Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An Italian Christmas


   About the time that I realized that it was impossible for the big fat man in the red suit to slide down a chimney, I knew what Christmas was all about. It was the Christmas Eve gatherings in the Italian tradition: Aunts, uncles, cousins, special food, things that we looked forward to all year long. The days of preparation, and when old enough, I got to help. Grandpa Biase had a small room that he used as a pantry, with all his pots and pans and shelves from ceiling to floor and by Christmas Eve it was filled with Italian Cheesecake, an assortment of cookies that would make the local bakery look wanting.

   For Catholics, it was a fast day, no meat just fish, several kinds and pasta of course. The dough balls were my favorite. Little balls of light, fluffy dough with an anchovy in the middle was for before dinner and the ones with white raisins and warm honey mixed with whiskey drizzled over the top, were served after dinner with the other desserts. We had pizzelles, biscotti, little turnovers filled with dates and raisins and various Italian candies. My brother and I loved the nougat and almond that came in little boxes with beautiful pictures on them. We would collect and save them to build things.

   After dinner, while the woman cleaned up, the men would usually start a card game and they would play until it was time for church. It was a struggle to stay awake but I loved midnight mass, as there was music and everyone was in a good mood and it was all very festive.

   We usually took turns, one year with the Seraphines, the next with the Palianis. I loved them both, but my mother's family, the Palianis were known for their volatility. So it was always interesting. The penny ante card games were a lot louder than the Seraphines. Grandpa Paliani played Santa Claus and with his mustache and round belly he was very believable but the Italian cheroot that he always had in the right side of his mouth gave him away.

   The first Christmas in our new home in Baden was memorable because my brother and I looked in the cubbyhole upstairs, which was forbidden and saw all the Christmas presents. Everything I had asked for and them some. We must have been good! Christmas morning brought me a coloring book and a 10-cent box of crayons. My brother got something like an airplane model. What a shock, we acted appropriately grateful and it wasn't until about two in the afternoon and I couldn't stand it anymore and blurted out, “What happened to all the presents in the cubbyhole?” To which my mother calmly replied, “Those went to children who didn't look in the cubbyhole before Christmas. . After my parents had a good laugh, they brought out the presents and we never looked in the cubbyhole again at Christmas time.

   After the war, when the Palianis headed to California, Christmas looked a lot different. Our first Christmas in California was such a shock. It was at least 75 degrees and we had dinner on our patio surrounded by flowers and a banana tree. Lots of family did not make up for the lack of snow! My brother and I moaned and groaned and when friends came after dinner one of them had a Lincoln convertible and took us for a ride and we went to the beach. Sand does not make up for snow.

   The families grew and the children became adults and we still went to Aunt Lena's and Uncle Carlo's for Christmas Eve. Grandpa Paliani was bouncing great grandchildren on his knee while playing Santa. He was 95 when he died. He was caught in a rainstorm while on his daily 10-mile walk and came down with a bad cold that turned into pneumonia. That brought an end to that era of Christmas Eve parties.

   Being married, it would soon be my turn to host Christmas Eve. We had been in our new home a few years and it was our turn to host Christmas Eve. My two nephews and our two boys were the same ages, five and four. My aunt and her family and three children were there also. My parents and younger sisters completed our gathering. We had our traditional dinner and were just finishing up when we heard the sound of jingle bells and noise on the roof and the front door flew open and in pranced an elf. He yelled at the children, “Rudolf needs carrots, quickly, carrots!” Where upon Mark who was the oldest passed out cold, he hit the floor in a split second and the three others ran to the refrigerator to find carrots. They ran to the elf and gave him the bag of carrots while Mark laid on the floor with his hand to his head moaning, “I don't believe it, I don't believe it. Santa is on the roof.” While the elf was feeding the reindeer, Santa came marching through the door and thanked the children for the carrots. We had no idea who this Santa was, but I did recognize the elf as someone from church. After the all the children got to talk to Santa, my aunt who may have had too much wine sat on his lap and sang Santa Baby ala Eartha Kitt. We never did discover who played Santa, I think Aunt Jean embarrassed him so he never ‘fessed up.

   Another memorable Christmas Eve was our first Christmas in Salt Lake. There were 12 children so we hired a Santa and he was very good. We left a bag of small presents on the front porch and he brought them in for the children. By the end of the party one of the children was not feeling so good, we figured too much candy and cookies. A Christmas morning phone call let us know that she did not have too much candy, she had the chicken pox. What a present! Two weeks later one of my children came down with chicken pox and one by one every two weeks we had chicken pox. It was the gift that kept on giving.

   Many Christmases have come and gone, the loss of family members makes it a bitter sweet time. My sister and her family and I and mine still celebrate together with the old fashioned seven fishes and everyone seems to love it. We have included a few friends with an Italian background and the young people talk about keeping up the traditions.

   My responsibility is cookies for dessert and if I can find smelts this year it is my turn to fry.

   I wish I could do some of the cookies Grandpa Biase made, but Santa would have to bring me the gift of endurance and patience. May your holiday be filled with good food, family and friends.

                                                                                                                                    -- Lee V., 2013

Thank you Lee for a wonderful memory...

Happy Holidays to all...