Tree trimming is the most wonderful tradition I’ve ever known. It’s origins date back to the late 60’s when our family of five was just beginning (definitely before my time). As long as I can remember we always decorated the Christmas tree together as a family. In those early days it was a top of the line (wink), artificial tree that looked as close to the real thing as one found back then. The branches screwed into the fake tree trunk in graduated size until the triangle of bluish green was complete. It must have been sparse the first few years, because today we still use all of the exact same ornaments that we did then, but we’ve added so many more that have been collected over the past 5 decades. When I was a kid tree trimming was a practice as simple and common as eating dinner together each night. It was great fun and highly anticipated, but it enjoyed no more fanfare than that. It could easily have become one of those family activities that we took for granted each year. It could have faded away with time and kids and new responsibilities and priorities.
Everything changed one night in the early 90’s when my cousin Silvio stopped by for an impromptu visit, just as we were decorating the tree together as a family, like we did every year. That fortuitous visit turned out to be the beginning of tree trimming as we know it today. We had so much fun that night and we vowed to repeat it the next year. By then Silvio also invited his 3 brothers and it became an annual party. The tradition took root and continues today. I owe the momentum that has kept it alive to my cousin, Silvio.
I’m relieved to tell you that eventually my brothers and I put an end to the “fake fir”and started yet another tradition of getting a real tree! Dad and I would head to the same neighborhood spot and scour the lot for the perfect combination of height, fullness and symmetry. The pressure was on to procure the perfect tree because if you picked a dud, you’d hear about it for at least the whole next year. I still get grief for the “rugged” tree I selected one fateful year. As a result, on tree trimming day I would thoroughly inspect every tree even in the most bitter cold, until I found the perfect one. Oddly, any time the weather was mild and it was a beautiful sunny day, I would find the perfect tree immediately. It would be the first one I saw and my dad would stand there, incredulous rolling his eyes and shaking his head. It never fails to work this way even to this day, a fact my dad used to remind me of regularly. In later years when my dad wasn’t up to it, his role transfered to my brother Anthony and now Mike is part of the fun too. The 3 of us go tree shopping every year!
With tree selection behind us there is only one thing left to think about and that of course is food. The homemade pizza that my mom used to make for this occasion is now just a starter that we eat while we’re waiting to eat. There’s a whole menu involved including favorite dishes like my mom’s pepper salad with black olives and extra anchovies and I mean extra anchovies. It was imperative to add more to this dish after the whole anchovy shortage of 2015, where my cousin Lou was both appalled by the shortage and accused of causing it. He now brings his own stash just in case. There is something for everyone at this feast. My mom makes sure of it. From pork roast to meatballs to the much revered chicken cutlets, you can’t go hungry. If meat is not your thing there’s Marina’s roasted peppers (among her many contributions), broccoli both Italian and American (yes that’s a thing), mushrooms and of course a salad. You’ll always find cheeses, salumi and olives and there’s even a ham in case you’re a picky eater. It’s a whole production…a whole wonderful, happy, loving production and we haven’t even gotten to dessert!
The confection that steals the show every year is Elizabeth’s bite-sized fudge. Wrapped in layers and layers of plastic wrap, seemingly to torture me, it beckons to be sampled before the food ever hits the table and it never ever disappoints. Along with the fudge there are assorted cookies, homemade crostata and panettone, a traditional Italian sweet bread made with raisins and candied citrus. I would never eat it based on that description, but it is actually delicious. If your mouth is watering and you’re wondering how to recreate these dishes for yourself, I promise you that I’m working on the recipes. It’s no easy task to get measurements and instruction from my mom, but Mike and I are working on it.
As we eat we reminisce about years gone by. Our same conversations are recycled year after year. They are filled with the same movie quotes and concert memories, travel stories and food fixations and of course stories of the old days. We imitate our aunts and uncles and laugh at family jokes. There’s comfort in the repetition. We speak with pride about the family name, Michael D’Aulerio and count how many of them are in the room. How many of them does it take to put the lights on the tree, we would ask jokingly without fail every year. These are the silly stories and unique memories that bind us together as a family.
As I take it all in, I remember when my cousin Silvio, who essentially started this tradition, happily brought his new wife Elizabeth to share this custom with all of us for the first time. Silvio and Elizabeth have always been my inspiration couple and so I love that they count tree trimming as their favorite event of the year. It marks the start of the holiday season for them. I know that everyone enjoys this day and looks forward to it, but for me, it’s more than just a fun party. It’s the essence of love and family and food and everything I grew up knowing. It’s the priority I was taught from a young age. It means everything to me and I’ve become quite protective of it. It’s something I work hard to preserve every year, missing other parties and putting everything else aside to be here for it.
Like many other days and events this year, tree trimming was as difficult as it was joyous. I missed my dad throughout all of it. I missed the family members that couldn’t be there that day for one reason or another and I spent brief moments going back in time, recalling simpler days when everyone was together. As those moments passed and my mind returned to present day, I saw my family coming together, sharing stories, remembering my dad and raising a glass to him. The day is not sad because we don’t have him here with us; it’s happy because we have his memory. We can’t always be in the same room at the same time, but as a family we’re together all the time, no mater what and that’s the real beauty of tree trimming!
Be sure to try out the green pepper salad recipe here. It’s easy make and a real crowd pleaser!
For more holiday musings check out Post Thanksgiving: Leftovers and Gratitude – get caught up!