My family never had much in the way of Christmas traditions, that I remember. Some years the whole extended family would get together for a party, but it wasn’t a regular thing. Our immediate family’s traditions were pretty simple. A tree with a new ornament for each family member each year. Father reading about the birth of Christ from the Bible Christmas Eve. Presents opened Christmas morning. Supper by mom Christmas afternoon. Oh, and baccala.
All day Christmas Eve mom would make baccala, and every Christmas morning baccala was breakfast. Some people don’t get it. Some people don’t like it. I grew up with it. For every other thing that’s changed, baccala was always there. When my parents got divorced and dad wasn’t there to read scripture, baccala was there. When I moved out and wasn’t there for Christmas morning or an ornament on the tree, mom always made sure there was baccala for everyone in the family.
And now mom isn’t there anymore. Not to make Christmas dinner and not to put up a tree, and not to see her family’s joy on Christmas morning, and not to make sure everyone gets their baccala.
After I moved out, after my mom got sicker than I’d seen her, before it was too late, I made my mother teach me how to make baccala. It isn’t actually difficult to do, once you get the hang of it, but it took me three or four attempts before I got it right. There’s a recipe, but it isn’t really a recipe that you can follow and get it right. Too much of it is by feel, by sense memory, to taste. The first time I asked her for the recipe, a couple of years ago, she wrote it down for me as she made it right in front of me. I tried following what was written down and came up with something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike baccala. So, with some help from Zoe and my mother we worked out what was wrong the first time, and tried again, and were still wrong. Eventually, as I said, we managed to get it right, so that when family got together after my mother’s death, we were able to make baccala properly.
So, this Christmas I’m unemployed, I’m not sure where I’m going to find money to pay my bills after another couple of weeks, and I may have bought all the Christmas presents I can afford in one $6 gift yesterday, but I just tracked down a real Italian deli and bought two and a half pounds of the magical ingredient at the center of baccala. No matter what else happens, whether I get a tree up or presents or anything else, there must be baccala for Christmas. Two and a half pounds may be overkill, but if I can’t offer my family anything else, I can offer them baccala.
My older sister is married, has two kids, and this year is housing my younger brother as well. She’s got her own family, and in light of changing times is trying to make her own traditions. Which is a good thing. But they’re not my traditions. I don’t want her new traditions. I don’t even mind losing most of mine too much, though I did buy myself a new Christmas ornament this year. It isn’t just because it’s different, it’s because her family isn’t my family. She’s part of my family, but her family is not my family, and the traditions she is inventing for her family are not for me.
So, I’m going to spend Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day making baccala, and Christmas afternoon I’ll be seeing my sister’s family and the rest of my family for a little while and I’ll be sure they get their baccala for Christmas.