Christmas Memories From 83 Year Old Virginia (Frontiero) McKinnon

My childhood Christmas memories were mostly of great anticipation of thinking Christmas would never come. Putting up the Christmas tree. Baking our traditional “cucidatie” Christmas cookies. Mixing the dough and making the filling from using the meat grinder to grind up the figs and raisins, chopping the walnuts, then mixing the ingredients for the filling adding cinnamon, orange zest and black pepper. We would roll the dough into little strips and put some filling in the middle, then close and roll strips, encasing the filling.  After the cookies were baked we would cut the rolls into pieces diagonally and frost them, adding colored sprinkles.

Early memories of Christmas dinner were at my maternal Piscitello grandmother ’s kitchen, just downstairs from where I lived. Long tables were set up and a long bench against the wall. All the kids sat on the bench, which could hold a lot of kids. I now marvel of how so many people could fit in that room. My Dad had a saying in Italian, which translated meant  “A home could hold as many people, as the owner cared to invite.“ My Nana was a wonderful cook and the table was set with all our Italian favorites. This meal was a banquet. My Nana never sat down to enjoy dinner with us. She was always too busy serving everyone, making sure everyone had enough to eat. Then she would sit down to have her meal, when we all finished eating. I marveled at the joy she emanated in serving everyone. wishing us all to be happy.

One Christmas eve stands out in my memory. I was about seven years old. My Dad returned from a fishing trip. He would always whistle as he climbed the stairs two short blows followed by a long whistle. My heart would jump with joy, when I heard this whistle, as Dad was home again safe and sound and I would greet him with a big hug. When Dad opened the door he threw in his hat and asked permission to enter, as he said they had a “broker” The crew had not caught enough fish to cover expensed and he got no money. We all hugged and kissed him and were happy he was home for Christmas. That evening I was awakened by my parents quarreling. I remember my Dad saying he was going to his father to borrow $5.00 for Christmas gifts, he had no money and no gifts to put under our tree. My mother was so embarrassed to have him ask anyone for money. Christmas morning I found a little doll for me, a fire truck for my brother, Paul and a musical doll cradle for my little sister, Rosalie  under the Christmas tree. We were all so happy with our gifts. My parents were so in love and we were loved and Christmas was love.

In my teenage years I began to attend the grown-up gatherings at my grandparent’s home. They moved from Gould Court to Pine St. A gate cut into the fence that separated both houses. When my uncles were home from fishing in the evening my family would gather in the basement, street level kitchen around a long table, with a bench against the wall. Nightly we would start paying cards around the first of December. We played poker for nickels and if anyone went “broke” the winning player would give them some change to continue playing. We would have dessert and snacks, including a dish of  pumpkin seeds “semense” and dried chick peas “garlia”, bread and olives  and lots of cookies.,

The day before Christmas my Nana and my aunts would spend all day cooking. First fish dishes, as we did not eat meat before attending midnight Mass. My Nana made a kind of fried  dough that was so light and delicious. She called them “spengie” She put flakes of dried cod fish and I believe she used some baking soda, to make the dough so light. No one ever asked her for the recipe or could ever copy this dish. Her table was filled with shrimp, octopus, salted cod fish “bacala,” all kind of olives, salads, and homemade bread. After dinner we would play cards until it was time for Midnight Mass. After Mass we all walked back to my Nana’s house and she would have all the meat dishes ready for us to enjoy. We had delicious homemade pasta and meatballs, “meduga” steak, sausages, eggplant and lots of homemade pastry. so many delicious foods and lots of deserts, including cookies and a large cassada cake with layers of pudding, whipped cream, rum  and fruit. We all had to taste my grandfather’s home made wine. He also made lighter drinks called anisette and rosollio. These were ladies drinks. We would then play cards again until at lease 2 am. Some of my relatives stayed all night. My Nana would say “Norte Natale” night of Christmas, when no one slept. How I miss these wonderful happy times, my wonderful family, my grandparents. mom, dad, aunts, uncles and cousins all together having a good time. Everyone was so happy at this wonderful celebration of Christmas. Our gathering and card games continued until little Christmas, January 7th, holy day of the Ephany, when Christmas is celebrated in Italy. My Nana related that this was the day as a child  she received her gifts, which were brought by the “bifana.” The little old women who is still looking for the Christ Child and brings His gifts to everyone in her native Italy. 

This family tradition continued for many years.  I attended until I was married, then I was.
busy with my own family and new traditions with my Irish husband.
  
                                Virginia (Frontiero) McKinnon   

12 comments

  • What a lovely contribution to GMG. Thank you and Merry Christmas!

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  • Wow. Thank you for sharing that. Its good to know what memories stick out from holidays in your past. Sometimes we forget whats important and whats not. Merry Christmas Virgina!

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  • Very nice, Virginia…Thank you for sharing.

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  • So fortunate to have these beautiful memories Virginia–thank you for sharing

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  • fred buck, cape ann museum

    joey – this is another of the precious living memories of this place we love. bless virginia for keeping it alive and shining. in 1973 she added to the 350th anniversary celebration by talking about her childhood memories to peter anastas and peter parsons for their oral history book “when gloucester was gloucester”. her piece is on page 40-43 of that book. it’s out of print now, but on the shelf at the sawyer free library and the library at the cape ann museum. it’s well worth a read, and i wish somebody would reprint it. thanks, virginia, you ARE santa claus!!

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    • Dear Fred, This is news to me and I’m not sure if mom knows about it either, I will be calling today and checking out the book soon. I must have been in the service when this came out and missed it because of that. Thanks for the info. Hilary McKinnon

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  • Beautifully written from the heart. Jogs my own memory of my childhood Christmases, which seem to be some of my fondest memories. It’s all about family.

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  • Thank you for sharing your memories of Christmas and family. It reminds me of Christmas time at my grandparents house on Cleveland St. I hang one of the glass bulbs from their tree today in my home to keep those memories alive. Times that can never be forgotten. Merry Christmas!

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  • Wow, this note brings me back to my large, italian family christmas celebrations. Today, my wife keeps the spirit alive with a traditional christmas eve seven fishes feast. But, it’s not the same as the old days when there were a lot more of us.

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  • It pulled at my heart strings remembering Nana….. Thank Virginia there is a Santa Claus

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  • Yes this brings back many vibrant memerories of my mother and aunts and uncles homes were we did all the things you remember so dear. As boat owners we recieve wood boxes Full of salt cod, octopus,Shrimp, clams,smelts,squid or cullfish and oysters plus a case or two of mix booze. This was sent by our fish dealers, in N.Y. Fulton”s Fish Market, free for our Christmas Eve meal, Well I know it came ” out of the hatch” during the course of the year’s fish sent, but what the hay. After a hard year of fishing St.Peter’s and Christmas were the only days we know for sure we would be home with Family and Friends. Merry Christmas to all.

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