With all great traditions comes a little chaos.
Three 9-foot-long tables stretched half the length of Penn Brewery tavern; 2-year-old Elena Simonetti clapped her hands and swayed to the Bavarian Oompah band as her sister, Lucia, 5, dragged her mother, Kristin, and grandmother, Annette Simmons, to dance in front of the band.
Gianni Samuel, 8, beamed as his father, James, took Gianni’s hand and led him to join, for the first time, "the guys" — uncles Nick, Glenn, Michael and Phil — at the back of the old brew house, where the older men tested the freshly tapped "reserve" with brew master Nick Rosich.
In all, 20 members of my family celebrated the Feast of St. Nicholas in the old German brewery on the edge of Pittsburgh’s Deutschtown. It is a tradition we’ve kept since the brewery opened in the late 1980s — and, in typical Zito fashion, we were loud, ate too much, laughed too hard and acted as though we hadn’t seen each other for years.
The truth is, we had seen each other four days earlier while celebrating another tradition — going to see Santa Claus together, followed by dinner in a local Italian restaurant.
Three days before that, we’d gathered around my parents’ dinner table for Thanksgiving.
Every Sunday, 52 weeks of the year, my family carries on the tradition of dining together, pretty much no matter what.
We celebrate everyone’s birthday with a big family party, travel 432 miles north to Ontario to vacation together (a tradition started by my grandfather in 1949 that has never been broken), not to mention gathering for communions, weddings and baptisms.
I once asked my father if, when he met Mom while they were juniors in Perry High School in 1952, he imagined this big family — which is always loud, always laughing, always into each other’s business — would result from their marriage.
"I could have only hoped that this is what would happen," he said, pausing to look at all of us before choking up a little and smiling.
Ron Zito and Joan Peiffer could not have come from more different backgrounds.
He was the son of Italian immigrants with heavy accents, little education, a boisterous temperament and a tendency for drama.
She was the daughter of professionals. Her father was a dedicated newsman, her mother a nurse. They were quiet, reserved and devout Lutherans, and both could trace their family lineages in this country to 100 years before the American Revolution.
Yet, somehow, they took traditions from both families — a very American practice — and instilled in my sisters and me the importance of carrying on relics from our past, as well as creating new ones to suit our own families.
Everything they did always centered on making the family stronger.
For as long as I can remember, Sunday was set aside as family day. No friends were allowed over when we were kids, which was something that grew annoying in our teenage years. Yet, like most things in life, we realized the value in that practice as we had our own children.
As a kid, I was taught that Pittsburgh was the country’s melting pot because of the immigrants who settled here from across Europe. That was never more evident than at Christmas, when different ethnic neighborhoods dressed their little main-street businesses with decorations from "the old country."
My Scots-Irish side celebrated St. Nicholas Eve on Dec. 6; we placed our shoes outside the front door and awoke to them filled with chocolate coins. My Italian side ate seven different fish on Christmas Eve for good luck and celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany with mounds of fresh, doughy treats (and, of course, Mass).
Traditions strengthen family bonds. And as Penn Brewery again hosted four generations of Zitos — stretching from my parents to my daughter, Shannon, and her husband, Mike, who are awaiting the arrival of my first grandchild — we all sat at the same place where, as toddlers, Shannon and her brother, Glenn, had danced to the Oompah band 26 years earlier.
I hope 20 years from now they will sit with their children in the same place, with the same gusto in their eating, laughing, dancing and conversation.
After all, it’s tradition.
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media([email protected]).