Nat King Cole. Pinatas. Swedish meatballs. Ravioli. Gingerbread houses.
These are things that come to mind when I recall my childhood Christmases. One might even say that these are a few of my favorites things, in the words of the old song from “The Sound of Music” that became an unlikely Christmas classic in its own right—a tune I would play every December as a crackly Barbra Streisand record spun on my plastic Fisher Price turntable.
My multicultural Christmases
Eagle-eyed readers might notice that these Christmas favorites draw from disparate traditions. Some are associated with the holiday across the United States. Others not so much. The greater Boston suburbs of my youth were not exactly a hotbed of multicultural diversity.
Yet many a Christmas we would gather in my grandparents’ basement. The children were blindfolded and each given a turn to take a few swings at a freshly made pinata. The papier-mâché creation was actually pretty hard. The task was made more challenging because aunts or older cousins would pull the pinata out of our reach using string.
Oh, by the way: my grandparents were of Italian, English, and Irish ancestry.
No lumps of coal
No matter how difficult, breaking apart the pinata was alway rewarding. Candy would fall to the hard basement floor, scooped up by children already on a sugar high. There would also be small gift-wrapped individual presents we would each grab off the ground, looking for our names. No lumps of coal were ever found therein.
Christmas has always been informed by multiple cultural traditions. This is especially true in the United States. But this Christian holiday commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ comes in completely secularized and commercialized varieties, with wisemen, Santa Claus, reindeer, elves, the Grinch, talking snowmen, and everything in between.
In my family, the menu was similarly wide-ranging. My grandmother made ravioli with spinach and ricotta stuffing on Christmas Eve. It was served with turkey, Swedish meatballs, a wide assortment of homemade cookies and chocolate candies.
Just thinking about it brings to mind a “Sopranos” episode in which Paulie Walnuts describes a New Jersey Italian-American Thanksgiving meal: “Major antipast’ first. Then soup, meatballs and scharol then the baked manigot, then the bird.”
Sounds good to me!
Santa’s overworked helpers
Unfortunately, for some people Christmas is not the happy occasion it is for most who celebrate it. Instead of happy memories of their grandparents’ home, some recall estrangement, sadness and loss.
It may be difficult for them to visit or spend time with their families because of conflicts in the past or present. There may be brokenness or unresolved emotions. Or there may simply be a lot of hardship associated with buying all the gifts on a limited budget, getting those lights to work, finding the decorations in the basement, or putting up the tree.
My father used to reminisce about pouring himself a gin and tonic as he tried to assemble the toys. The instruction manuals were confusing. The pieces were small and hard to fit together. There was not much time before Christmas morning and his children waking up. No one ever said it was easy to be one of Santa’s helpers.
From the ordinary inconveniences of tracking down that scarce shopping mall parking spot while Christmas shopping to the deeper issues of tragedy and loss, Christmas can be stressful for so many. An American Psychological Association survey found that over 40 percent of women and nearly a third of men reported experiencing stress over Christmas.
Indeed, Jennifer Melfi, the fictitious psychiatrist—yes, from “The Sopranos”—dubbed the holiday “Stressmas.” Cute, Tony replied.
Depression is also an issue for people this time of year, especially those longing for the past rather than their present travails. In popular psychology, this has been called the “holiday blues.”
Finding Christmas again
Entering adulthood, it is easy to lose sight of the Christmas season entirely. Yes, you notice the lights and the commercials and the store displays and the holiday tunes playing on the radio. But no vacation from school beckons. The monotony of your work routine takes you right up to Christmas Eve itself.
The fond memories of that come from my childhood holiday traditions remind me of a simpler time, when joy could be found in the little things, even when they might not make sense in a larger context.
What does a snowball have to do with a pinata or the baby Jesus or the songs you know by heart? Nothing—except for happiness.
We can’t go back to our childhood. But something we can do is reclaim our lost joy in simple things.