I originally wrote this for my husband to get to know my family, but I decided to share it with family and the internet at large because I think we have an entertaining way of celebrating Christmas. It took a ton of reworking, but here it is. Hope all who read it like it.
Christmas in an Italian family is like no other. It is all about family, fighting, laughing, loving, and eating. Most of those I loved have passed away, but the memories of this time cannot leave me. They are burned into me like an imprint.
When I was younger, the festivities would always start a little bit before Christmas Eve. Mama would bake a fresh batch of bread for the dinner (only on a Friday, naturally), and then use the bread dough to make a delightful treat called “fritz”. Basically, it was fried bread dough with sugar sprinkled on top. She would also make a cookie from the dough with some sort of disgusting chocolate in the middle. It was a Christmas tradition, but I could not stand the things.
There was also the wait for the out of towners to come in. We’d all congregate at Grams’s house and wait for Aunt Margie and Aunt Janie to finally arrive from Detroit and Harrisburg, respectively. Sometimes the kids would act as look outs, because that meant there would be new people to play with, new things to do, new stuff to examine. When they got there, we’d swarm down to their van and hugs would be given all around. I’d marvel at the change in the faces of my cousins, their aging reflecting what I could not see in my own. We’d carry the boxes of presents upstairs and put them under the tree.
Mama’s house was not a very big place, but it did manage to hold all of us. She never used the upstairs kitchen, living room, or dining room, so all activities took place in the basement. Coming in out of the cold, you could smell the cooking sauce and feel the warmth of bodies and kitchen heat. You could hear them all talking, the words echoing off the linoleum. Down the rickety steps and to the right was the game room proper. There would be a long table in the middle of the room with all of the furniture pushed back to the sides. At the left hand end was a bar with exotic looking bottles behind it, but never in my life had I seen them used. At the right hand side was a small television, and the seat that was always Uncle Bill’s seat at the foot of the table. I don’t know why he always insisted on sitting there, but he did.
If you went left at the bottom of the stairs and left again, you’d end up in the small kitchen. Mama would be working away in the far left corner, wreathed in mist from boiling pots and barking at anyone who stepped too close to the cooking area. Behind her was a table that my aunts were allowed to use to make the unimportant stuff – salad, glasses of ice, carrot sticks, grated cheese. Everything else was Mama’s domain, and you only came near if she allowed you to.
An Italian dinner almost always consists of some form of pasta. Mama’s favorite was plain spaghetti, but sometimes she’d make ziti, elbows, gnocchi, or some triangular thing that I never got the name of. Always for special occasions, it would be spaghetti that she
would make fresh that day. I remember coming in and looking at these long bands of pale, thin dough lying on the table. Sometimes, she’d let me turn the crank on the little machine that parsed the band into long strains of noodle. It was wonderfully hard work, and if you weren’t doing it to her satisfaction, she’d yell at you and sometimes replace you. The meatballs were homemade (but if you didn’t roll them right, she’d yell at you) as was the sauce – all made from scratch.
However, there were no meatballs at the Christmas Eve dinner. Christmas Eve dinner was strictly a no meat zone in an Italian household. Mama never ate meat on Fridays even when she was old enough to be allowed to. It was a tradition she was very strict about. She’d make perch, shrimp, cooked cabbage, spaghet’d’olio (which is to say noodles with oil instead of sauce), and spaghetti with tuna and tomato sauce. Back in her more exotic days, when her husband was still alive, she would make eel, squid, and serve wine that they had pressed in the garage. I’ve heard so many stories about these things, but sadly they were before my time.
The game room was alive with people. The men would be sitting around the table, watching football and talking. Being a bit of a feminist and an idealist, it rankled me that they got to sit there and talk while I had to set the table. Mind, I did not object to setting the table, per se, but the inequality of it all. My brother did not have to do it. The only reason they made me was because of my sex. It still ticks me off, but they’re old fashioned people. So, I’d hang out in the kitchen and only do what I was specifically told to do – my own quiet act of defiance. They would not let me watch football, but damn if I was going to be compliant.
The seating at the long table was hierarchical. Mama would always sit at the head of the table with Grams to her right. Usually the youngest child at the time would sit to Mama’s left, then that child’s family following along that side of the table. For the most part, you always wanted to be with the fun aunts. You didn’t want to sit too close to Mama because then she’d alternate between telling you to eat more and that you were eating too much. I always enjoyed sitting closer to my cousins and the general hijinx that came with them. Mario would often sit across from me and tell me about the fantastical clubs he frequented in Michigan or all the cool songs that were on the radio there. I remember one time I watched MTV endlessly so that I would know the songs he talked about, and thereby look cool. Sadly, my research didn’t help out because he had already moved on to being interested in pursuing colleges.
It was fun to sit near Aunt Janie or Aunt Maria, too. Usually the end of the table where my Uncle Bill sat would be the best. He loves to swear, and so he’d usually make fun of Mama with a muttered string of curses that had all of us chortling into our dishes. Then he’d do a dead on impression of her to her face. She’d look at him sternly at first, but then smile and say, “Ima gonna git a you,” and pinch his cheek. That was Mama. If you confused her, she mildly threatened you and walked away. My aunts, too, were always good for a story or some comment that would have the rest of us laughing.
There would be rivalry between the opposite sides of the table, too. Mama had these shallow Corning wear baking dishes that she filled with food. Since the table was so long, she’d put equal portions in two separate dishes and set them at opposite ends. Well, if something was particularly good or particularly well liked by one end of the table, those dishes could be depleted rather quickly. It was never the spaghetti, mind you, because we always had enough of that. It was usually the breaded shrimp that tasted so good! One side of the table would ask for some, and the other side would call them pigs and not let
them have any. If they ate it all, that was there fault. Then there would be an accusation that one person had taken too many and that was why there was none left. The innocent person wanting more had not had their fair share. This would ensue for quite a while until Mama or Grams broke it up by forcing the better stocked side to share.
And so we’d pass the night away, laughing and eating, making fun of Mama, catching up on old times, and just being together. I used to love being with my cousins, because I have a lot of them. Usually I only had my brother to play with, and, quite frankly, I was bored with him. But, when we all got together, there were more possibilities. Tag could be played and actually be exciting. You could play baseball or spin around the support pole in the middle of the basement until you fell over or threw up. When Mario could drive, that was the height of pleasure for me, and sometimes we’d just go cruisin’ and leave all the babies behind.
After dinner was a comfortable and relaxed time. Most of the adults would sit around the table gossiping, chatting, or just telling stories. I remember that I started a philosophical debate over the movie Scent of a Woman and the implications of honor. I had to defend honor and honesty myself against these very strong personalities, God help me. As I grew older, I grew to like these chats far more than the playing. I liked listening to the stories they told, the exchange of ideas, the bold and musical laughter that would often erupt from them. There was always love in that room, even if there was sometimes fighting. I think there will always be a certain tension amongst siblings, but there is always love.
Of course, being good Catholics for the most part, midnight mass topped all. I used to love going to midnight mass because it was the one night a year that I was allowed to stay up to that gloriously sinful time of 1AM. I loved staying up late even then, and so I always begged and begged to be allowed to go. We would all bundle into cars and huddle together against the wind and the ice. It was nice to be wrapped up against these big and loving people. It was fun to be near them, fun to hear their laughter, and there are times now that I miss so much the camaraderie of what once was my family. All of that seemed to fade when Grams died and then my mom died and them Mama a few years after that. We try every year, yes, but we never quite get it right.
The church we went to was called St. Philomena. St. Phil’s really was a beautiful church and never more beautiful than on Christmas Eve. It was almost completely dark and lit entirely by candle light. Everyone’s skin glowed faintly and we all shivered there in that darkness, listening to the beautiful strains of Christmas hymns. I very rarely fell asleep on this most important of nights, so was usually awake for the very last song “Joy to the World”. I, however, changed the lyrics to: “Joy to the world/ the priest has shut up/ and now, we can finally, go home!”
And then it was off to home and to sleep, the dead, snow covered world passing by in a blur of expectation as I sat with my dozing brother in the backseat and ducked my nose inside my coat. I dreamed of Santa flying through the sky, of Rudolph and his red nose, of the mountain of toys and goodies I would have to play with on the next day. All those gifts, all that new, wonderful, tactile stuff and all at one time. It was enough to give the kid of middle class parents a bit of a heart attack.
But, you know, I did endure.
Christmas morning at my house proper was really not much of a big deal. We all celebrated Christmas together, so all of the presents were delivered by Santa to my Grams’s house. My mom’s reasoning was that we didn’t have a chimney and since there were so many presents, it was impossible for them to be delivered to us directly. Well, I fell for it, but I’m glad I did.
That being said, Bill and I were always up when the first cracks of sunlight managed to get into our rooms. We’d sit up like a shot and usually meet in the hallway. Then it would be a mad tear down the hall to jump up and down on my mom’s bed, and with a roar, they’d shoo us out of the room. We’d sit in the living room then, contemplating the booty we’d collect later that day. The time could not come soon enough, and when we lived very far from Grams’s house, the drive was endless. Children all over the world were tearing into their gifts, scrounging around for batteries, and descending into the world of innocent play – and I had to wait until 10!
My family was a family of tradition. Every year, it was the same thing. My uncles would set up a 7 foot real tree in the middle of Grams’s small living room. It was always put on a massive green wooden platform to lift it about four inches off the ground and act as a stage for the rest of the stuff. Behind it was a large fireplace with a generous hearth, but usually that was covered over with a canvas that depicted Bethlehem with the Star soaring over the city. Sometimes when my uncles were feeling adventurous, they’d actually work a Christmas light into the painting so that the star would blink off and on.
The true majesty of the decorating, though, was in the manger scene. She had a very old manger that looked as if someone threw it together out of old twigs. It was rustic looking and real feeling. The entire Holy family would be inside, along with some livestock, but Baby Jesus would not be put in until Christmas Morning. My Aunt Margie told me that Santa brought him, and in my child mind, that made perfect sense. All along the platform were arranged probably eighty statues of villagers coming to see Jesus. These little marchers extended all the way back to the hearth and came up and wrapped around the tree. They were not exquisite statues, but they had a chipped plain character, a dear quality that said they had seen many Christmases. I loved the intricacy and the sheer number of them. I liked the old, musty smell of them and the pool canisters that held the relics most of the year. I liked that so much care and time went into celebrating the joy of family year after year.
There were outdoor decorations, too, usually put up by my Uncle Bill. He’d climb out on the roof and try to position a plastic Santa and reindeer. He’d always end up swearing about it when they would inevitably get blown off the roof, and he’d tell us all the obscene things he felt like doing to Santa right at that moment. Eventually, he refused to do it anymore, but he’d still have to string the lights along the porch and that would cause enough swearing in itself to be entertaining.
We usually arrived at Grams’s house well before time. It seemed to take forever to get up the stairs and into the living room. Already the cousins who had the privilege of sleeping there were squatting in front of the tree salivating. Bill and I joined along side of them.
You have to realize that in a family so large, the present pile can be quite extraordinary. Back when everyone used to buy presents for everyone, it was a sight that never failed to take my breath. There were mounds and mounds of brightly wrapped boxes, some red and green, some with cartoon characters, some even – gasp! – sporting my name on the handwritten tabs. I felt like Scrooge McDuck, ready to dive into my gold mine of presents, all arrayed around this blinking, sparkling tree, and the marching peasants of
Of course, the parents held us all back. Gift opening would not start until everyone was there, and they just did not care that it was five minutes after ten and I’d been up since six waiting for that fateful hour. My Uncle Pat was usually the one late coming in, so we’d alternate between looking out the window and carefully prowling the present mountain.
But once it started getting to near riot pitch with the kids, the parents would allow us to look through our stockings. Now, our stockings were not actually stockings. For one thing, there were too many of us to hang them, and for another, the things inside were
usually so large that no stocking could hold them. Instead, they were brown paper shopping bags with stockings drawn on them and our name across the top. They were arranged in a semicircle in the adjoining dining room, and there was one for everyone.
Sometimes the stockings were just as exciting as the presents. You could find all sorts of stuff in there, ranging from socks to candy to a tape or even, much later, a CD. I usually got writing notepads, deodorant, bath soap, maybe a package of socks, a scarf, a new set of gloves, some goofy little toy, one of those pads that you could write on and then lift the film and it would disappear. Fun stuff, you know. And that would keep us busy until the last stragglers arrived and the main attraction could finally begin. It was present time, and not a moment too soon.
Again, there was a bit of a hierarchy in how the thing was done. There was a tradition. Mama sat primly in a chair just opposite the tree. She nodded at those coming in and watched the proceedings through dispassionate eyes. One member of each family would hand her an envelope of money that was her Christmas present. Any time someone tried to buy her a present, she would look at it and say, “Whata do I needa this gar-a-bage for?” My Aunt Janie got her a Gucci handbag one year – the year that they were in vogue and very, very expensive. Mama made such a fuss over the “gar-a-bage” that my aunt had to take it back and just give her the money. It was a curious thing with Mama. She only wanted that which she specifically desired, and everything else was “gar-a-bage”.
My family and I sat in the dining room section of the connected rooms. Now, it was not that far from the tree, and there was plenty of room to spread out. Everyone lined the walls and then the kids would open the presents in the center so the parents could see the reactions their hard earned dollars bought. Most of the years, to my delight, I got to sit next to Mario. I’d kneel beside him and wait anxiously for the first present to come my way, but it was heavenly being with him. Sometimes I got to see the cool, expensive, grown up stuff that he got. Soft sweaters smelling of Polo cologne or a subscription to GQ magazine. So trendy, so chic.
Every year for as long as I can remember Grams handed out the presents. I don’t know how or why that tradition began, but it is the loss of her face on Christmas morning that is sometimes the hardest thing to bear. I wish I could capture just a moment of her laughter for you to hear now.
One by one, she would take the presents off of the pile and hand them out. It was protracted agony waiting for her to finally look my way and march over with a gift in hand. She would usually wear one of those long housedresses made out of simple cotton
with snaps all the way down the front. All of her presents would be kept in a pile to be opened later when the rest were done. The kids would sit around her and try to open the presents for her, not content with our mountain of mysteries already exposed. She’d chase us away with an exclamation and open her presents in relative peace as we went to play with our brand new toys.
Sometimes, there would be “special” gifts waiting in the pile. These were the large ones that were backed up against the platform and buried with everyone else’s smaller presents. You always wanted your name to be on one of those. Those were too big for Grams to carry, and so it would be pulled out into the center and you’d open it in front of everyone. This would be the time when cameras would come out and the other kids would wait in envious expectation. It was quite a thing to see a kid get a huge gift that they had been asking for all year. This was the time when the waiting came to fruition. This was the time when you stopped calling your mother all those bad names because she didn’t buy you every blessed thing you wanted.
I did not get many times in the spotlight. I’m not extravagant, and so even as a child, I never wanted anything huge. Still, I did get a Barbie Dream house one year and my beloved big wheel on another Christmas. I remember the year that Katie got her kitchen, and suddenly I understood that Christmas was for kids and I wasn’t quite a kid anymore. She’d wanted this toy kitchen for so long, and she begged and begged for it. When she tore into that box on Christmas day, she started jumping up and down, screaming when she finally realized what it was. Yes, it was expensive, but for that moment, I’m sure my mom would have said it was worth it.
On a side note, one year my Dad got one of these big presents, much to the hysteria of the rest of the adults. My mom had bought him a Shop-Vac and everyone got to watch him open it. That whole Christmas – and for many Christmases after – my Uncle Mario would say to him in a whiney voice, “Well, I didn’t get a shop-vac.” This did not endear them to my father.
When the present opening was said and done, we all headed for Grams’s basement and the commencement of breakfast. This was another long tabled affair with the same sort of dynamics I detailed for Christmas Eve. I remember that they would serve pineapple juice – which I love – in these little glasses. If you’ve ever had pineapple juice, you’ll know that it can be quite addicting. It does not quench a thirst so much as turn it into a raging desire. I would down a glass and look for the pitcher again, but by the time it came back, it was gone, gone, gone. Could we not have bigger glasses?
I think I liked the breakfast more than Christmas Eve dinner. There would be scrambled eggs by the pound, sausages, bacon, slices of buttered toast, and sometimes Grams would even make eggs over easy especially for me. She would not sit until the last, but this time she sat at the head of the table and presided over the craziness and bickering and good natured yelling that is my family. She started it all herself, so she’s the one to blame.
But things change, so quickly, they change. The things we love become lost to the paper that the story is written on. It loses its warmth and its touch, embraced now only by the gauzy film of memory.
Grams is dead, and her beautiful house sold. It is no longer in the family, and it kills me that such a large part of my childhood has passed out of my reach. Mama passed away eight years after her daughter and two years after her granddaughter. One night I happened to put my hand on Mama’s back and could not believe how bird-like she felt. One sudden move and I thought she may collapse into ash. She is like the times now, a relic of the past that disintegrates with the passing of time.
All the kids are grown, and no one exchanges gifts anymore. Most of the time, the younger kids only want money or gift cards anyway so that they can go out and buy what they want. Where is the grand spectacle in that? Once you hit 18, they don’t exchange gifts with you anyway – although my Aunt Lynn did get me a book one year, and I was so touched that she thought of me. There is no grandeur about it anymore and only the barest hints of tradition. All things pass, and I know that, but I still remember what it was like when Christmas meant something larger than the sum of its parts.
However, as we all sat around on a newer Christmas Eve, I could hear the faintness of it there. It was there in me and in those who still remember. When it comes down to it, I guess the traditions really don’t matter. What you do or where you go or what you eat doesn’t really figure into it at all. It is the love that counts. When all is said
and done, it’s all about family.