Gathering: noun an assembly or meeting, especially a social or festive one or one held for a specific purpose. Google top result.
If months have themes, then celebration is the theme of December. A quick look at the holiday calendar demonstrates multiple opportunities to gather, both secular and religious. December is a something for everyone month. Hanukkah, Mawlid Un Nabi, Christmas, and Kwanzaa all fall within its thirty one days. Followed by the ultimate celebration…New Year’s Eve/Day. How can you go wrong?
I have to admit, I scored big as a kid at Christmas. My family was multi-cultural and my parents were strong believers in tradition. With a heritage that was half German, a quarter French, and a quarter Italian, the holidays started early at my house, and each event was rooted in heritage.
Our Germanic roots insisted that on December 1st the Advent calendar made an appearance. Advent is literally the countdown to the birth of Christ. My grandfather brought our calendar over from German before the turn of the century. It was a standing box in the shape of a church and it contained twenty-four numbered drawers. Every night after supper, we would slide the tiny drawer open and find either a gift or directions to our gift. These gifts were not large, or extravagant, often they were ornaments for the tree, or tiny charms or figurines.
Our French roots kicked in on December 6th. The feast of St. Nicholas. That night our French relatives would arrive and we would set up the family nativity scene called a crèche. The children would receive a gift or two, usually clothing to wear on Christmas day and a small toy, or my favorite, a book.
We celebrated our Italian roots on Christmas Eve. My Uncle would get us before my father arrived home from work. He drove us to his house in New York where his mother-in-law and grand mother-in-law would be working on the traditional Christmas Eve feast. Christmas Eve is a big event in an Italian household. Nothing eaten has color (except the ever-present salad) and usually there were seven different kinds of fish. Including my favorites, eel that we had caught in the Hudson River, and baccalà (salt cod) salad. My father would show up around eight o’clock just in time to sit down to dinner.
After dinner, the multinational Christmas traditions continued. Excitement mounted in the car as we drove over the George Washington Bridge for home. My father would make us wait in the car while he opened the house and turned on the Christmas tree lights. His German tradition insisted that Santa brought the tree on Christmas Eve. While we were at my uncle’s he had been home decorating the tree. Many of our ornaments had come from Germany with my grandparents and been left to my Dad. My brother and I each had two special ornaments that only we could hang on the tree. Mine were a hand blown antique gnome ornament and a hand blown antique Santa. Then my Dad would give me the tree topper and hike me up on his shoulder so I could position it on the top of the tree. His family tradition required the youngest in the family top the tree. Under the tree was one gift for each of us that we could open. The bulk, in the American way, would arrive in the morning along with a houseful of family and friends.
There were two more traditions before we went to bed. We didn’t have a hearth, so we placed cookies and a glass of milk on the end table nearest the radiator. Then in the French way, we put a pair of shoes in front of the radiator. When we woke in the morning, if we had been good, we would find aluminum foil packages in our shoes that contained an orange, an apple, and some nuts.
Christmas day might be over, but the Christmas season was not done yet. On January 6th, Little Christmas, the day the wise men arrived at the stable, Italian tradition insisted that the children receive candy or coal. This time, we would find decorative socks at our breakfast table concealing our gifts or punishment. A good witch known as la befana brought the gifts in the night. I never saw la befana, but years later when someone gave me a kitchen witch as a housewarming present she looked just like my imaginative image of her.
Little Christmas also marked the day the decorations came down and the tree was put to the kerb. This often involved a gathering of friends and relatives invited to put Christmas away and share a savory sauerbraten my mother had started preparing on New Year’s Day. The holiday season was over for another year.