Back in 1988, my mother passed away on the 8th of December. I was only 30 and my children were seven, five and two years old. I knew that they would never really know their maternal grandmother. It was sad enough to have lost my second parent at such a young age, but to not be able to share her with them intensified my grief. Having it all happen at Christmas time seemed to make it all the worse. So, that Christmas I decided to do something to honor all the family members that were no longer with us.
On Christmas Eve we had a feast comprised of foods from the countries from which my husband’s and my ancestors emigrated. We had scones for the English predecessors and told the story of my paternal grandfather who was born in London and came to the United States through Canada as a young man. My husband David shares a birthday with him and my daughter was born on the same day he died, just a few hours later. We had Swedish meatballs made from David’s grandmother’s recipe. We had a cucumber and sour cream salad for my relatives from Prussia who came to the US in 1852. We had potatoes from Ireland and Beef Rouladen from Germany. And, then we made Nachos, not because either of us has even the remotest ancestral history of Mexican origin, but to honor my mother who adored Mexican food. Oh, I know Nachos are probably more American, but whatever they are, Mom loved them.
I didn’t know that on that first Christmas without my mother I was starting a tradition. It was just something to make us feel more connected to those who came before us and helped make us who we are. I didn’t know then that this would become my children’s deepest memory of the Holidays, and the best part of every Christmas since then. I was just trying to lessen my grief. But, now twenty five years later, it’s an integral part of Christmas. We try to celebrate on December 24th, but with our family scattered from Orlando to Washington,DC to Los Angeles and then my husband and I in rural North Florida, it’s celebrated when we can all gather in one place.
We know so much more about our ancestors now. I have tracked our family tree on both sides of the family into the 1700s. We have added my son-in-law and daughter-in-law’s families into the tradition, incorporating foods from Scotland into the menu. Other than the nation north of England, their ancestors shared countries of birth the same as ours. Some years we have different foods to represent some of the countries, but we always have Swedish Meatballs. We always have Beef Rouladen. And we never fail to make Nachos.
Our celebration began in grief and now is celebrated with joy and gratitude to those who came across the Atlantic Ocean over the course of about 75 years and created a unique American family.