I loved Christmas as a child, which is probably an obvious statement.
Not just for the usual reasons, but for my family’s rich traditions.
Yes, growing up our home was full of people and music and good things to eat.
With four grandparents and for a time two great-grandparents gathered in our living room year after year, there was no shortage of love, attention and gifts showered on my sisters and me.
Still, at a young age I began to appreciate that one of the greatest gifts of the holiday wasn’t under the tree — it was what we did around it.
My family’s heritage is Polish — on both sides — and that heritage permeated our holiday traditions, which usually began in the kitchen several days before Christmas Day.
Our Christmas dinner, called wigilia, required several days of preparation, several pounds of flour, and several aspirin for my mother, who usually had a headache by the time the nearly 100 pierogi we made each year were rolled, stuffed and cooked. The occasional flour fight didn’t help, either.
Wigilia is supposed to have a dozen courses; we could only ever manage five or six, beginning with oplatek and pickled herring and ending with prune-filled doughnuts and babka.
It’s also a meatless meal, but eating potato and cheese pierogi and mushroom borscht never felt like much of a sacrifice.
Every year we set the table with an extra place for the “unexpected visitor” who might turn up at the door.
Then my father would corral my sisters and me on the front porch so we could search the twilight for the first visible star. Only after we found it (on snowy or cloudy nights we imagined we found it) could dinner begin.
As a child, six courses was a lot to sit through, especially with a room full of presents nearby, but dinner was a leisurely and joyous time when we reflected on the passing year, and it became more meaningful as I grew older.
After coffee and tea were served, we opened family presents in the living room. Then my parents would try to persuade us to take a nap before we attended midnight mass in Polish.
I didn’t always delight in a two-hour church service where I couldn’t understand a thing, but I knew how meaningful it was for my grandparents — all four of whom spoke Polish — to attend, and I learned to love the ritual.
When my first grandparent passed away, attending midnight mass in Polish became a way to honor his memory.
The memories of people we lost were particularly strong at Christmas. Looking around the table was always a reminder of what had changed that year.
Sometimes a new friend came to join our celebration. And there were a few years, after we lost my last grandparent, when our table felt empty.
It isn’t anymore.
Now there are husbands and grandchildren (including a new one this year) squeezed around the table. Fear not, we haven’t yet crowded out the place for the unexpected visitor.
New family members have introduced us to new traditions.
When Hanukkah coincides with Christmas Eve, we light a menorah before we sitting down for dinner.
And my sisters and I have taken on portions of the meal preparation ourselves.
Our marriages also make for competing holiday celebrations. There are in-laws and other relatives we must travel to see.
Divorces, too, have made their mark on our family, and they mean that some years we see less of our loved ones than we’d like.
Despite the changes, our tradition — as rich as ever — remains. Tradition, at its core, is memory. If it is forgotten or not practiced, it will disappear. I don’t want that to happen in my family.
I am no longer the child receiving the inheritance of tradition; my children are. My sisters and I are now the caretakers of it and falls to us to remember and pass it on to our children.
All families have their rituals and traditions that sustained earlier generations, often in times more difficult than our own.
Christmas is a great time, maybe the best time, to remember and to keep them alive.