Growing up, Christmas Eve was always spent at Noni and Papa’s house. Growing up, I was told, Noni is what Italian families called grandma. And that’s what we were—an Italian family—at least on my mother’s side.
My grandparents, who spoke Italian and broken English, came over from the “old country.” They didn’t have a refrigerator. They had an ICE-uh-box.
On Christmas Eve, the whole family would gather in their humble, but comfortable Florida home. It was an annual requirement, but I didn’t mind. It was tradition and it was fun and I always got to see my cousins.
Despite my fear, my parents assured me that we would be home in plenty of time for Santa to come. I enjoyed this annual get together my family, consuming delicious treats, talking at loud volumes, having fun.
Our Christmas Eve meal was a little different—at least that’s how it appeared to me as a child. All the food was not served at once like normal, but we ate one thing at a time. I learned later that these were called “courses.”
Also, while my friends talked about having turkey or ham, we did not. Our traditional Christmas Eve meal included various kinds of pasta, of course, but also baccalà (dried, salted cod), lobster, sardines, shrimp, mussels and clams.
It wasn’t until I was an adult, and doing some research, that I read about the “feast of the 7 fishes” Italian tradition. It clicked for me, “so, that’s what we were doing!”.
So many delicious and delightful memories came rushing in. As a family, we were celebrating tradition and creating memories.
When I had my own family, my wife and I developed our own traditions. For example, on the day after Thanksgiving, the Geiger Gang would cram into the station wagon and head out on an adventure. Our goal was to purchase new ornaments for the tree.
Each of the four kids was allowed to pick out one special ornament. This ornament would represent their nature or character or just be something that they liked. Every year, without fail, I would get the Grinch. I should probably say that they Grinch was gotten for me. A tradition within a tradition.
Searching for these ornaments provided a fun, family event and gave us a great opportunity to enjoy laughter and conversation. These trinkets also provided our kids with a sense of pride and accomplishment as they would show their friends and exclaim, “Look at my ornament.”
As the years rolled on, the ornaments served as signposts and reminders of past Christmases. Each year, while decorating the tree, these objects remind us of where we were when we got them, sometimes reminding us of extremely joyful or even unpleasant times. Like portraits held together by Christmas glue, these ornaments rekindled old thoughts and feelings and served as kindling to discuss the past, present, and future.
Generally, I stay out of the kitchen—except during the holidays. My wife is extremely talented and loves to cook and decorate. Things go much smoother if I just stay out of the kitchen so, I just stay out of the way and beg for samples. However, many years ago, I took notice of how hard she worked and decided that, if nothing else, I could prepare breakfast. This would help the family out and allow her to focus on the main event.
There were only three requirements. First, it had to be quick. I couldn’t impede progress in the kitchen. Second, it had to be easy. Finally, I did not want to make an additional mess.
I stumbled upon a recipe for a French toast casserole that fit all of the above. Our entire family loved it! In fact, even though they’re no longer living here when they come for Christmas they ask, “Hey dad, did you make your famous French toast?” I generally reply, “Yes, but you don’t live here any more and I ate yours.”
As I look around the home, I see trinkets and traces of the ghost of Christmas past—and they make me smile. There’s “Kim’s Village” that is front and center in the dining room. We’ve been collected the pieces for years and it’s a family favorite. I just carry the boxes in. There is also lighted garland strung over every pathway and window, lights illuminating the outdoors, and several Christmas trees. Evergy sends us a Christmas card of “thanks”.
One of our trees is the “family tree” which holds the ornaments we’ve collected over the years. We have the ones with the kid’s picture that they made in school, the prized Hallmark ornaments, and special ones from friends over the years--like the homemade one that has the sign language, “sign for love” given to us by a dear friend who taught sign language.
And, of course, there are my grinch ornaments. As my grandson and I hung these on the tree he asked me “why” I had so many. I had the chance to share some of the stories and the reasons. Maybe one day, he will inherit them.
The most important Christmas tradition in the Geiger family is focused on the real meaning of Christmas. As Christians, our goal has always been to make sure that we attended church services on Christmas Eve. We always wanted our kids to understand that Christmas was about giving and, at Christmas, we celebrate the fact that God gave His one and only Son. The greatest gift of all.
Dressing for Christmas Eve was always fun, too. My wife and I had mutual goals, but different ways of getting there. For her, she wanted us all to attend church in matching outfits. She worked diligently to weave some cohesive theme or color that told everyone we were a family (or in a band). This made for some great pictures.
For me, I just wanted to get to church on time. This ensured harmony within the family and made for great pictures. Being on time makes me smile.
For both of us, attending services on Christmas Eve was essential and deeply spiritual. These services gave us opportunities to worship and celebrate and to have some deep conversations about faith and family.
Traditions are extremely personal and important. Like ancient hieroglyphics, they are the glue that remind us of who we are, where we came from, and where we’re going. Some traditions are strategically planned and programmed. Other traditions seem to bubble up naturally.
Either way, traditions can conjure up deep emotions and take on a life of themselves. They are purposeful and powerful reminders of who we are and, sometimes, the glue that holds us together.
Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.