I had grown up with different traditions and I was looking forward to our first American Christmas together. It was in the 80’s and we had just gotten married a few months earlier. It was my first Christmas in America –in my new home- with the man I loved.
I knew a little bit about how it would be. I had seen movies, but nothing prepared me for the real thing and nothing prepared me for my feelings either.
I had never seen so many decorations in the houses and although outside. Austrian and Italian Christmas rituals were different, but here in the U.S. Christmas was everywhere and it wasn’t quiet; it was happy and loud.
Everything was fine; I had only one problem…Santa. Just the idea that Santa would bring the presents in the night of December 24th was absolutely unacceptable for me. I knew things would be different and I was fine with it, but Santa and I didn’t see eye to eye back then.
Why did they call him Santa anyway? Where was that coming from?
His real name is St. Nicholas. He is a very special saint and he is honored throughout Austria and parts of Europe. The story goes that God rewarded Nicholas for his generosity, by allowing him to return to earth each year to bring gifts to all the good children. St. Nicholas Day is a special holiday for children, celebrated on Nicholas Evening on December 5th and in some areas on December 6th. St. Nicholas (Nicolo or Nikolaus) visits the homes of the children dressed up as a bishop with flowing robes and miter. He carries a bishop’s crosier and a big golden book . During the year angels write the children’s good and bad behaviors in this book. The children sit in front of St. Nicholas and listen to what he has to say. When children have been good -or promise to be good during the coming year- they get rewards in form of treats. No presents, but nuts, mandarins and cookies and sometimes a chocolate candy or two.
I was and adult and didn’t expect St. Nicholas to come by our house anymore, but I made a Nicholas plate and put it in the middle of our table on December 5th. No more of this Santa nonsense for me, that I made clear right from the start.
My husband seemed to love our Nicholas plate, somehow all the mandarins and nuts disappeared every night.
My Mother-in-law, who was still alive back then, went out of her way to make my first Christmas in the U.S. a special event. We went on an 8 hour road trip to celebrate Christmas in the small village, where my husband had grown up in. We would stay until January 7th. It was our first vacation and I was so excited.
An American Christmas…unknown food, unknown cookies and candies and new traditions that I wanted to adopt.
We made the road trip through ice and snow and arrived at my Mother-in-law’s house a couple of days before Christmas. The house looked like winter wonderland, everything was perfect.
I introduced myself to eggnog and American Christmas cookies and we got along just fine. It was love at first bite.
Stockings were hanging on the mantle and there was a brand-new one with my name hanging right besides my husband’s old stocking.
Christmas evening came and it was quiet. We watched a movie, ate cookies and drank more eggnog. We talked and laughed a lot -mostly about my English- and I liked everything about Christmas that night.
Each person opened one present on Christmas Evening, the rest of the presents would be opened on Christmas morning. There it was again…my Santa problem.
I asked if I could keep one present unopened until January 6th and they all just looked at me and wanted to know why.
And that’s when I had to tell them the truth, because they really didn’t know.
You see it’s not the guy you call Santa, who fills the stockings where I come from. It’s a friendly, old, toothless witch, who flies around the world on a broomstick and comes down through the chimneys to deliver candy and presents to children who have been good during the year, her name is “La Befana.”
La Befana is one of Italy’s oldest and most celebrated legends. Each year on January 6th the children of Italy awaken in hope that La Befana has made a visit to their house. This is a significant day to Italians, because it marks the end of the Christmas season and the day, that the three Wise Men arrived at the manger of the Christ child. Over the years the Epiphany has been a more celebrated holiday for the children of Italy than even Christmas.
As legend has it the three Wise Men were in search of the Christ child when they decided to stop at a small house to ask for directions. Upon knocking, an old woman holding a broom opened the door slightly to see who was there. Standing at her doorstep were three colorfully dressed men, who were in need of directions to find the Christ child. The old woman was unaware of who these three men were looking for and could not point them in the right direction. Prior to the three men leaving, they kindly asked the old woman to join them on their journey. She declined because she had much housework to do. After they left she felt as though she had made a mistake and decided to go and catch up with the kind men. After many hours of searching she could not find them. Thinking of the opportunity she had missed the old woman stopped every child to give them a small treat in hopes that one was the Christ child. Each year on the eve of the Epiphany she sets out looking for the baby Jesus. She stops at each child’s house to leave those who were good treats in their stockings and those who were bad a lump of coal.
My husband and his family looked at me with big eyes, they had never heard of the friendly, old witch before. I had told that story using hands and feet, even made some drawings, to make them all understand what I was talking about.
My Mother-in-law had welcomed me into her family with open arms right from the start. She had welcomed me like a new daughter and I think she understood best what it all had meant to me. I was the foreigner, who had just married into this Irish-American family.
I really wanted to take on all the new traditions, but deep inside I felt like I would betray the way I was raised. It felt like I was letting my Grandmother down, like I would deny my upbringing…if that makes any sense.
But then on the other hand, I couldn’t ask everybody to change their family traditions because of me. I felt stuck in the middle. One side of me wanted to adapt so badly, the other side was rebellious (that’s a surprise isn’t it?)
The solution to our problem was rather simple. Everybody in my new family left one present behind for La Befana that year and all the years after that. Their house welcomed the old, toothless witch every year and they even added St. Nicholas to the family tradition and I became friends with Santa and started a love affair with Rudolph the red-nose reindeer.
Our family was blessed right from the start, because we all had the right attitude. We didn’t lose, we gained; we gained something new and learned to love it.
I am looking at this world this Christmas and I wish more people would be able to open there hearts to other peoples traditions and rituals. All it takes is an open heart and an open mind.
Not everything new is bad, not everything unknown has to be feared.