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Christmas Eve traditions soothe, strengthen family

My husband's family are farmers. Twice a day, no matter what's going on outside or inside, in their homes or in their hearts, they milk cows. If they want to do something special, like have a party, they have to wait until milking is done. All family life for them is arranged around the schedule in the barn.

We always gather on Christmas Eve, about 30 of us now, after milking. The farm is more than 80 years old and my father-in-law came to live there when he was 13. He married and raised three sons there and thousands of cows and crops. But he enjoyed nothing more than Christmas Eve, when we would all come to the farm after milking.

My mother-in-law was born in Italy. Until five years ago, when she died, she made a traditional Christmas Eve dinner. While the men milked in the barn, she fried the fish, stirred and simmered the sauce and stretched the homemade strands of pasta to go into the boiling water.

After milking, we ate and talked and laughed and opened presents in an uncontrollable frenzy, no matter how we tried to establish order. Then we played cards.

We played old Italian games like Gnoz, but our favorite was a game even the kids could play, King of Diamonds. All of us would crowd around a table, feed the pot and wait while the dealer dealt one card each, face up. When the King of Diamonds came up, that lucky person won the pot. The best times were when a kid won. He or she always went crazy with joy.

Later, the women went to midnight Mass and the kids went home to listen for sleigh bells. But often the men played well into the night -- in the old days, sometimes until it was time to milk again.

This year will be different. My father-in-law, Alfonso Zuccari, died in August, at 92 years of age.

It isn't that we haven't had to adjust our celebrations before. After my mother-in-law died, we younger women started sharing the cooking and preparation and my brother-in-law started making sausage for Christmas Eve. We all met -- after milking -- at the farmhouse and tried to make things as normal as possible. It worked.

Ten years ago, we all lost a child. I say it that way even though Andy was born to my husband and me. In the Zuccari family, our children belong to all of us. He was killed by a drunk driver when he was only 14, on a beautiful summer day.

That Christmas Eve, after milking, we went through the motions for the sake of the other children, in memory of Andy and for all the reasons we do those things when tragedy happens -- so we could hold onto each other and inch toward being normal again. Eventually, that also worked.

Now we're facing a dilemma. We don't have the farmhouse anymore. Happily, it's being renovated for a nephew and his bride, but that affects the holiday we have come to regard as not only fun and festive but necessary to the normalcy and fabric of our family.

So we're going to have Christmas Eve at my house. We're going to share the cooking and try to keep order while the little kids rip wrapping paper to shreds trying to get at what's inside. We're going to play cards and someone, I hope it's a kid, will win the King of Diamonds pot.

We're going to have Dad and Ma and Andy in our hearts and minds every minute. And we're going to hold onto each other emotionally and carry on because we love each other and it's important for us to do it this way. I think it will work. One thing I know for sure. It will all start after milking.

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