Happy Thanksgiving! As I sit here in my kitchen, waiting for my family to arrive from New York to start a new holiday season, I can’t help feeling a bit nostalgic. Things are changing this year. The Thanksgiving celebration on my side of the family has gotten smaller. The location of the Christmas Eve gala on my husband’s side is moving to the next generation. All of the grandchildren are out of diapers this year (thanks, JohnJohn)! And the first of the grandkids is getting married in May. Time marches on and torches are passed.
I wrote this piece about a year ago and still come back to it when I need a reminder of what is important. I hope you have a great Thanksgiving and that you make lots of meaning this year!
These are not stuffed mushrooms. Well, they are. And so good that I ate almost ½ a tray by myself. But they are way more than bread, onions, mushrooms, garlic and spices. For, you see, I helped make them with my sister-in-law for our Christmas Eve feast just as she has been making them to bring to Christmas Eve for over a decade.
She’s been making them so long that I don’t really remember Christmas Eve without them. Just as my husband doesn’t remember Christmas Eve without at least seven fishes and dozens of family members of every age and sometimes friends coming together for the day. Like so many other families, my husband’s big Italian family holds Christmas Eve as the most hallowed of days. It is not just about the birth of Christ, although we are primarily a Catholic family. And it is not because of the presents even if the presents are pretty fun. And it is not really about seeing each other. Most of us see each other pretty regularly. It’s not even about food, although, admittedly, we do all love to eat.
OK. It is about all those things. But it is so much more than that. I have learned since joining my husband’s family over 15 years ago, and especially since having my three children, that it is really about the extra special effort that every single member of the family makes every single year to prioritize that time together and to hold it sacred above all else. No matter what.
They make that day and that time mean something special because of all of the effort that goes into it. It’s Nana and Grandpop, who start shopping for stocking stuffers for all 13 grandchildren in October, review and prepare menus in November, and set tables weeks ahead of time (OK, Mom, if you’re reading this, I know it is probably only a day or two ahead of time ;)). It’s the aunts, who cull Christmas lists to get their “something special” for each child, one of whom manages to find matching pajamas in every size from 24-months up to men’s medium. It’s the kids, who give up time on their “idevices” and really do try to look and behave their best for their elders, even if it means wearing a skirt instead of jeans. It’s the fact that every person there is there on purpose to be together and they prepare for it and look forward to it all the year through.
Sometimes I worry that Christmas is too commercialized and that as a parent I am a puppet of the major kids companies targeting my children. And sometimes I fret that I spoil my kids when we perpetuate the myth of Santa Claus even a little bit (we don’t really do it full tilt). And then I think of those crab cakes. And talking to my mother-in-law mid-December as she and my father-in-law are making pecan rolls, debating whether this year they are, in fact, the absolute best they ever made.
My mother-in-laws Christmas cookies. Said pecan roll, which was the best she ever made, on the left.
I picture each of us at our tables wearing a rainbow of paper crowns unfolded from their crackers, glasses aloft, mouthing “cent’anni” as my father-in-law leads the toast.
My son, most definitely not listening to anything, not even Grandpop, but looking very cute in his crown.
I remember how it was at Christmas Eve dinner when my father-in-law shared the news with the whole clan that my husband and I were expecting our first baby and I can still hear the raucous cheers that followed. I laugh at my son counting the kids and the stockings to see if they really match up as my daughter writes out each name in a neat list. And I reminisce about how, when I first joined this merriment, the oldest of the grandchildren in this family were still in diapers. Those babies are now in college. And last year, as I watched my oldest niece stuffing mushrooms with my own daughter, it finally dawned on me.
Whether you believe in Jesus Christ or Santa Claus or someone else or nothing, it is up to each of us to make the Meaning in our lives. And like every other good thing I am trying to teach my children, it takes work. It takes effort. We can do it alone but it is easier if you have other people to help you. If you are lucky, like me, you find people who work as hard (or harder) than you to do it. And if you are really, really, lucky, like me, those people will also happen to make a wicked stuffed mushroom.