A Holiday Meal with Meaning

In the face of tragedy, the foods and traditions of Christmas brought one family closer together than ever

When my husband and I got married in April 2003, we agreed that we would spend our first Christmas together with my family in Denver. But a few months later, Dave’s eldest brother, Pat, died suddenly at 42, leaving behind his wife and 4-year-old twins.

The day after the funeral, I called my mother and told her I wouldn’t be coming home for Christmas.

My new family needed us that year. Or at least they needed Dave. I was anxious about fitting in during my first Christmas with them. Would they see me—even subconsciously—as an intruder during this grief-saturated, family-focused time?

They were already a world apart from me—literally. Dave’s parents were born in a way-off-the-beaten-path village in southern Italy. When he was 26, Dave’s father surveyed the single women in town and chose a lovely 16-year-old to be his wife. A week later they were married, and he whisked her off to Montreal to try to make a better life. Even after so many years in Canada, the family still speaks Italian when they’re together.

When we arrived in Montreal, a few days before Christmas, Dave’s mother, Iolanda, was already cooking. A large photograph of Pat faced the kitchen table so he could be with us, reminding everyone that while the family was together, we weren’t whole.

When it came time to eat the big meal on Christmas Day, Dave warned me to pace myself. To start, Iolanda placed colorful platters of antipasti on the table: Italian cold cuts, olives, roasted peppers, marinated cheese and hearts of palm. We chatted with Dave’s cousins before sitting down to have the most delicious lasagna I’ve ever eaten—layer upon layer of delicate, homemade pasta slicked with a tangy tomato-and-meat sauce. Then came succulent roast turkey, tender asparagus and a refreshing green salad.

Throughout the meal, we talked and laughed; people stretched, toasted and told stories about Pat. The seven-hour feast took my breath away, both for the spirit of the occasion and for the food. Instead of retreating into their grief, my new family chose to celebrate Christmas with warmth and abundance.

But the meal wasn’t over. Next came the fruit course: pomegranate seeds, clementines and figs stuffed with roasted almonds, plus fried dough with honey. That should have been more than enough, but how could I turn down silky tiramisu afterward? And since this was an Italian meal, panettone, a traditional holiday cake, was also in order, and finally, savory roasted chestnuts.

After the chestnuts I sat next to Iolanda and thanked her for the wonderful meal. She smiled and pulled me close for a hug.

With that embrace I realized that Dave’s family needed as much strength as they could muster that year. And as I held her close, I said a silent word of thanks, grateful that I was now part of this warm, welcoming family, in times of both sorrow and celebration.


Want to try a few recipes from the author's mother-in-law?

Get the recipe for Tiramisu

Get the recipe for Parsley-Garlic Roasted Salmon

Get the recipe for Almond-Stuffed Figs


Jenna Helwig, founder of Rosaberry, is a personal chef and culinary instructor.


What's your most cherished family holiday memory? Chime in below!

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