Humble Holiday Traditions

Most people associate the holidays with food, especially those flagship holidays which fall in November and December. My associations between food and holidays are perhaps a bit unusual, but becoming more prevalent and perhaps threatening to the classic definitions of Christmas. While both of my sets of grandparents would do their own take on the Thanksgiving turkey dinner, it was definitely my maternal grandmother who created the most food buzz during Christmas. For some people, it's memories of slow-baked ham or maybe prime rib, but for me, it's tamales, Spanish rice, and menudo. While I cultivate embarrassingly little of my heritage, I am technically half-Mexican and tamales are as much a part of Christmas as egg nog.

Tamale preparation is a bit tedious. I also recall the thought of intentionally cooking with lard sounded a bit disgusting if not borderline suicidal. (My maternal grandfather, it should be noted, died of a heart attack and stroke at the age of 52. I couldn't help but ponder if there might be a connection.) My grandmother, all of 5'2", would command that kitchen, assembling tamales one after another, her increasingly arthritic hands placing meat in masa using much the same dexterity I now associate with sushi chefs placing fish on rice.

My earliest memories were a family convergence at her house, the undisputed epicenter of Christmas. It was inexplicably and unmistakably decorated entirely in blue Christmas lights and assortment of familiar cars parked at odd angles on the dirt sidewalk. Rather than simply walk in, my arrival was punctuated with a dramatic entrance. We'd ring the doorbell and wait for my grandmother to act surprised to see me, usher us in from the cold, and - inevitably - would hand us something to eat.

Come to think of it, not eating was never an option. I recall her and I sitting in the living room one afternoon watching television. When a commercial break came, she asked if I was hungry to which I replied no. A few moments passed. “Are you sure? You should eat something.” I assured her, despite my slight build, I was content for the moment. “Grilled cheese sandwich?” I remained uninterested but sensed that declining would be futile. “I'll make you a grilled cheese sandwich. You eat it if you want it.” Cheese, bread, heat, and just a sprinkling of guilt set my meager appetite in motion.

Over time, the loss of my grandfather (at the age of 52) as well as political struggles in the family began to chip away at the size of the group. The kids got older, moved away (I was the oldest and, hence, the first). Money, in one form or another, was often the core of the disputes. In recent years, it's become more of a game of ”guess who isn't speaking to someone” rather than a family uniting on a ”Holy day”.

This may be the root of a more personal and appropriate tradition between my father and I and, to some extent, my younger brother. My dad loved food (a trait which I presumably inherited and ran with to an extreme). While his pursuit of food is worthy of its own blog entry, for brevity, know that he was also a true aficionado of cheese. It is that passion that created this new tradition.

He would, about a week before Christmas, go and get a big gift box of cheeses; charcuterie (at the time, simply “salami”), two different mustards, a small ham, and a terrine of some kind. They were generally from Hickory Farms (surprising to me still that a cheese store could do so well among clothing stores in a mall) and were hardly of prime quality, but we looked forward to tearing that thing open and stuffing ourselves full every year. We'd rarely finish the whole thing in a single sitting which left the rest to be nibbled over the bridge days between Christmas and New Year.

Though I've moved away and been involved in my own traditions for the last decade, the cheese and salami is one of the few I can recreate at will even though my father isn't around to share it any more. The blue lights have been taken down, the house sold, some family members have moved (or passed) away, and memories are all I have left of those early celebrations. This tradition doesn't require getting very many people together, it doesn't require invitations and parking hassles. For about $40.00, I can resurrect a meal that, from a personal level, trumps any fancy Christmas dinner I've ever had.

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