Where we live: Family traditions
By Karen Cimms
Tradition has always been important to me, especially around the holidays.
Although my father’s parents were Slovak, we were raised with the Italian traditions of my mother. I was almost an adult before I realized that not eating meat on Christmas Eve wasn’t ordered by the Catholic church. It was decreed by Marie.
Our Christmas Eve table was laden with at least seven different types of fish — from smoked eel to baccala salad to mussels and clams in a rich, red sauce, to fried shrimp. There was spaghetti, broccoli served cold with lemon and garlic, and manesta or scarola, which is a somewhat bitter soupy side dish made with escarole, anchovies, black olives, raisins and pignoli nuts.
Other than the smoked eel, which disappeared after my grandfather died, those traditions continued. I loved walking into my parents’ home on Christmas Eve to the aroma of fried shrimp and simmering marinara. It wouldn’t be Christmas without it, even though I wouldn’t touch most of it. I don’t like fish or seafood, although I’d eat some shrimp if my father made it the way I liked (medium-sized ONLY, breaded and fried). I’d eat spaghetti with plain marinara (no clams or mussels please!) and broccoli. Every other year I’d try the manesta. Sometimes I’d eat it, sometimes I wouldn’t, but it was a comfort knowing it was there.
Dessert was always cookies. One of my favorites were my Aunt Addy’s Italian lemon cookies. She’d show up on Christmas Eve carrying a huge tray decorated with foil-covered chocolate soldiers or Santas. She’s been gone awhile now, but whenever I make these cookies, I make sure to decorate the tray exactly as she did.
Of course it wasn’t Christmas without struffoli — little fried dough balls, glazed with honey and sprinkled with multicolored nonpareils. Just seeing them piled into a glass dish was a sure sign the holidays were here.
We were less strict with our main course on Christmas Day, but dinner always starts with antipasto with hard salami and provolone — the real stuff, the kind so sharp it makes your tongue hurt — pickled eggs, roasted pimento, olives, and so much more, we would need a break before the next course, which was always cavatelli — pasta made with flour and ricotta, then rolled into long ropes, cut into 1-inch pieces, and rolled with the edge of your thumb to form a shell. It takes hours to make, but minutes to eat. My son has been making it since he was 10 years old.
After dinner, there were always large trays of fruit, cookies, torrone (a nougat candy made with honey, egg whites and almonds) and chestnuts, which we’d burn without fail.
Like I said. Tradition.
And while food is only a part of the way we celebrated, family is the other part. I only missed Christmas Eve with my parents twice. One year they went to my sister’s, and two years ago, the roads were so icy, it wasn’t safe to travel the 15 miles to their house.
Years ago, when my youngest was a teenager, my mother made her promise that she would keep our Christmas Eve traditions alive after she was gone.
My mother passed away in 2012, less than a month after Christmas. Since then, my sister and my father continued most of the traditions that were so important to her.
A few weeks ago, right before Thanksgiving, I lost my father. It seems almost cruel to have to face holidays at a time like this, but I think the beauty and familiarity of the traditions I grew up with and hold so dear may help carry me through.
Amanda, the torch has been passed. I have every confidence you can pull it off, and you can count on me to burn the chestnuts.
Because, you know, tradition.