Growing up Roman Catholic in New York meant that I had a lot of relatives. My mother came from a family of eight siblings, and each of her parents had come from families of eight and seven siblings respectively. And they were all VERY close. In fact, most of us lived within walking distance of each other.
Hence, the traditional holiday journey we would all undertake at every major holiday...the trek from house to house -- typically in the snow at Christmas time -- to meet, greet and eat with every member of our extended family. And to think, my dad married my mom, knowing this would be a given, nay, a required, journey. Thinking back on it, I must say, I admire his courage.
It all began on Christmas Eve, when we would first trek to my father's parents house on Staten Island, to open presents and attend Christmas service (midnight mass in Latin, of course) at St. Margaret Mary's Church. This was the part I really looked forward to -- seeing the church ablaze in candle light, the pomp and pageantry as the choir filed in and the songs echoed from the rafters. Plus, there was the beautiful village of Bethlehem, recreated on a mountainous landscape to the right of the main altar. Each year, one lucky altar boy would be given the honored task of placing the Baby Jesus in the manger.
Afterwards, we would go home and eat a light dessert, and prepare for the day of travel that laid ahead.
Bright and early, we were up, dressed, and bundled into the car, off to Elizabeth, N.J., to my mom's parents, her sisters and brother, her great-aunts and uncles, and a myriad of other relatives that -- to this day -- I still am not quite sure who they all were, or even how we were related.
But there were tons of cousins to play with at every stop, and presents to open and wonderful food to eat. But of course, you had to be very selective about eating, because the last stop of the night was always Great Aunt Mamie's, and if you were too stuffed by the time you got there, you would miss out on some of the most wonderful food ever cooked for man.
The turkey and the ham, sweet potatoes, pickled beets, ratatouille, dark brown bread, homemade butters and spreads, potatoes, leek soup, fresh baked rolls...and that was just the beginning. You couldn't forget the best part - the spiced Christmas cake, fudge pudding, a myriad of cookies and pies, and sweets - oh my!
I miss those days of going from house to house, seeing everyone, visiting for a while, and just feeling in touch. Nowadays, I only talk with my relatives on the phone or by e-mail. It sort of takes away from that holiday spirit; that sense of family and togetherness. It almost makes me homesick, until I think of all the snow, ice and slush. Then I kick back with my cocoa, a good book and my dogs, and realize that a special part of the Holiday spirit lives in the memories of my youth.