“Who is this, mommy?”
We are on our third round of this particular line of questioning. My three year old looks at me earnestly, eagerly, wanting to make sure he gets it right. “That is baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.” I tell him. Now, he turns back towards the table that holds our Nativity sets (yes, sets) and begins again, this time able to answer his own questions.
He starts with the nativity set that my husband’s mother gave us when we were first married. It is a traditional nativity, done by an American artist. He points out the key players and then lingers on the Wise Men. He is obsessed with the Wise Men. I wonder at this connection, at how one of the Magi, Balthasar, the one who brought frankincense, was Ethiopian, like my boy.
Next, he moves to the simple glass artwork featuring the Wise Men that my parents brought to us from a recent visit to Puerto Rico. In our Puerto Rican tradition, it was the Three Kings who really brought the party. On Christmas day, you reverently celebrate the birth of Jesus. On Three Kings’ Day, you celebrate with gifts. “These are the Wise Men,” he says. Now, he moves over to a hand-carved wooden nativity from Africa. It features Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. He holds it in his hand. As I look over this display, I am struck by the traditions, the history that make up our family story.
Like many families, we have multiple traditions to weave together when it comes time to celebrate the season. My husband’s family has several celebrations, spanning Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and including a cold Christmas Eve meal, derived decades ago because it was the simplest thing to do when so much needed to be done for Christmas Day, that I just love. My family celebrates until Three King’s Day, January 6th. Christmas in Ethiopia, which uses the Julian calendar, falls on January 7th. In between Christmas and, well, Christmas, we celebrate our adoption day and New Year’s. It is an incredibly festive time for us with much to celebrate, but with that joy, though, came some pressure—manufactured only by me—to try and do it all right.
For the first couple of years that our son was home, I worried about the right measure of everything. Do we have enough Ethiopia in our Christmas? Enough Puerto Rico? Are we getting this right or wrong? But what I have come to understand is that my worry distracted me from the joy of the season and that nothing is absolute. We can always amend our plans, add to them, or take away. What matters most of all during this season is that we enjoy what each of the three of us brings to our family’s table, that we honor it, and that we bask in the magic that we came together.
FAMILY MAGIC AND MERRIMENT
So, finally, now in our third year together as a family of three, it feels as if it is not the measure of each tradition that matters but the mirth. We try every year to deliberately incorporate all of our cultures into the holiday. We have decorations from Africa, Puerto Rico, and stateside. We read books that reflect each culture at the holidays. We listen to diverse music. We sing carols and bake sugar cookies and look at lights. We donate food and toys.
Soon Christmas Eve will dawn, and we will eat tamales and chicken salad with my husband’s born and bred Texas clan. We will spend time with my family, eating pernil, arroz con gandules, and pastelitos, and listening to Celia Cruz and Wilfrido Vargas. We will take one day to be together, just the three of us, to honor the sacredness of our union as a family. We will celebrate with Ethiopian friends who hail from the same area as our son. We will gather with other families who have children from Ethiopia. We will celebrate through January 7, honoring the sacred place Ethiopia has in our hearts.
And when it is all done, as we turn our home over to the new year, the nativity sets wrapped in paper until next year, we will smile at every memory made this year, knowing that it was just enough and that next year will bring more.