For the record, our small family observes the a la carte menu version of the winter holidays. We draw upon our own cultural backgrounds with a nod to a few others. When it comes to our observations nothing is written in stone, and while I admittedly get a bit frustrated when certain aspects don’t go as planned, that will not happen this year.

As background, I was raised Catholic in a mixed marriage — Italian and Irish — but left the church shortly after my mother died when I was fifteen. My wife was born to hippie Buddhists, but also influenced by her devout Southern Baptist grandmother, who watched her while her mother worked. My mother-in-law lives with us on the farm in the flat above the garage, and while her parents were Christian with a capital C, she has spent her life exploring alternatives including decades as a practicing Buddhist and lately she has been studying Druidry.

We put up a tree and decorate it, usually the day after American Thanksgiving, but it may be a day or three later without any concern. We make a bonfire on the night of the Winter Solstice with my MiL leading a brief, but hardly official ceremony. We send cards to friends and family. We watch many of the usual Christmas television specials, including A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol.

On the twenty-fourth, Christmas Eve, we usually have fish. Not the seven fishes that my Italian family would have when I was a child; when I spent most of my Christmases with my mother’s side of the family in western Pennsylvania. With only the three of us, our tradition has become fish tacos — a tribute to my MiL’s late husband who was Mexican and also raised Catholic. After dinner we all watch About a Boy, which my wife and I saw in the theater when we were dating, and have watched every twenty-fourth of December since. Then we watch A Christmas Carol.

Christmas morning, we make coffee, and my wife finishes baking off her delicious cinnamon rolls. My MiL comes over, and we have a lovely breakfast before exchanging gifts. Then we usually take a walk and/or lounge around the house until we go out for Chinese food in the evening. If there is a good film showing at the co-op theater in town we see that. About the only films we have seen in a theater over the last decade are from the Star Wars story and on Christmas day.

The biggest event on our social calendar during the season is the annual Boxing Day dinner party we have hosted every year since 2003 when we moved into our first house as a married couple. We have 3 or 4 local couples over, have lots of adult beverages, eat amazing food, play games, and make merry. We pull Christmas crackers, and wear the silly paper crowns. We have multiple courses and get silly drunk. Needless to say, it is the highlight of our social calendar.

So what’s changed this year?

For us, honestly, not much. The three of us formed our family bubble nine months ago. We were able to put up the tree. We had a lovely Solstice bonfire on the 21st. We plan to get Chinese take-away on Christmas and we plan to watch all our usual holiday viewings — and then some, since we have the time.

For our Boxing Day party, we have moved it to Zoom, and have have plans to eat and drink together as well as a pub quiz and an online game. It won’t nearly be the same, but I am optimistic it will still be a fun evening, and it will be great to see some faces we haven’t seen much this year.

What we won’t be doing is having fish on Christmas Eve, and my reaction has surprised me. Most years, we are busy with work and I usually worry that I won’t have time to find quality seafood to serve, creating stress and anxiety for myself that is unnecessary.

Author at age 3 with train set on Christmas, 1969.
Me Christmas 1969.
I still have the handmade stocking.

I suppose it is because it is the Italian part of the tradition.The seven fishes on Christmas Eve. The meal that reminds me of my late mother, of my (now mostly late) aunts and (now mostly late) uncles spilling over to tables in different rooms to be together as they gathered from far and wide. So much food there was a buffet, and the order for serving oneself was determined by age with the eldest going first. The only times I ever saw the women in my family admitting their age so that they got first choice on their favorites.

There was baccalà (salted cod), calamari, linguini with clams, shrimp, and fried smelt. Those where the usual suspects, but the other fish on the table would depend on what the fishmonger had. Thankfully I was spared the eels. My mother would tell me stories of her father keeping live eels in their bathtub for up to a week before Christmas Eve. I’m sure my child self would love seeing the eels, but I can guarantee he wouldn’t eat them.

This year?

My wife and I decided we would keep it simple. We’re cooking burgers with meat (gasp) from a local farm. And I was kinda surprised at how simple a decision it was. I wrestled with it for less than a minute. I don’t have any interest in finding a nice piece of fish to serve. I don’t want to go to multiple stores to see what their limited supply offers while worrying about the pandemic and its spread.

When I invited my mother-in-law and told her what was on this year’s menu, I apologized because the fish dish had come to symbolize not only my Italian side of my family, but her late husband’s as well.

She replied, “As long as i get to see you I’m happy!”

And she is so right.

I remember reading something someone wrote that read: “traditions are just peer pressure from dead people.” And while that is very funny, it is only somewhat true. The traditions are a tool. The traditions are what help spark the memories. The stories. The people who are with you. The people who are no longer with you. Not just for the holidays — Solstice or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or Christmas. Even when they go wrong, sticking with the traditions provide us with more lore to pass along the next year and to future generations.

This year I plan to meditate on those previous holidays, and focus on the people who were there. We plan to reach out via phone, text, and video to those we still can, and then we’ll share stories about previous holidays, and the people we miss.

And hopefully next year we’ll spend the holidays together again, and laugh about the virtual one we spent the previous year. But for this year, there will be no holiday-induced stress, and unfortunately no fish.