A Fishy Christmas

Original Script: “Okay…so…you know how traditional Americans have ham or even turkey for Christmas? My family does Fish. We get a ton of it. Shell fish, Salmon, trout, everything….We have always done it that way. The first time your mother, Cheryl, came over for Christmas…she thought we were nuts! But after she had the smoked salmon…damn…your mother’s face was like, ‘oh I need to get more of this.’ But, I do understand why some people think it is strange….when I went to school and we all talked about what we did over the holiday’s, I always talked about the fish dinner we had, and kids thought it was strange…but not to my family. Everyone helps out…I make the shrimp cocktail, my sister makes the smoked salmon, my mother cooks the lobster and crab…my brother brings some trout…hell…even your mother participates and she brings the shrimp scampi…that stuff is good. Oh…and we can’t for get the good ol’ wine. I drank that stuff when I was a kid every Christmas…and I will drink it to the day I die..haha.”

Background Information about the Piece by the informant: Chuck Lanzer grew up in up-state New York and currently resides in the tri-state of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York with his wife, Cheryl Lanzer. Chuck grew up in a predominantly Italian Catholic home. Every year, the family—about 20 people or so—gets together to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. Chuck says that this tradition has continued throughout his family for generations, even his great-great grandmother had participated in it. It is something he has always grown up with, and the wine, he presumes, is from his Italian heritage. The family even has a wine cellar on their ground floor.

Context of the Performance: Christmas Dinner with the Lanzer family in Upstate New York (Newburgh, New York).

Thoughts about the piece: After interviewing Charles Lanzer II, I found this tradition to be quiet interesting and did some extended research on the topic. I had question Chuck’s mother, Carol Ann, about the tradition. She had told me that Chuck’s father’s, Charles Lanzer’s, family had come from a town in Italy that was famous for its fish. This town was called “Genoa.” (For more information about Genoa, see an article by Peter Davison published in the 1999 issue of the The Atlantic Monthly titled “Italy’s Greatest Seaport).1

Here, fish was something often eaten in by the locals, after all it was, and is, one of the most notable seaports in Italy. Furthermore, Carol Ann mentioned that after immigrating to upstate New York, the family had missed their Italian town and wanted to keep some of their heritage with them. After reading this, it makes sense that Chuck’s family use fish during Christmas. It is something that holds ties to their past—to their heritage. In this case, it is particularly interesting that heritage and tradition collide. Wanting to instill their Italian heritage in their new, American life, the family had used a tradition to do it—a mode of activity to reflect their past of their ancestors in which they utilize fish. Additionally, the family also drinks wine, in which Chuck had mentioned that he drank it when he was a child. Even though not common in the Unites States—even having a law that a person may not drink until they are twenty-one—Chuck’s family still gave the children wine, because that was a common Italian tradition to do.

It is also interesting to note that the family has a kinship system in which my mother, Cheryl Lanzer, cooks in order to gain entry into the family; in order to gain acceptance from the group, Cheryl performs a ritual in making Shrimp Scampi. It is an initiation in order to gain access and recognition from the group as one of their own. This tradition is also related to aesthetics of folklore; the reason why Chuck and his family use fish in their Christmas dinner is related to their identity as Italian folk. Furthermore, while Cheryl can never be invited into their heritage, she is invited into their tradition.

Additionally, while Chuck and his family do have an emic view of why they use fish during Christmas dinner compared to those of an etic view (like Chuck’s old classmates), it is a way Chuck and his family create a link to the past and their original heritage. While Chuck and his siblings might not of necessarily known why they used fish for Christmas dinner instead of the traditional ham, they did participate in the tradition every year, which is a prominent trait of folkloric traditions. In which Chuck, his siblings, even his father and grandparents, are not necessarily from Genoa, Italy, but do perform traditions that represent their past heritage from Genoa, Italy.

1 Davison, Peter. “Italy’s Greatest Seaport.” The Atlantic 1st ser. 284.1999 (1999): 32-37. Rpt. in The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 284. N.p.: n.p., 1999. 32-37. Ser. 1. The Atlantic. Web. 20 Mar. 2016.