I am not sure how to start this post, how to do something other than contributing to the happy-happy-joy-joy holiday messages with which we have all been inundated over the past few weeks. However, I do have something to say as I reflect on this time of year and its relation to my cultural heritage, especially in light of the Covid pandemic. In the past I have written about many of the icons of Italian American Christmas traditions; the Feast of Seven Fishes, Befana, gathering with family, and so forth. I will probably write more about them in the future, but the events of this year as well as how they have affected the observation of many of these traditions deserve comment.
Earlier this week someone said to me that this is a sad Christmas. While I admit that it is difficult to muster a feeling of yuletide cheer, I said in response that, for me, this was not a sad Christmas. The Christmas of 1977 was a sad Christmas. My father died on that day. After our family had our typical Christmas eve dinner of fish, he went to bed and never woke up. He passed away sometime in the early morning hours.
As soon as I said that this was not a sad one, I regretted having said it. Sure, my family has been fortunate that we have not lost anyone to the pandemic. Yet, there are the families of 310,000+ Americans, as of this writing, who have not been so lucky. For them, this is most certainly is a sad Christmas. A Christmas with an empty seat at the table, an unclaimed gift beneath the tree, and unkissed cheek beneath the mistletoe. There is a hole in this holiday for them.
I thought back to the Christmas of 1977 to feel what many of them must be experiencing during this first year without the one they loved. While for my family and me Christmas day was a day of tears, it gave way as the family came together to comfort one another. Soon tears turned to laughter as we sat around the table telling stories of our childhood, as we shared stories of the old man. The healing process began, as I pray it will for many of the families who have been hurt by this pandemic.
There is another part of this story, perhaps the most important. As my father went to bed that night, he paused to play with his grandson who was just an infant, the youngest grandchild at the time. That was the last thing he ever did, the last person to whom he ever spoke, his youngest grandchild. One life ending as another began, one generation fading as another rose. It was a symbol of the inevitable, irresistible movement toward the future. It was an icon of hope.
If Christmas is anything it is a season of hope. The three wise men followed the star, which is itself a symbol of hope, in the hope of finding the prophesied king. Jesus, the king who they sought, is described by Paul as our hope and the blessed hope. We are told that God, in his great mercy has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Christmas is hope, a hope to which we must hold fast.
As an Italian American, I remember that an essential attribute of my cultural heritage, both as an Italian and as an American, is one of hope. For centuries after the fall of Rome, Italy was the battlefield of Europe. The Italian people lived in hope of establishing a nation of their own. When that nation failed the people of the south, they immigrated to the Americas. These immigrants hoped to forge a new life in an unknown land. When those same immigrants faced oppression fueled by bigotry, they persevered. They hoped in the promise of the American dream. When they found their place in this new world, when they achieved acceptance, they passed on their values to their children, the next generation of Italian Americans, my generation. They hoped that their children would continue to prosper, and we have. We have also learned to hope.
This Christmas I have hope. I have hope that this pandemic abates, that the current trajectory of death and disease trends downward. I have hope that next year my loved ones and I will still be here, unharmed and well. I have hope that if I should pass that God will have mercy on my soul. I have hope that the divisions and hate that plague our society heal. I have hope in our collective tomorrow.