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