The occasional international festival or ancestral homeland celebration excepted, it is only during the current extended holiday season (Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanza) that even hints emerge of other folks doing different things, worshipping differently, eating differently and so forth.
Thus, the celebration by the Latino community of Northwest Georgia of yet another holiday that happens to fall into this time frame — the commemoration of Our Lady of Guadalupe — in a most visible manner provided Greater Romans with one of the few annual reminders regarding human diversity that they receive.
It was also good to see this growing portion of the community turn out in force — an estimated 1,000 marchers, many costumed, marching down Broad Street from St. Mary’s Catholic Church to The Forum for a bilingual mass. Its close-knit members need to become more visible, more engaged in the whole community — and the rest of the community with them.
However, the same can probably be said of many other distinct groups within what is known as the great American melting pot which, to be honest about it, tends to create a pretty lumpy civic sauce. Whites, blacks, Jews, Asians, Hindus and other ingredients hereabouts present also haven’t tended to melt into the emerging whole new recipe for society all that perfectly either.
Actually, in Greater Rome even “European” flavorings are hard to detect, which is not the case in much of the rest of this country although it does tend to be more rural, isolated, low-population regions that lack variety.
Darn little German, Italian, French, Polish and such touches and influences around here. Americanized restaurant menus don’t count — and one has to go to Helen to eat German. Not even all that much English or Irish influence though a bit more Scottish as they were pretty much the first to arrive in Cherokee territory. As for the Cherokee themselves, outside museum sites and occasional powwows few signs of their civilization remain although it is very much alive in Eastern Oklahoma.
IF THERE IS a dominant influence in these hills it is probably redneck although that’s more a reflection of a lifestyle preference that has been handed down than a heritage. It is largely a shared appetite for all things barbecued, alcoholic, loud, noisy and fun soaked in a hot sauce of “leave me alone.”
Even being Roman, which is both a heritage and tradition, is not what it used to be. One suspects that non-Romans are a clear majority nowadays as the gene pool is diluted with outlanders and newcomers. The writer has lived here for more than 25 years and is not a Roman. He can’t be.
As the late Dick McCullough, then the county manager, explained upon my arrival here, to be a Roman one has to have been “born in the shadow of the Clock Tower” — a phrase still heard upon occasion. Although he had lived here all this life, McCullough explained, he would never be accepted as a real Roman having been born in Alabama with his family moving here when he was about two months old.
One suspects that in individual families and some small outposts of larger heritages (such as Jewish) the traditions continue even while those observing them wonder about what, to them, are oddities in the majority’s way of doing things.
That’s certainly true in my personal case, which is weird even by outlander standards. My family traditions come from Germany, France, Italy and Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and “Bah! Humbug!” roots. Then all that got seasoned by growing up first in the shadow of the United Nations building and then in a part of the country so redneck it makes Chattooga County look sophisticated.
This season reminds me how much variety I have savored in the past and how it now requires a special effort to enjoy instead of just showing up unannounced as routine. For example, for Hanukkah, being able to satiate myself with the traditional latkes (the real potato pancakes) and for Christmas to savor true, dark fruitcake that has been wrapped in cheesecloth soaked in whiskey or brandy for a month. That stuff Georgians think so highly of is a pale imitation of the original, no doubt invented when the South was still dry. And then there is the more pastry-like fruitcake called stollen (German) that our Christmas is never without.
NOT TO MENTION everyday goodies (elsewhere) such as aioli, a sort of garlic mayonnaise (Provencal/French) that makes Tabasco taste like dishwater. Kim-chi (Korean and another family heritage element) is a cabbage fermented in garlic that does come close.
On the other hand, not sure I miss the goose that was long traditional on my mother’s Christmas table although the chestnut stuffing was to die for. Could even Scrooge (as in “A Christmas Carol”) find a fresh goose to buy in Rome? On the other hand, my mother’s New Year’s European tradition of herring salad is much less inviting to my palate than black-eyed peas.
Fortunately I have a bride who is one of those superior cooks/bakers who can and has done it all; she indulges me from time to time even while knowing that (the Italian heritage part) I could happily eat pasta for three meals a day.
All this I can understand simply from knowing about the absence of variety backed up by population numbers on the local scene. Some of the other stuff is just puzzling.
Why, for example, do so many Georgians put up their Christmas trees right after Thanksgiving? That is supposed to be reserved for right before the big day itself, no more than a week or two earlier. And why no Nativity scenes/sets as the focal point in every home?
How come Saint Nicholas is a stranger? He always came to my childhood home, and that of my own children, every Dec. 6 and left fruits, nuts, candies and a small toy as a reminder to behave well if one wanted the big goodies to arrive later. One of my sons is continuing this with his children … as it should be.
By the way, in some countries Santa doesn’t unload his stuff on Dec. 25 but waits until Jan. 6 — Epiphany, when the Wise Men (Three Kings) finally got there with gifts for the baby Jesus. (Actually, that date varies by denomination.) And the tree doesn’t come down until after that happens.
There are many such variations and those interested in learning more about them can find a great listing, by country, on an Australian website (www.santas.net/aroundtheworld.htm).
ALL THIS MUSING about traditions and cultural touchstones was triggered by Our Lady of Guadalupe coming into sight so prominently. It rang more memory bells. For some reason my mother, who was Jewish before converting to Catholicism when I was a teen, had a portrait of Our Lady above her bed. Never really had the curiosity to ask her why and now, of course, it is too late. She never was anywhere near Mexico or Latin America and Spanish was one of the few languages she didn’t speak. She also always wore a (Saint) Joan of Arc medallion around her neck; don’t fully understand that significance either.
By the way, for those (probably most hereabouts) who know everything regarding the Grinch but nothing about Our Lady, here’s what that is about:
On Dec. 9, 1531 a peasant, Juan Diego, walking toward nearby Mexico City, saw on the Hill of Tepeyac a vision of a girl of 15 or 16 surrounded by light. Speaking to him in Nahuatl, the native language, she asked a church be built at that site. Juan Diego believed her to be the Virgin Mary, told the local archbishop about it who instructed him to return to Tepeyac and ask the girl for a miraculous sign to prove who she was.
She told him to gather flowers from the top of hill even though it was December. The peasant found Castillian roses, not native to Mexico, there that the lady then arranged in his peasant’s cloak. When Juan Diego opened the cloak in front of the archbishop, the flowers fell out leaving behind, imprinted on the fabric, the image of what is now called Our Lady of Guadalupe and remains on display in the basilica of the church she asked be built. It is a major pilgrimage site and caused Pope John Paul II, in 1999, to proclaim the Virgin Mary as Patroness of all the Americas.
OK, believe it or not at your option, just as with the one-day supply of sacred olive oil that miraculously burned for eight days (Hanukkah) in the Temple after the Jews retook Jerusalem in 165 BC.
Belief in Rudolph, Santa and the Grinch are at your option as well although, frankly, Our Lady — along with my home’s Nativity set from my own birthplace in Provence — may be far more fitting to the meaning of the season than whatever we will find beneath our (mostly artificial) trees.
HOWEVER, ALL this column has actually been about is the richness that is missed by not having more human diversity in our midst.