In a few hours the family will gather.
I'm betting, however, you probably don't quite understand. The FAMILY will gather - as in alla famiglia. You see, almost 35 years ago I married Italian, and with that marriage came a very large extended family. In fact, with the exception of one uncle, until recently I was the only non-Italian. Yet somehow I am the only one who is actually likely to say Buon Natale.
My wife's father was born in Italy and immigrated to the US as a young teenager. My mother-in-law was born here, but both of her parents were Italian immigrants. For most of the 20th century, what is known as East Utica - where my wife was born and raised - was essentially a Little Italy. It's still heavily Italian but now also has lots of Bosnians, Vietnamese, and other ethnic groups. Utica's history has always been a story of immigration - currently mostly refugees.
But back to Italy. My wife's mother had four sisters and a brother. All married and then begat six cousins, one brother and one sister for my wife. All of those also married. The next generation numbers at 21 plus spouses, and to date they have had 15 children (and a few spouses). There are at least six (I'm starting to lose track) in the youngest generation, but surely others are on the way.
Big family. Big traditions. At the time I attended my first Christmas Eve gathering, there would have been about 50 for dinner. It wasn't the Feast of Seven Fishes, but there were a couple of varieties of seafood plus meats and soup and a couple of pastas and salad and red wine and bread and fruit and nuts and sufficient cookies, if laid side by side, to reach all the way back to Italy. And coffee, of course - black (meaning espresso) or the other kind.
After dinner most of the males would get involved in poker or some other activity. At about the same time the gift exchange would begin, a very systematic gift exchange - not in terms of who gave to whom but in terms of the order of opening. The youngest child would open whatever was given first. Then the next youngest would have a turn. Males would be dragged in for their turn. This would continue to unfold until it was the turn of the eldest member of the family, my mother-in-law.
Today things have changed. All of that first generation are gone. In the second generation, three have died, some have moved to Florida, and the feast has migrated to our home. Nevertheless, dinner will unfold for almost 30 on Christmas Eve from four generations. Ora sono anche la mia famiglia.
The meal itself will be similar; only the cooks have changed. Males and females are now fully integrated in terms of cooking, seating, clean-up, gifts, and games - probably a generational thing. Presents will be opened - beginning with the youngest. There will probably be poker and perhaps some television. The torch has been successfully passed, and the traditions live on.
Questa sera la famiglia si riunirà. Tonight the family will gather, and among all of the delicious foods and the many gifts, mostly you will find love.
And on Christmas Eve of 2012, this will be my gift to me - to wish you similar peace and hope and love. Happy Christmas. Buon Natale.