One of my favorite childhood memories is of our Christmas Eve celebrations year after year at my Italian Grandma’s house in Brooklyn, New York, which was also her birthday. Each year Dad and mom loaded the pack of us in the green Ford station wagon after a late afternoon Christmas Eve mass at Saint Ignatius church in Hempstead, Long Island, the back of the car filled with piles of presents.
Passing the time on the hour’s drive, I played car games with my brothers and sisters, counting all the white cars on the highway, or searching for Rudolph’s bright red light nose in early night sky. Sometimes, I wondered about the star of Bethlehem – the flaming star that today shines bright in my heart. But then, in my religious-lite family where going to church on Sunday, Wednesday catechism, and and saying grace at meals comprised our faith, the true Christmas story was just an assumed backdrop, not center stage. Santa, Christmas songs, stories, presents, food and tradition reigned. But, as wisdom and years revealed, Jesus had a seat at the head our table.
Going to grandma’s house felt like going to see the Queen. Arriving, white lights framing large windows, and outlining the upper rim of the two story white house, welcomed us with their twinkling holiday cheer. The house looked especially enchanting when small puffs of soft snow fell from the dark evening sky, resting in little mounds on the window sills, falling softly on lamp lit Brooklyn streets. Grandma must have timed our arrival each year, since her tiny head always peeked from behind the living room curtains, eagerly awaiting our arrival.
The five of us little blond, brown eyed kids piled out of the car, running up the steps for her warm hugs, each having a turn to rest our heads on her large soft breasts.
As we entered the doorway to the marble floored entrance way, the savory garlicky scents greeted and delighted. Grandpa, tall and shy, dressed in his suit vest and white shirt and elegant clip on bow tie, met us with a quick hug, helping us remove our boots and hanging our coats. Although the house was a not a mansion, it was a grand home, with a large living room just off the entrance way filled with stately classic furnishings, a grand piano, and expensive art. Grandma’s homemade elegant drapes made of the finest fabric with seasonal colors hung majestically to the floor, on tall windows spanning the room, which she’d change each turning season. I’d run into the living room wide-eyed, absorbing the room’s warmth and elegance, and then hugged my two cousins Neil and Franky who stood like statues with beaming brown eyes, containing their bursting enthusiasm that we had finally arrived. Christmas decorations glistened on the mantel, a hearty fire crackling in the fireplace.
Just beyond the living room, Grandma’s garden room, with bright squeaky clean windows, looked out to a lovely rose garden and small, enclosed yard. A flourishing, well-nourished gardenia with healthy, pungent, white, happy flowers greeted us by the entrance way from the living room.
For days, Grandma and my Aunt Ro had been preparing a traditional Italian seafood feast and enough desserts to fill a bakery counter. The desserts garnished the banquet table at the end of the long, elegantly set table in the dining room just off the living room: crispy, white powered cannoli shells stuffed with sweet creamy ricotta, and Struffoli, a traditional Christmas dessert with colorful sprinkles adorning sweet, deep fried crunchy balls of dough, soft and light on the insides, and fresh baked pies, cakes and cookies.
A door from the dining room led to Grandpa’s doctor’s office, and large waiting room where we’d play doctor. The examining table had a pedal we could press that would raise the seat up or down, and real stethoscopes lined the wall. What wonder listening to our beating hearts! The oldest of us took turns playing doctor, while my obedient younger brothers and sisters sat reading magazines in the real waiting room, waiting their turn to play patient.
Just beyond the dining room, the modern kitchen had ample cabinets and shelves lined with modern kitchen gadgets and the finest food from local Italian markets — pastas, jars of spices and herbs, olives, hot peppers, canned red peppers and tomatoes. Grandma’s house never had a Special K cereal box like in the white painted wooden cabinet at my Irish grandma and grandpas’ house. Grandma had many kinds of cereals in matching glass jars line in a row on the upper shelf of the pantry. Paper towels popped out of a chrome container on the kitchen by pressing a button, and a large white double whipping electric mixer sat on the counter. Later on, after dinner, I’d help grandma make the fluffiest whip cream for pie toppings, watching it’s mighty swirling blenders sucking up heavy cream like an industrial vacuum.
Every Christmas Eve upon my arrival, grandma took hold of my hand, walking me to the refrigerator where she’d unwrap a white parchment paper unveiling a large, milky chunk of fresh mozzarella cheese from the local Italian market. She’d take it to the counter cutting off a piece, slipping it into my mouth. The salty, soft cheese melted on my tongue like butter. I just imagine her now, her round, short, stout body shoving her way through the crowd to the glass counter, demanding attention from the man behind the counter who stood obedient, he knew her well by now. Of course she wanted the largest piece of milky mozzarella cheese for her granddaughter visiting from Long Island, and made darn sure she got the best one.
When we finally sat for dinner, our meal went on for hours, Grandma always the center of attention, the matriarch, the capofamilglia, ran the show. Once a thin, handsome young woman with dark black hair, soft white skin, and small, yet penetrating dark brown eyes, grandma, now round and full bodied, had breasts that hung down to her waist, she would say, “like eggplants”. Regardless of her rounded size, she dressed impeccably with a flare for current Parisian styles, always a step ahead of the fashion. She still made all her own clothes in her sewing room upstairs, including winter coats, suits, dresses, and capes comparable to those on racks at Sacks Fifth Avenue. Even on Christmas Eve, she wore pumps and a string of pearls or simple fine jewelry.
After being a struggling single mother for most of my father’s life, at 50, grandma married grandpa, who I considered my real grandpa all my life. I remember grandpa once taking her on a world cruise on the Queen Mary. Before the ship departed, we had free reign of the fancy hotel on water, decked with restaurants, a ballroom and fancy bathrooms. She told me when he first gave her a credit card, he told her to spend it on whatever she wanted, quite a treat for a woman who had sometimes had a nickel left in her pocket coming home on the subway after a long week of work and expenses.
Christmas Eve, always magical, seemed to last forever. When we’d finish desert and tea, our bellies full from long hours savoring the delicious meal, we’d end the evening opening presents, then sit around the table munching on mixed nuts, playing poker for pennies until late at night when dad and mom would gather five weary kids into the station wagon for the drive back home. Anticipating Christmas morning just hours away, the methodical humming of the car tires lulled all of us tired children to sleep.
Today, although grandma is long gone, I hold these memories dear each year. Sometime when the memories come like waves onto the shore, they bring with them a whiff of garlic, and the salty taste of mozzarella on my tongue.
And when I look up into the night sky on Christmas Eve this year, it’s not Rudolph’s nose, but star of Bethlehem that I’ll search for, knowing behind our Christmas Eve traditions, it’s the beating heart of Christ making everything merry and bright.
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.”
What are your Christmas Eve memories? How are they different than how you celebrate Christmas Eve today?
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