My great-grandmother, Grace, was born on December 16, in a place and at a time that money was so scarce she never knew to worry about whether or not the date of her birthday would interfere with the number of presents she found beneath her family’s Christmas tree. In fact, Grace generally never received any gifts at all; she belonged to that tribe of Sicilian immigrants who settled up in Harlem before stashing away whatever money they earned, borrowed or, frankly, stole to afford their next big move: trading the city for Long Island’s then-untouched landscape.
“We had nothing,” she told me often. “But at least on Christmas we always had food.”
Grace’s America was less great than the generosity of her family, which alone made their Christmas Eve feast possible. Together they all pitched in—young Grace and her siblings included—to create something beautiful from whatever they had, even if that meant getting to enjoy only four or five of the holiday’s requisite seven fishes. And they did, indeed, always manage to create something beautiful. The children would bundle up and sing carols on the stoop outside their tenement house while the adults breaded and fried, breaded and fried at the stove.
My great-grandmother Grace passed away sixteen years ago, at almost 94, but only recently was I able to experience the sort of Christmas I imagine she must have enjoyed as a girl.
“We don’t have everything,” the matriarch of a Salvadoran family living in Brentwood tells me, with the help of her English-speaking daughter. You will meet both of them, in these pages, soon. “But, on Christmas, we basically do. Everyone leaves full.”
In the kitchen, this woman, Teresa, makes tamales while her grandchildren play with trains on the floor. Upstairs, her brother- and sister-in-law are baking dessert while downstairs her daughter and son-in-law help clean around the house. There are poinsettias on the table and a “He is risen” window cling on the glass back door.
Their generous teamwork, like that of my own family just a few generations ago, not quite the American dream, but something more universal. A dream that doesn’t require a house or a job or a white picket fence, just a simmering pot on the stove and family and friends ready to enjoy it together. An eternal cause for celebration.
All that’s left is to bow your head, say “amen,” and dig in.
Wishing you and your family every reason to celebrate this season and beyond,