How My Children Changed My View of the Perfect Holiday

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Jeethan D’Souza)

Growing up, I had not one, not two, but three different holiday traditions. As a result, I dreamed of a life that looked a lot like Norman Rockwell’s famous painting, Freedom from Want: Family gathered, a fat brown turkey on the table, and ideally, fewer emotional complications for my kids than my own divorced childhood had delivered.

But dreams don’t always come true, and sometimes they fail to encompass all the available — and wonderful — possibilities.

The Holidays of My Childhood

I spent most holidays with my mother’s side of the family, where celebrations revolved around my Grandmother Maye’s Southern cooking: cornbread dressing alongside the Thanksgiving turkey, ham for Christmas, and black-eyed peas and collard greens for New Year’s.

Those rare occasions when I spent a holiday with my dad and his parents in upstate New York, the meals prepared by my Grandma Lena looked similar, but had a decidedly “Yankee” twist: stuffing, not dressing; scalloped potatoes, not mashed; rolls, not biscuits.

And then there was Christmas with Concetta, my stepmother’s Sicilian mother. Known as Connie, my third grandmother fought to assimilate with her neighbors everywhere but in the kitchen. Christmas dinner at Connie’s meant enormous steam trays of lasagna, serving bowls overflowing with grilled Italian sausage, piles of handmade fig bars, and her favorite guilty pleasure, glasses of Riunite red.

Everything she prepared tasted beyond delicious, and I loved the spectacle of a house teeming with dozens of noisy, dark-haired relatives. And yet, there was always some part of me that thought, secretly and rather shamefully, that lasagna for Christmas dinner is just not right.

The Norman Rockwell Holidays That Weren’t

As an adult, after my husband John and I were married, I couldn’t wait to host holiday meals for the extended family, imagining our future children scampering through the crowd in the beautiful home that I hoped would someday be ours.

John and I did become parents eventually, but we chose to form our family through international adoption, welcoming a 2-year-old girl and her 3-year-old brother from Ethiopia, and later a 5-year-old girl from India, into the home we’d purchased in Northern California.

Our little multicultural, multiracial group didn’t resemble a typical Norman Rockwell scene when we crowded around the table together, but we did share that feeling of holiday comfort and togetherness that the artist had portrayed so beautifully.

For me as a mom who liked to cook, there was just one glitch: my children, tiny immigrants brought to this country without their consent, didn’t arrive with a taste for “traditional” American foods.

I tried to be sensitive to the fact that my children’s palates had developed in accordance with the cuisines of their homelands, and so I learned to make Indian samosas and Ethiopian sambussus, dog-earing the pages in cookbooks from Marcus Samuelsson and Madhur Jaffrey as I worked to master wat and curry.

However, when the holidays rolled around, I dug in my heels. I wanted my children to learn to love the comfort foods of my childhood, but turkey or ham, dressing or stuffing, even potatoes and pumpkin pie — they rejected it all. I compromised, and tried to win them over with fresh spins on festive recipes I thought of as “traditionally” American. How about butternut squash soup? Sweet potato pancakes? An extra-thick brown sugar crust on that baked ham?

My New Holiday Traditions

My stubborn efforts spurred much resentment and many tears all around, until a terrible winter storm brought me to my senses at last. That year, around the time the kids had begun elementary school, we’d made plans spend Christmas with my dad’s side of the family, but bad weather on the East Coast postponed our departure flight.

Stuck in California for Christmas Eve with an empty fridge, we attended 5 o’clock mass and then went looking for an open restaurant that felt festive yet family-friendly, which is how we ended up digging into some sizzling tandoori chicken at our favorite Indian place.

The meal was delicious and pleasing to all, and the mood felt fun and relaxed. I wasn’t exhausted from hours of cooking, I wasn’t disheartened by whiny complaints, and I felt no need to whine or complain myself. And that night sparked the beginning of our family’s true and unique holiday traditions.

My kids are teenagers now. When they recall their childhoods someday, they’ll remember Christmas Eve mass followed by Indian dinner out as “that thing their family always did.” They’ll remember, too, opening gifts on Christmas morning, and Christmas dinners of injera and doro wat served on my grandmother Maye’s china.

They’ll know that black-eyed peas and collard greens eaten with cornbread on New Year’s Day bring luck, and that Thanksgiving is for turkey and pumpkin pie and whatever else you choose to serve with it. I hope they’ll remember the ham and scalloped potatoes that appeared on our table sometimes at Easter, but I know they’ll never forget Connie’s lasagna, because I make it all the time.

Someday my children will have their own families, at least I hope so, and they’ll have all these foods and more to choose from to mark their holidays and celebrations — all of it delicious, and all of it their precious legacy to keep.

What are your family’s most memorable holiday traditions?