Background: A.S. is a 22-year-old student at USC studying Occupational Therapy. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, and both of her parents are professors at USC. The informant’s mother told this story to the informant multiple times, especially when describing her childhood or her favorite holiday. This was her mother’s favorite time of the year, because it was the one time that she could be all together with her family and celebrate, even though they were Jewish and the tradition revolved around a Christian holiday.
Main piece: “My mom was born in Rome but grew up in New Jersey. Her mother was Italian and she was also Jewish…which is interesting since there aren’t too many Italian Jews. Anyways, she still celebrated Christmas because her father was raised Catholic. So my grandmother would prepare a traditional Italian meal for Christmas in the house when they lived in New Jersey. It wasn’t like other Christmas dinners in the states…it was like specifically Italian. So they would have a bunch of courses, seven I think, because of the seven sacraments or something, and almost all of them included some sort of fish plate, but no meat. I think my mom told me it was called um.. oh it was called Feasts Natalae. It was traditional in Italy to have the dinner on Christmas eve but it was still called Christmas dinner I think. Each course was fish because it’s like a kind of fasting…they just don’t eat meat. My mom said this was a really special time for her because she knew her family would be together. And it wasn’t even about the holiday or religion or anything, it was about being with her family.”
Performance Context: I interviewed the informant while we were both together, sitting on a couch, in the house where she lives on west 28th Street in Los Angeles. Feasts Natalae would typically be practiced on Christmas Eve, and is a prominent tradition in Italy. This tradition would be practiced by Anna’s mom’s family every year.
My Thoughts: I think that this story is representative of the fact that each culture and each family has a different way of celebrating Christmas, both culturally and religiously. Each nationality and each individual family has a way of making the holiday special for them. There are a lots of Christmas traditions around the world that aren’t officially coming from the church, but are still important to families and have to do with Christmas.
“Our family gathers at our home on Christmas Eve. Um we exchange gifts before Santa comes and usually have a really nice dinner like tenderloin, followed by a birthday cake for Jesus and all the kids gather around and sing Happy Birthday to Jesus and blow out the candles. And they we use, use isn’t a good word, but we use Christmas crackers, and everybody stands around the table and pulls the crackers. Usually in the cracker is a hat and toy and a joke in each cracker. So everybody shares their joke and puts on their hat, and this is usually right after dessert. And we do this just kind of to have fun I guess. And then Kate usually performs a concert and plays Christmas carols. And that began about ten years ago, and all three kids would play in the concert because they played piano, but as the other two dropped out of piano, Kate was the only one who kept it going. And a cousin played once, but Kate is the only one who plays now. It pretty much just adds festivity to the celebration.”
Informant: The informant is a fifty-two years old, a mother of three. She is of Irish, French, and German descent, and was born in Chicago. She moved to Dallas when she was three, and she is the oldest of three children, with a younger brother and sister. She is an active member of the Catholic Church.
This particular holiday ritual is interesting because it is similar to a birthday party. I think that this is due to the fact that the family is Catholic, and therefore recognizes the true meaning of Christmas as the birth of Jesus. Therefore, they celebrate Christmas Eve as they would celebrate the birthday of a family member. Every family member gathers together as they would at a birthday party, and they even have a birthday cake and sing happy birthday to Jesus.
This reaffirms that this time period, Christmas Eve, is a liminal time, as Jesus is brought into the world. The magic that surrounds the beliefs about Santa and Christmas Eve are incorporated in the family gathering and sharing of presents, while the Catholic teachings are kept in mind and celebrated as well. The blowing out of candles by the children can represent making a wish as children would for their birthdays, but doing it for Jesus.
In addition, the use of the Christmas crackers is interesting. Everyone is able to partake in the silliness of this practice by putting on a hat and sharing a joke. This brings the family closer together in celebration. It is also a very childlike performance, reaffirming the likeness of this celebration to a child’s birthday party, which is true to the Catholic meaning of the holiday.
Also, the concert that is put on by the children supports this as well. The children are able to demonstrate their skills and entertain the adults by playing the piano. Although only one child continues, who happens to be the youngest in the family, it is still representative of the festivities of Christmas Eve as childlike. This honors the birth of Jesus as a newborn child, by making the ritual of Christmas Eve as celebrated by this family as like that of a child’s birthday party.
The informant is my mother, who was born and raised in North Vancouver, Canada. She has two older brothers, and both of her parents immigrated from the United Kingdom when they were adults. She worked in accounting until she retired at the age of 50. She is widowed and has two children: myself and my brother, who has Cerebral Palsy.
This relates to a Christmas tradition where everyone in the family is given a pair of pyjamas on Christmas Eve, while the rest of the gifts are opened on Christmas Day.
“The pyjamas came from Kerry [informant’s sister-in-law]. That was started by Kerry, Kerry had that as a tradition in her family and she, uh, told me about that one and now we include it as a tradition with our family, um for you guys so we all got up on Christmas Day and we all had nice little new jammies to be worn for getting our photos taken in.”
So, what exactly happens with the Christmas pyjamas? Could you explain it as if to someone who had never heard of this?
“Well, what happens with the Christmas pyjamas is that, of course when you’re little, you’re all excited about having a present to open, and when you’re going to bed on Christmas Eve, you’re looking at, you know, the tree, and you know there are presents from your family and you know Santa’s coming, but we used to always let you guys open, or the kids, open one present on Christmas Eve. The thing was, is that they knew exactly what the present was going to be after the first couple of years cause it started to become, “Okay, yeah, know what this is now.”
But it was still the idea of having something special to open up on Christmas Eve and that was opening up the pyjamas and having that little ritual and it almost became… um, if it is to be not pyjamas, that would have been not good—it had to be pyjamas after a while, because that’s what one wanted, was just another new pair of pyjamas to put on in that evening. And that actual tradition got picked up by another family when they heard me telling them about that tradition and now they do it as well. And Anne and Brad [informant’s friends] do that with Robyn. And someone else I know started that tradition after I was telling them about it, but I started doing it because of Kerry.”
And why pyjamas?
“Why pyjamas. Well, so you’ve got something nice and new to sleep in that night, and then when you wake up in the morning and you’re doing all your unwrapping of presents and they’re taking pictures, you’ve got your nice new clean pyjammies. So you look cute!”
This tradition ties into the larger Christmas present tradition, and combines the “open on Christmas morning” scheme with the “open on Christmas Eve” scheme. I find the picture justification interesting as well; in a sense, it coordinates and moderates the children’s wardrobe. Additionally, allowing the children to open one present early might help take the edge off of the children’s excitement for presents, which would give parents a more quiet and peaceful night’s sleep, giving it a strategic element as well.
This was one of my favorite traditions when I was younger, and I intend to continue it.
My informant tells me that despite her ethnicity, she does definitely not associate herself as being culturally Mexican. It is telling then that despite these claims, the part that she associates with the most in this tradition are the Mexican foods and treats that her family indulges in. Clearly tamales, Mexican chocolate, and the special breads do not make their rounds frequently, but when they do they are welcomed with open arms and mouths.
It is also a tradition that celebrates the liminal moments – the moments of transition. They open the gifts together at midnight on Christmas Eve, the moment when it exactly becomes Christmas. They celebrate that together. I also think it is interesting that they have the child transitioning to adulthood as the one who distributes the presents. It is a form of initiation and celebration for that person who is growing up. He or she is the center of attention for that moment.
I gathered this piece from my friend who comes from a very Italian family. Her parents family’s are both from Naples, her mom’s side is from Mirabella and her dad’s side is from Benevento. Even though her parents weren’t born in Italy, Italian culture is still very important in their family, and keeping up traditions such as this Christmas Eve dinner are very important to her parents, especially her father.
“I come from a very Italian background. My paternal grandmother was born in Italy and then came here, so my father is first-generation. My mother’s grandparents were from Italy…so they come from a very traditional Italian background. And one tradition that we’ve always followed in my family is that on Christmas Eve you are supposed to have the “Seven Fish Dinner” which means that you should be having seven different types of fish for your Christmas Eve meal. Every year my family would invite all of our family and friends over and my dad would spend about two or three days slaving away in the kitchen to cook all these different things which included lobster, probably cooked multiple ways, clams, shrimp…scungilli salad, which is octopus salad, a type of fish which I am not remembering what it’s called…and other things that I can’t remember.”
Q: So is this something your parents got from their parents?
“Yeah, it’s an Italian tradition. My family is not the only one’s that ever done it or heard of it. I know my dad keeps a lot of his Italian heritage in memory of his grandparents who he spent a lot of time with….’This is what my grandparents did so this how we’re going to do’ kind of a thing”
Food folklore tends to revolve around family and family traditions, and this is no exception. The informant learned about this through participating in a family tradition, which was kept by her parents in order to honor their Italian grandparents. Participating in the tradition becomes a way to keep the tradition alive and maintain the culture.
“So every year, I have really strong memories, when I was young all the way to high school, of our annual, Christmas eve, party that my mom would always throw. It was always her. And we would always have family, friends, and neighbors over and it grew and grew and grew every year until by the time I was older, it would be about 50 or 60 people over at our house. And she had the same menu every year, she’d make the same food. And she, we would always have eggnog, always some kind of meat. It was usually roast beef I think, that she would carve. Uh, hmm, there was always a crab dish, there was always lobster rolls. Not like the kind, in the northeast like in Maine. I can’t really describe, exactly how they were, gosh I’m blanking out now. But um there’d always be a vegetable dip, there’d always be fruit, um and we’d always have dessert, lemon squares, brownies, that was common. So, yeah um it was the same, it was the same people year after year obviously more people came each year but it was the same crowd of people. Everyone dressed up, and I remember one of our neighbors was a doctor and he would bring his accordion over and he would play the accordion every year, it was funny. And unlike me, the more chaos and the more noise, the happier my mom would be, you know that’s not how I am. And I just remember being a little kid, all the kids would hang out together. One of the neighbors, he would, he would always go home and call our house and pretend he was Santa, and he’d say things like “ho ho ho,” and he’d be like “Rudolph be quiet” and stuff like that. And of course as kids we believed that it was Santa Claus, it wasn’t until later that were like ‘oh it’s just him.’ So everybody had someone to hang out with, and, that was pretty much our Christmas eve.”
The informant that I received this item from is actually my mother, and I had never heard about this tradition before. She grew up in Dallas, Texas.
As far as a Christmas eve tradition, my mother’s family tradition seems normal. Her account of this tradition becomes interesting, however, when looked at in light of the Christmas eve tradition that my family settled in to. Although she remembers her Christmas eve’s fondly, I see in my mother’s account of them a differentiation, a separation between herself and her mom. She mentioned in her account that “unlike me [her], the more chaos and the more noise, the happier my [her] mom would be.” The Christmas eve’s that I grew up with consisted of a nice dinner cooked by my parents that we would eat in the dining room. It was the only time of the year that we would sit down as a family and eat in the dining room; we would normally sit at the table in the kitchen. It was also always just my family, never any of our friends or relatives. That said, I now look at my Christmas eve’s as a vehicle for my mother to express her individuality, personality, and parenting style.
“We didn’t eat meat on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is fine, but not on Christmas Eve. So we’d eat, like, baccala, which is salted cod. And calamari and other fish and seafood.”
My informant is an Italian Catholic. Refraining from meat on Christmas Eve is one of many cultural traditions practiced by this group. There are certain traditional fish dishes prepared, including baccala. My informant told me that she doesn’t particularly like baccala, and neither does the rest of her family. However, they make and eat it every year because it is traditional to do so.
The informant describes how his Danish family celebrates Christmas each year in San Francisco. The informant details the Christmas Eve dinner and a game involving rice pudding and an almond at the end of the meal. The informant explains that he learned this tradition from his Danish family and has partaken in the tradition every since he was a little kid. The tradition of the dinner has sentimental value for him because he has done it for so long with his family.
The informant explains that his Danish-American family celebrates Christmas Eve in a distinct fashion. The family always has a roasted duck for dinner and after eating the duck the family always eats a bowl of rice pudding, but plays a game along with the eating of the pudding. The family places an almond into a large bowl of pudding and the goal of the game is to pass the bowl of pudding around with each participant taking one scoop of pudding until someone finds the almond. The participant who finds the almond typically wins a prize. Traditionally the prize was marzipan, but the informant explains they do not eat that anymore because it does not taste good. The trick of the game is to do your best to keep it a secret if you have found the almond because you want to make your other family members continue to eat the pudding without them knowing the game is actually over. The informant explains that he actually added a variation to the game by putting in two almonds into the pudding without letting the others know.
I find the Danish celebration interesting as it varies largely from the celebration in the United States. There are apparent Danish adaptations to the celebration of Christmas as seen with the roasted duck meal and the rice pudding game with the almond. I have never heard of either of these practices in traditional U.S. Christmas celebrations. The games give possible deeper insight into the traditional food eaten within the Danish past and how they play games.
At a tender seven years of age, the informant shared a family tradition of eating tamales on Christmas Eve, which, according to her account, is a shared tradition among most Mexican families. Her mother’s side of the family is Mexican and has practiced the tradition through generations. Indeed, the informant described an annual large family gathering with such an excess of tamales that it feels like “forever” until the leftovers are finished.
For the informant, it seems the tamales on Christmas Eve is a fun way to spend her vacation―she talks about how delicious the food is, her presents the next day, and the fact that school is on recess.
Every night, uh, I mean before every Christmas night, we go to Nana’s. Actually, we used to go to Nana’s, but then she passed away. But we would go, and lots of people were there and we would make yummy tamales during the night and take them home!
I don’t make the tamales, I just eat them. I’m not old enough; they don’t let me touch the things in the kitchen yet. Usually it’s just the girls, but sometimes my dad helps, too, and the other people. I don’t know all of them, just some, but there are lots. I didn’t know my family was so big.
My mama said she did it with Nana when she was a girl, too, and that lots of Mexican families do it. I just know that we make so many tamales, like, so many tamales. Well, there’s rice and beans, too, but even when we bring them home we just keep eating the tamales the next day, and the next day, and the next day. . .it feels like forever. It’s still my favorite dinner though! We eat the tamales, and then the next day we get presents. Plus, there’s no school.
Although some of the finer details may be absent from the informant’s narrative, in sifting through her account we can find some more thematic values embedded in the tradition. Family is clearly an important element in the Mexican Christmas Eve tradition. For one, the women gather together in the kitchen, presumably to “catch up” and bond through the cooking process. The informant mentions how so many family members gather together that she doesn’t even recognize them all. In that vein, her Nana’s recent passing seems to have made a significant impact on her family’s practice of the tradition. The informant did not provide information about where her family would make tamales in the future, but it is quite evident that the familiar setting of her grandmother’s home, a symbol of the stable matriarchy, is no longer accessible to her, further showing how integral family is to this tradition.
Additionally, the theme of bountiful celebration is quite clear. The family makes so many tamales that guests must take them home, and even then the informant herself must eat tamales for days after Christmas Eve. While the rest of the year she and her family may practice moderation, tamales on Christmas Eve is clearly a happy abandonment of that principle.
“I wanted to tell you about Catalan traditions, which are very different from the rest of Spain and not that well known. When I say Catalan traditions I mean those that originated in Cataluña, in the North of Spain. Um, I mean there are several that I can share because I grew up with them. One of them is, well, I grew up and I didn’t grow up, my family moved to Germany to work, but they made a point of telling us things from Cataluna when we were in Spain. So I was living them, but outside of Cataluna, I was living them in Germany. The first of them, which was very unique and weird to a certain extent, happens in the night of the 24th, so you have to think in the context of Santa. So kids, um, bring home, um, strange creatures made of wood, with four wooden legs, and then it has, you know, decorated with a red barentina, which is a red baret, and you bring that piece of wood in, and you generally put it next to a fire or next to a Christmas tree these days, and you cover it with a blanket so it’s comfortable and warm, and you feed it every morning. So the kids usually put some fruits or vegetables or candies, and they magically disappear during the day, so you’re kind of feeding that little creature. And then the night of the 24th, everyone gets together around it, and you know parents have to make sure that something is put underneath the blanket so it looks like it’s getting fatter and stronger as its eating. And the weird weird tradition is that you get a stick and the kids hit the little creature with the stick and you sing a little song in Catalan, and literally the pig “shits” the presents. So traditionally, it was more candies and little books, this day is a lot of parents are using it as Santa so kids are getting bigger and bigger presents and, then it depends on families, some families do it all at once, so the kids go to the kitchen and wet the stick and then they go back and they hit the piggy and all the presents come out at once, some families do it kid by kid, so as the kid gets the stick wet the parents make sure that underneath the blanket comes the present that is assigned for that kid, but it’s a very strange tradition in how it is delivered.”
Informant Analysis: “One thing that’s interesting about it too is that I grew up with it in my family because my dad is from Cataluna, my mom is not, but we did it in my dad’s side of the family, and I thought it was the normal thing in Spain, so when I was ten and I returned to Spain, I moved to Northern Spain and I talked about this and people looked at me as if I was crazy, you know, because they don’t do it over there and during Franco’s time during the dictatorship it was forbidden, so many kids of my generation grew up during Franco’s time and were not allowed to do that unless they were doing it in hiding at home, so for me something that was very normal was not necessarily for everyone.”
Analysis: I think this is a fun way to include the children in the present giving process, because they are “feeding” the small animal that they create, so they have a part in it. Usually the parents are the ones buying and giving the presents, so this way its more of a group effort. This ritual was obviously important to the informant because it helped her hold on to her Catalan heritage even when she wasn’t physically there.