My grandmother was born 90 years ago in a tenement house on 119th Street. “Not quite a manger,” she says, “but close.” Back then, December in New York used to chime like a monthlong ritual, as a time when aromas, and all the neighborhood’s children, used to meet on the streets in knots. I’ve listened to my grandmother’s stories of this time and place so often that it exists, dog-eared, in my memory; as if, through listening to her stories alone, I, too, have inhabited this small Italian corner of Old New York; as if I, too, have breathed its sweet, smoky air carrying chestnuts, incense from nearby churches, and oil, oil, oil from all the local families’ frying.
“I just wish you could have seen it on Christmas Eve,” said my grandmother back in August. We were sitting at her kitchen table, just the two of us, holding hands and time traveling. “It was magical. We did all the seven fishes back then; we did everything.”
This, I knew, was my opening.
So why, I asked, couldn’t we try to re-create it together? My husband and I had been thinking; and, yes, all seven fishes was too much for anyone alone to handle—much less a 90-year-old, however vibrant and spunky—but with the three of us, it would only work out to 2.3 fishes per person. And, no matter what, it would be better than eating out, as usual, at a restaurant. “Please,” I said finally, “can’t we at least try co-hosting?”
My grandmother smiled and squeezed my hand. “I think I’m finally ready.”
And so now, in a few, short weeks, my grandmother and I will co-host our first Christmas Eve. And no matter how much we may bicker, or how much she may criticize my cooking, I know the experience will be the greatest gift she could have given me. Because here is perhaps the only thing I know with certainty: More than anything else, we are the hands we hold and the batons we choose to carry.
If I hadn’t already been sure of this, the stories we’ve collected for you in this issue—our most loving, festive edition of the year—would have removed any lingering doubt. In the coming pages, you will meet a woman who honors her Jewish heritage by baking rugelach, using her own grandmother’s beloved recipe; you will celebrate Christmas with a family of Coptic Christians who keep each other and their Egyptian customs close as they worship and feast and fast; you will cook arroz con dulce alongside a writer who has returned home to Puerto Rico, following the diaspora that brought his grandparents to New York, with culinary traditions so colossal they never could have fit in his carry-on. And, because batons are items we carry forward, you will learn about the people and organizations working to ensure the future of local food, as we near the point of no return for our planet.
In all of these stories—and even in this one, my own—so many batons are changing hands, but the staffs themselves are good and sturdy. Now it’s our turn to carry them, to take them further or to an entirely different place, to honor everyone who held them before us and maybe, if we’re lucky, finally finish the race. What a beautiful responsibility. What abundant cause to celebrate.
Wishing you and yours so much joy and wonder,