Charlie Brown famously wondered how Christmas had gotten so commercial. Clearly, Charlie Brown was not an Italian-American; if he were, he might have wondered how Christmas had gotten so gluttonous.
This Christmas season, as per longstanding tradition, we packed up our five kids and headed down to Long Island, joining my parents, my brother and sister and their children, and scores of extended family members whose last names employ vowels in many adventurous combinations, in a week-long bacchanal. Ten days and five superfluous pounds’ worth of lasagna, scungilli, cannolis, and pomegranate Cosmopolitans (don’t snicker: you deign to take an offered sip of your wife’s, and before you know it, you’re on your fourth cute pink glassful) later, I have a few observations to share:
Not all idols come from the mall
Most folks who exhort others to "keep Christ in Christmas" have in mind the season’s ever-increasing consumerization. The world sets up against the crèche its own icons of Santa and Wii, plasma TVs and MP3 players, and handbags the price of racehorses. The ox and lamb keep time on their Omega watches; Mary smiles when her husband pulls into the living room with her new Lexus.
Now, Long Island may be the most consumeristic place I have ever lived, or indeed ever visited. But if there’s a temptation in my family to place a Christmas idol in front of the infant Jesus, it’s the idol of family — which, being a good in itself, can be a far more seductive and difficult-to-recognize obstacle to the True Spirit of Christmas. A good-in-itself can be too easily made an end-in-itself.
I’m told by knowledgeable people that emphasis on family togetherness, even in the afterlife, is one of Mormonism’s biggest selling points in Southern cultures. For secular-glazed Italian-Americans, family togetherness can eclipse the Nativity as Christmas’s central focus. Both forget that family is for this world only, and that Christ came not to bring peace but division.
My brother and I, paisan to the core, both married women of Irish descent, carrying on that long, strange tradition of our two divergent peoples meeting in church and eventually freshening each other’s gene pools. Both ladies have handled the transition like champs, even at the big Christmas parties: taking in stride the chaos of overlapping conversations, flailing hands, ribald jokes, and incessant kissing from anonymous aunts and cousins.
Indeed, overall I think our situation exemplifies why Irish-Italian matches are often so smart. The two great Catholic cultures complement with their strengths. The Italians bring to the table sanguinity; the Irish, melancholia. The Irish temper Italian indulgence with a healthy dollop of guilt; Italian optimism rescues the Irish spirit from scrupulosity. The Cross and the Resurrection are both fully represented. And although the Italians open the door to a new world of gastronomical pleasure, the Irish . . .
Let me get back to you on that last one.
They (heart) Rudy
In an unscientific poll of various relatives, the clear favorite for president was Rudy Giuliani. No big surprise, maybe, considering the sample. And some 30 miles from Ground Zero, the 9/11 factor is strong, of course. But there might still be some insight to be gleaned into the northeastern middle-class moderate Catholic mindset. They also liked Giuliani’s fast-talking, take-no-prisoners conservatism. Even the more socially liberal ones were concerned about taxes, borders, and national defense. Maybe I just ran into another Italian-Irish distinction there — Italian-American Catholics never espoused themselves to the populist Democratic Party to the extent their co-religionists did — or maybe there really is some lesson to be learned. I’m not sure.
And yes, with little encouragement necessary, Huckabee name jokes abounded.
Seen and heard while braving the women’s section of Macy’s in search of something to make my wife smell pretty: Two old ladies tottering down the aisle, chatting of this and that. One stopped, and the other queried:
Old Lady 1: What are you looking at?
Old Lady 2 (sheepishly): I was going to buy you some perfume . . .
Old Lady 1: What for?
Old Lady 2: Just . . . for all that you do.
Old Lady 1 (pleased, but genuinely modest): Oh, I don’t do anything.
Old Lady 2 reaches and squeezes Old Lady 1’s hand.
It was all I could do to keep from hugging them, or offering to shovel their driveways, or something.
Sometimes they get it just right
The placement of the Feast of the Holy Family on the Church calendar, and of the readings selected for it, are not only theologically appropriate, but profoundly shrewd from a human perspective. What Catholic, after spending a few days in close quarters with his family — fighting over the crossword, bathroom time, the last bagel; getting wide on pomegranate Cosmos and re-airing old grievances — would not profit from the solemn exhortation to forgive complaints against one another with patience and forbearance (Col 3), or the assurance that "kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and against your sins it will be credited to you" (Sir 3:14)?
It’s a head-shaker every time. Each year I forget about those readings, each year I grumble at my family, each year the words hit me like a chiropractic neck adjustment for the soul. Thanks, Church.
A hard drive full of frozen childhood
Lastly,Christmas also meanspictures, pictures, hundreds of pictures. Free memories socked away for a dry time. If there’s a more wondrous invention for the sentimental paterfamilias — especially at Christmas time — than the digital camera, I’d like to see it. In the meantime, these pixels I have shored against my ruins.