The 2020 holidays are going to be weird. In fact, “weird” is a complete understatement. They’re going to be hard: harder than any we’ve faced together as a collective people. They’re going to be sad: we might not get to see everyone we’re used to seeing year after year. They’re going to be different: some traditions are going to have to change.
So, in an effort to both combat the overwhelming anger and resentment over the lack of typical holiday cheer and to lean into the nostalgia seeping into my brain and heart for these holiday traditions, I want to invite you into the holidays with the Vail/Elia family, and talk about some cherished family traditions we’ve upheld.
I’ve written about my Thanksgiving Day schedule at my Grandpa’s, where Thanksgiving was held for many, many years. Though we’ve shifted host duties to my dad and stepmom, Thanksgiving Day with the Vails is still downright magical. The night before Thanksgiving is also part of the tradition: Stuffing Night. We gather at my Aunt Sue’s house and rip bread into tiny pieces, while also throwing them at each other, as one of the adults cooks the onions. After this grueling labor is done, we gather around the TV, feasting on pizza and wings and beer, to watch a Sabres game. Yelling commences, in either jubilation or outrage, as the smell of stuffing fills the air. I consider this event to be the pre-game for Thanksgiving: preparing my stomach for an enormous amount of eating, gathering with my relatives who I haven’t seen in months, and bonding over our shared love and despair over Buffalo sports.
The Vail family is not overtly religious. We come from Irish, English, and Polish ancestors, so there’s a lot of Christianity kicking around, and certainly quite a bit of Catholic guilt. But we rarely pray before our Thanksgiving lunch. If we do, it’s usually some sort of joke or someone is put on the spot and has to make something up. When we were kids, my sister and I were taught this fun joke prayer by one of my dad’s friends, which I now share with you for your holiday meals:
Thanks for the grub,
I have eight cousins on my dad’s side, and now, including spouses and significant others, there’s something like twelve or thirteen of us. So for Christmas each year, we do a Secret Santa. We draw one name and only get one gift for someone, so we’re not each getting twelve or thirteen additional presents. The process of choosing the names is always just that: A Process. Sometimes, there are cousins missing at Thanksgiving, so we have their parents pick for them. It takes us multiple tries to pick names, since one of the rules is you can’t pick your sibling or significant other. Sometimes we accidentally pick a sibling and then put their name back in the hat/bowl/item from which we are drawing names, and then everyone has to start over. You’d think this would be simple, but somehow, some way, we make it complicated, and it’s always a huge victory when we finally finish picking names and everyone knows who they have for Christmas. Despite how complex this ends up, I find this to be very charming and silly, and I wish you luck with your holiday gift exchanges.
Christmas for Italians isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. It’s a multi-day event with more meals than hours in the day, more cheek kisses than your face can sustain, and neverending barrage of cookies. On Christmas Eve, my mom and aunts are in the kitchen all day, and they absolutely do not want to be bothered by any of their children (and now, grandchildren). Therefore, we have Cousins Day, where we leave the house and go do some kind of activity. Activities in past years have included go-karts, “Extreme Bocce” (which is bocce, but played in the park system in my hometown, and you try and throw the balls down into the creek or deep woods or increasingly difficult obstacles), laser tag, the movies, ice skating, shopping, and last year: a trampoline park. I woke up on Christmas Day as sore as I would have been after a full day of high school soccer conditioning; trampoline parks are incredibly fun but also physically taxing. Cousins Day is always the most fun, the most concentrated cousin time, and mutually beneficial to me, my sister, my cousins, and our parents (who need the house to be empty, quiet, and clean).
For Italians, Christmas Eve is an even bigger deal than Christmas Day. Christmas Eve dinner is the Big Meal™, which means for us, my mom’s cioppino (this tomato/fish soup which is from a Rachael Ray recipe and is so, so good and spicy), ham, roasted potatoes, other vegetables, baccala (salted cod, which I never eat, but it’s tradition so we always have it) and lots of wine. Christmas Eve dinner also means extended, extended family comes over: great aunts and uncles, second and third cousins, people you really only see once a year. Also, my Aunt Concetta does a gag gift every Christmas, with varying degrees of silliness and outrageousness.
We made a drinking game of things we knew happen every year: if we see my stepdad ask my mom for help, and she says no, take a drink. My mom sits down: take a drink. (This is rare, since she’s up cooking and making sure everyone else has what they need.) Someone starts to talk politics: make pointed eye contact with each other, and take a drink. My Nonna laughs: finish your drink. Nonna’s laughter was even more rare than Mom sitting down, so it had higher stakes. Unfortunately for us, one year, my Aunt Concetta’s gag gifts were bustiers and lingerie, which my Aunt Teresa promptly put over her clothes and started to sexily sway and dance, inducing my Nonna into a fit of giggles my cousins and I had never seen before, and, to put it simply: we were fucked.
My mom loves Christmas. It’s her favorite holiday, hands down, and she loves all of the magic and traditions of December. This tradition happens late at night on Christmas Eve. Everyone has gone home, the last coffee has been drunk, the last cookie nibbled, and we’re all sitting around in an extremely full and slightly buzzed stupor. Which means: it’s time to clean up. And it also means: cranking the song “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses, my mom’s all time favorite Christmas song, and dancing wildly around the house, running on exhaustion and alcohol and the euphoria of all being together. The dogs don’t understand what’s going on, our faces hurt from laughing and smiling, and it effectively marks the end of the night. Admittedly, this was a tradition I was embarrassed by when I was a teenager, and I mean, who isn’t embarrassed by their parents at that age? But as I’ve grown up and moved away, it’s these random and previously embarrassing traditions that I miss the most.
To close, let me get corny and sincere for a minute. This holiday season isn’t going to look like anything we’re used to, so whoever you end up celebrating with: cherish every single second. Make plans to celebrate virtually. Call, FaceTime, and Zoom your relatives and friends. Make your favorite dishes. Put up decorations, dance around and be silly. Take up some new traditions, while you’re at it. While we might not all be together for the holidays, we’re definitely not missing them: just finding a new way to honor them. It’s more than fine to feel upset about the people and moments we’re not experiencing in person, but we’re lucky enough to live in a time with connective technology that can still bring us together, even if it’s not the same way as last year. I’m saying this as much for you as I am for me. This holiday season is going to challenge us. But it’s still going to happen, so it’s up to us to make the most of it.
In the immortal words of The Waitresses, “Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, couldn’t miss this one this year.”