Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Memories of Christmas Past

As I prepare for the upcoming Christmas holiday, I cannot help but think of (and miss) memories of Christmas past.  The Calabrese heritage of my family was never so obvious as it was at Christmas.  I don't think I fully appreciated it until it was gone.
Every Christmas brings a flood of memories.  By December 22 the house will filled with dozens of presents for family.  Mom always hid presents for my brother and I and there was never enough space under the Christmas tree for all the presents but somehow mom managed to stack and arrange all the presents there for cousins, aunts and uncles. The full finished bar in our basement was lined with bottles of various alcoholic beverages to bring to each place visited during the holiday season. The day before Christmas Eve always involved a trip to Fannie Mae so Dad could purchase boxes of chocolates for his cousins.  We never went anywhere without a box of Fannie Maes and a bottle of the hosts favorite alcoholic beverage in hand. 
Christmas Eve dinner was fish and while I realize others of Italian ancestry celebrated with a feast of 7 fishes, we did not.  Dad hated cod so Bakala was never on the menu.  What always was on the menu was an assortment of scallops, shrimp, clams and our family favorite pasta acciughe.  As a family project we all participated in making pignolatta, a tasty treat make with boiling hot honey (pictured on the right).
Christmas day always came in 2 parts.  The first part of Christmas was the gathering of our immediate family with my dad's brothers, sisters and their spouses and children.  When I was very young, we would alternate who hosted the event.  When the last family arrived my cousins and I grew impatient to receive our presents and when we finally received approval to open them the wrapping paper would fly! So many presents!  After the opening of the presents we would sit down for Christmas dinner.  Our typical Christmas dinner included Turkey and stuffing, a baked pasta, sausages, meatballs, a beef roast, a ham, at least 5 different vegetables, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, ricotta pie (made with ricotta cheese, sausage, mozzarella and egg), various jello molds, and lots of different kinds of bread.  My dad would lecture everyone about the evils of eating bread before the meal. After the meal was finished the women would clear the table and the men would take a break by having after dinner cigars.  Then came time for coffee.  Coffee meant dessert.  The table would be filled with baskets of fruits and nuts and always included figs and roasted chestnuts.  Trays of Italian cookies and pastries would fill the table along with various cakes and pies.  Italian pastries and chocolate eclairs would fill the table to such excess that another table had to be set up.  Somewhere in the mix was coffee, anisette, brandy and other beverages.  After all this food, the men would sit down for a rousing game of pinochle and the woman would sit down for poker.  The pinochle game was more fun to watch.  The men were so passionate and animated playing the game and shouts and screams could be heard throughout with an occasional wife calling her husbands name in reprimand to remind them the children were present. Then everyone would leave (but not without a bag of leftovers) and we would all go to Zitzy's (Calabrese dialect for Aunt) house. Zitzy was the sister of my grandmother and the matriarch of the family.  Once at Zitzy's, more eating and sweets and card games would go on.  It still amazes me how many people fit in her house.  I would see people I did not remember and ask my dad who they were.  He would tell me their names and I would ask if they were family.  Many times my dad would say no, they are paesani. I have learned since then, most of them were, in fact family.  Zitzy's son in law, Uncle Frank would make dancing ladies out of white cloth napkins and make them dance to a song he would sing. At the end of the dance their "skirts" would fly up.  The children would all laugh.  I always saw such joy in his sweet face when he did this. The evening was filled with great food, heavy cigar smoke, thick Italian accents (with a few Greek and Scottish thrown in) great food, laughter, love, music, and did I mention, great food. .  It was always loud. Every time I smell cigars or think of Christmas, I remember the Christmases past filled with so much love and joy, it makes me cry. 
Merry Christmas, Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad.

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