Looking Deeply into Holiday Celebrations
My wife is from Puerto Rico, “La isla más bonita,” where they know a thing or two about celebrating the holidays. Christmas (La Navidad) is a big deal there, but the real action is on El Dia de los Reyes (Three King’s Day– the popular term for the Feast of the Epiphany). When my wife was growing up, the kids in P.R. received gifts in their stockings from Santa Claus on Christmas Day, but the lion’s share came from The Three Kings. On the eve of Three Kings Day, she and her brother put out not milk and cookies, but hay and water — for the camels that carried the three itinerant royals to Bethlehem, of course! This, thanks to the ever-replenishing well of parents’ pleasure in weaving fanciful tales to make the holidays magical for their children.
Part of the magic certainly comes from the virtually unlimited number of possible traditions in families of all kinds; the “improvised” sort, as well as the blended and the traditional. I think we all know intuitively that family as a concept transcends blood relationships. All groups of people that genuinely care about each other tend to develop strong familial bonds.
This weekend we enjoyed one of our traditions: our annual pilgrimage to the National Cathedral in DC for the Cathedral Choral Society’s Christmas Concert. One of the District’s premiere choral groups, CCS always sings with the Washington Symphonic Brass (including orchestral percussion) and a world-class organist. In some years, they have featured an equally skilled harpist. The real treat for us this year was the surprise appearance of Cantigas, DC’s own chamber choir specializing in the rich choral styles of Latin America, Spain and the Caribbean.
As this world-class (and 100% “authentic”) choral group processed into the magnificence of the candlelit cathedral, they sang a sweet Cancion de Navidad that just about everyone in Puerto Rico seems to know by heart, my wife and her family included. It was a slightly moist moment, a shared pang of pleasant nostalgia. We both remember hearing her Spanish-speaking grandmother as an octogenarian, singing that song with us on Christmas Eve with a hint of tears in her eyes. A beautiful memory.
So, one of our own improvised traditions became connected with both the folk and choral traditions of our shared Spanish heritage, and with family members no longer with us. The Episcopal cathedral was decorated for the season of Advent, eliciting pleasant memories from my own childhood. I recalled the fun my mother, sister and I had making and opening Advent calendars, the hushed sense of mystery and anticipation at the Midnight Mass. These things are what will always be at the heart of the holidays for me: re-establishing connections with people here and gone; celebrating deeply, creatively and meaningfully; and reaching out in kindness.
That, and a well-carved Roast Beast.
Images from: parentmap.com, www.washingtonchoralsociety.org, http://www.cantigas.org