ago still reminisce about our experiences and how we learned to respect other people’s beliefs.

We never doubted the miracle of a lamp burning for eight days. Nor did anyone doubt a virgin could have a baby, though we were getting suspicious about those department store Santas. “They’re really Santa’s helpers” dad explained.

Christmas Eve – that special night when we expected Santa to sneak down the chimney, we’d head off first to church for the Christmas Eve Candle Light Service. The dark sanctuary slowly lit up as the flame of a single candle ignited all the others, glowing throughout the church during the singing of “Silent Night”. Pastor would explain how the light of the Gospel had spread from one small candle to bring its light to all the world. The Senior Choir sang “The Holly and the Ivy” followed by the Junior Choir’s rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy”. Both choirs then joined forces singing “Do You Hear What I Hear” in four part harmony. Filled with awe, we’d head downstairs to the Parish Hall, where Santa joined us for refreshments and gave us each a candy cane before embarking on his worldwide journey.

Back home, we’d decorate the Christmas Tree. Dad put up lights and a large silver star at the top. My younger sister and I hung strands of tinsel. There were all sorts of shiny glass ornaments in different shapes and sizes. My sister and I put the larger ones on the lower branches, while our big brother and parents hung the smaller delicate ones above.

One very special ornament stood out, “Grandma’s Bell”. It belonged to our late maternal grandmother. It’s just a small, modest bell made of glass, worn and losing its silvery coating, but always revered as something that once belonged to her. It gets a prominent place high in the tree so it won’t get knocked down when the dog wags her tail, causing lower ornaments to fly off.

Our paternal Grandmother always came to visit on Christmas Eve. The Doyle’s, an elderly couple from the corner house dubbed “honorary grandparents”, would also come to spend the evening. We played records of Christmas Carols and various holiday songs while everyone conversed. Gene Autry’s rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus” was a favorite along with “White Christmas”, “Silver Bells”, “Rudolph” and numerous others.

When “A Christmas Carol” came on T.V. we quieted down to see the ghosts of Christmas wake Scrooge from his slumber to visit his past, present, and future. After the scary part, it was an inspiration to all seeing Mr. Scrooge’s change of heart and unexpected generosity. I still hear Tiny Tim exclaiming, “God bless us, every one!”

Mom and dad served up cocktails, coffee, soda and appetizers ranging from dad’s favorite, creamed herring (which only he and my brother dared to eat) , to chips and cookies, while we awaited the late night turkey dinner, followed by an assortment of desserts, including Grandma’s home made Julekage. (Norwegian Christmas Cake). Other friends and relatives stopped by for a snack and to exchange gifts throughout the evening.

Kids were told to go to bed after all this, so Santa Claus could sneak in with our presents without being seen. “The elves are watching” we were told. – a warning more frightening than the red scare! Parents and guests were allowed to stay up and watch for Santa, fix him a snack and some hot cocoa, and talk about the “days of yore” until he arrived.

My sister and I would of course wake up early Christmas morning full of suspense, wondering if Santa made it to our house and if he got us the things we told him about when we sat on his lap in the store. Sneaking quietly downstairs to see the wrapped gifts under the tree confirmed his visit and we’d shout to mom and dad, asking permission to rip them open.

Among friends and relations there were many variations in how we celebrated Christmas. Visits to each other’s houses continued for at least a week, sometimes even past New Year’s Eve. There was so much to experience. Most of our relatives lived close by in those days. Grandma often made a large dinner at her own house in Flatbush, where aunts, uncles, and cousins all came to visit.

I remember her cooking up huge roast beef dinners, with potatoes she mashed by hand with an ancient looking potato masher, string beans and plenty of brown gravy. Dessert included buttered julekage, Danish pudding with fresh whipped cream, and plates of home baked cookies. Grown-ups drank coffee and discussed family matters while we kids would hide out in our secret world beneath the dining room table and eventually watch T.V. or explore Grandma’s basement wonderland.

Other relatives lived much closer. My cousins’ ancestors and my own hailed from several corners of Europe, so no one could identify with one particular nationality any longer. We were all Americans by birth. Nevertheless, when it came to the kitchen, our ancestors’ traditions produced an interesting fusion of appetizers, main courses and desserts, especially during holidays.

The innocence of children who still believed in Santa Claus, also applied to our willingness to try things our own parents were afraid of. My Uncle Buster, proud of his Norwegian heritage encouraged me to taste a King Oscar sardine, which I readily consumed to my mother’s horror. It wasn’t typical fare in her Swiss mother’s kitchen. And so it went when visiting other friends and family.

Cousins reminded me recently that their Sicilian dad prepared antipasto that included nokkelost cheese from Norway alongside provalone and more traditional fare to “appease the vikings”. Spaghetti and meatballs followed as the main course, while everyone watched “Song of Norway” on T.V.

Turmoil erupted in a friend’s kitchen when his mom from Massachusetts made fish chowder, while his Chinese dad prepared roast duck. (I found both to be delicious.)

More recently, home-made empanadas were a mystery to some family members. After yours truly ate a few, they gobbled up the rest. And so it goes in our great land we call “the melting pot”. Through intermarriage of cultures and world travel, our food choices and preferences are expanding at a seemingly exponential rate.

Chili, calamari, naan bread, miso, matzoh balls, humus, sashimi, – you name it., our culinary tastes and knowledge have expanded tremendously with the influx of people from all over the world.

Surely, many of us will stick to (and share) traditional dishes and treats we grew up with. Friends recommend I try slow-roasted pork shoulder, “Boston Butt”, on a bed of sauerkraut as a main dish. I’ve yet to try ice cream drizzled with cream de menthe for dessert. Why not leave some out for Santa this year? Someone might sneak in and try it.

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