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Are Holiday Traditions Boring?
Yes, but we should do them anyway.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family, my mother was basically raised by Sister Mary Joseph and Sister Mary Helen, her school teachers in Canada, so mom’s fashion choices ran in the direction of functional and utilitarian. She was absolutely no help when I entered my teenage years and was desperately in need of guidance about eye liner and ways to style thick curly hair. In the midst of that sensitive developmental age, during the early 1980’s, Seventeen magazine became my bible.
At that time, Whitney Houston and Phoebe Cates were the stars of the magazine. Tall and impossibly beautiful, I idolized them and memorized every article. I tried to replicate their haircuts and buy their dresses. I stacked each issue neatly in my closet for years, until they were finally recycled two decades later. (They sell for $25-$100 on eBay right now.)
In one memorable article, Phoebe Cates said that she were planning on eating Chinese food on Christmas afternoon in a glamorous New York City apartment that she shared with her sister. The article came with an adorable picture of herself with chop sticks and a paper container. I wanted to be Phoebe Cates so badly and have her alternative Chinese food Christmas, instead of our Italian-American holiday with fish and little honey balls. I’m sure that Phoebe wasn’t surrounded by old people with hands that smelled like garlic and anchovies.
Fast forward thirty years, and I’m charge of maintaining these family traditions. I never had that glamorous Christmas Day with lip gloss, a pink robe, and a carton of Lo Mein. Instead, I’m hosting three generations in our suburban split level and making the same fish and honey balls as my mom, her mom, and centuries of Italian grannies. I’ve slowly accepted that traditions might be boring, but we need them more than ever.
Last night, I pulled out my binder with the recipes under plastic and started making preparations. We will prepare about a dozen appetizers — scallops with bacon, tapenade, cheese plate, crab cakes, mussels, shrimp cocktail, and so on — and then settle into the main meal — pasta with a tuna, caper, tomato sauce, fish stew, and a big salad. Everybody brings something. Mom is doing the cheesecake, tuna sauce, and mussels. Steve’s making the pumpkin pin and struffoli. The goal is get to 12 fishes, but sometimes we cheat with a plate of sushi.
Straight up: it’s not easy. Traditions are difficult for the person putting on the show, especially when there are writing deadlines and parties with girlfriends and streaming shows on Netflix and social media offering distractions. We’re not up in the mountains of Italy anymore with nothing better to do than deep fry bits of dough and then cover with powdered sugar. It’s difficult to block out two days for preparations.
But these traditions are worth the time and effort. On Christmas Eve, my extended family — 19 of us with ages ranging from 85 to 2 — will be under one roof. Cellphones are tucked into purses, and work chores are set aside. We’ll put on our cutest outfits and make silly faces at the camera. Along with a large glass of wine and hearty bowls of mom’s famous mussels, we’re forming connections and memories. In a time when social isolation is at crisis levels, we know that we’re fortunate indeed.
And our lives are filled with adventures the rest of the year. We have jobs that we sometimes love and always keep us busy. Next year, we’ll travel to Vermont to ski, to Florida for Ian’s birthday, and that to Italy over the summer. Every week, we’re taking one or both boys on camping trips or to New York City to visit museums. We have hobbies and side hustles.
Life is a whirlwind, so it’s good to have these small anchors to the past. It’s almost refreshing to have a moment where we’re not constantly learning something new, like the best way to make a TikTok video or how to connect your bluetooth ear buds. And as we slow down, we connect with family.
So, I keep myself from getting bored by updating the recipes slightly. I might revive an ancient recipe that we haven't done in decades. This year, I’m thinking about setting up a photo booth in a corner for the young people to take selfies. But the rock solid aspects of the evening — fish appetizers, pasta for the main course, traditional sweets, long evening with gifts and love — will never change.
While I might not have the Phoebe Cates Chinese Food Christmas, I’m quite certain that we have something better.
Have a marvelous holiday, if Christmas is your thing. If not, enjoy the empty movie theaters and save some Lo Mein for me!
Okay, I’m officially on break until next week. I’m sure I’ll post some pictures on Instagram. Here are some pictures of our trip to Manhattan last week. If you’re fast enough, you can see a little video of my basement bookshop on Instagram Stories.
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San Francisco is America’s most empty downtown. Steve’s back in his NYC office three days a week.