Growing up, most of my Christmases were spent in one of two places. Either my family and I stayed home in New Jersey or we drove the 75 miles to have Christmas with my extended family in Long Island. Typically such days would begin at dawn when we would open our own Christmas presents. Then we piled into the car and hopped onto the Garden State Parkway, listening to Christmas music the whole way. Our first stop would typically be at my Aunt Janice and Uncle Joe’s place in Kings Park. I really looked forward to this time because I would get to see my cousins and we could all play with our new toys together. Later in the day we would all drive over to my grandfather’s house in Northport for a massive Christmas dinner party. My grandfather’s house was actually a farmhouse that was built in the 1800’s. It had low ceilings with big wooden beams, lots of books on the shelves and smelled like wood fire. It was my favorite place in the world when I was a kid.
As I grew up and went to college, we had few of these magical Christmases. I didn’t have Christmas on my own until 2005, the first year I lived in New York City. I spent Christmas that year with my girlfriend at the time in our apartment on the Upper West Side. Because my girlfriend was from Hungary, I learned a few traditions from her culture. We had blood sausage for dinner with mashed potatoes and peppers stuffed with sauerkraut. She also had a small tin pyramid in the shape of a Christmas tree that would spin with the heat of these four small candles.
In the summer of 2007 I moved to Istanbul, Turkey to take a position teaching English. In December of that year my fiancée, Carrie moved to Turkey to teach with me. For Christmas we decided to travel by rail to Romania to enjoy the holiday in the mountains. We took the Bosphorus Express, which was an extremely slow train that crawled its way through Bulgaria into Wallachia in southern Romania. The countryside out our windows was snow covered, however and we had our own compartment, which made the whole journey some how magical. After a few frigid days in Bucharest, we took another train north into Transylvania. We spent Christmas Eve and Christmas in the Carpathian town of Sinaia. On Christmas day, 2007, we took two gondolas up to an altitude of about 9,000 feet. Unfortunately the slopes were icy and we didn’t get much skiing done. However, we did enjoy our lunch: roasted pork tenderloin, polenta and potatoes served outdoors on a wooden slab and with a mountain view.
In 2008 things were very different. The economy had crashed but we were actually doing fine. Carrie and I had gotten married in New Jersey that summer and we came back to Istanbul to a mountain of lucrative teaching work. After two months of nearly non-stop teaching we decided to reward ourselves with the most lavish vacation we had ever undertaken. I was able to find a cheap flight from Istanbul to Milan. From there we trained through the north of Italy to Venice. We stayed in a 4 Star hotel right near St. Mark’s. The price was nearly half off because I think in 2008 most people had other priorities. On of the highlights of our trip were attending Midnight Mass at St. Mark’s basilica. The service was given in five different languages! When we stepped out into the square at midnight, the bells of the Campanile were ringing. On Christmas day we took a vaporetto out to Lido Island and spent the afternoon collecting seashells on the shore of the Adriatic. We then had dinner at a small bistro in San Paolo before attending a violin performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at a church in San Marco. It was a fantastic experience. During that trip we also bought our first Christmas ornament together-a red and green pepper made of Venetian glass.
Images: My wife lighting candles on Christmas Eve in Venice. By Rich Carriero