Nothing like memories of an Italian Christmas
Of all the celebrations in our home, there was none so wonderful as Christmas. This was especially true back in the 40s and 50s. That's when families really meant something, and neighbors were more than a couple of people who live next door you hardly ever spoke to.
My grandfather and grandmother, Luigi and Maria Darezzo, both came from a region known as Calabria, located on the front toe of the Italian boot. They arrived around 1910. He came from a family of 13 brothers and sisters while her family had only eight!
They lived with us in the Silver Lake section of Providence. It was here that I was born in 1938, and that's where I grew up.
Every Christmas Eve all my closest aunts and uncles and cousins, some 25 in all, would gather at our house for a celebration.
As they arrived we welcomed each one with a Christmas greeting and a kiss or a handshake. They, in turn, would hand my mother a dish of some special food they had prepared and place brightly wrapped packages under our Christmas tree.
Then they all would stand around and chat, snacking on salted peanuts and fresh figs while enjoying a glass of someone's homemade wine.
When everyone had arrived and all was ready, we sat down at a long table set with several heaping plates of antipasto. Everyone would raise their glasses, and all together we would give the traditional Italian toast; “Salud!” And the feasting began!
We helped ourselves, scooping up the vinegar peppers, marinated mushrooms, roasted red peppers, artichokes, a couple of kinds of black olives, lettuce, tomatoes, anchovies and chunks of provolone cheese, slices of salami, capocollo, and that most famous of Italian meats, prosciutto.
We topped it all with a mixture of seasoned vinegar and oil and added a large slice of freshly baked bread.
I should mention that many of our neighbors would not eat meat Christmas Eve preferring instead the tradition of the Seven Fishes. But we all knew, or thought we knew, the priests were eating steaks that very evening. We figured, if they can do it, so can we!
The antipasto could have been a meal by itself. We had to be careful not to eat too much since this was just the beginning.
Once we finished the table would be cleared and then set it again this time with dishes of crispy, fried smelts and fried and breaded calamari mixed with slices of black olives and hot vinegar peppers. There was fresh shrimp with a spicy sauce, a couple of kinds of fish, two kinds of snail salad and my mother's wonderful marinated eel. It was all part of a celebration known as the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Someone placed several bowls of steaming, homemade pasta on the table. We helped ourselves and topped it either “Aioil” style or with red gravy. “Aloil” was warm olive oil with sautéed garlic, slices of black olives and anchovies. Most people know red gravy is made with tomatoes seasoned with onions, garlic and herbs. Ours added chunks of pork, sausages and meatballs and was slowly simmered all day to bring out a rich flavor. Either way the pasta was delicious and most of us managed
to have a taste of each.
Of course, there was plenty of home-made wine and more of that fresh bread which was perfect for soaking up either kind of gravy or dipping in a side bowl of olive oil seasoned with garlic and flecks of red and black pepper.
And always there was the sound of laughter and excited chatter. While many had little money, we were all overflowing with love and happiness.
Finally, when we had eaten just about all we could, out came dishes of pepper and wine biscuits, pitzellas, wandi, and rice pie and deep fried balls of dough covered in honey and nuts, called struffoli. The older folks washed it all down with steaming cups of cappuccino sometimes flavored with a shot of sambuca.
When the feast was over, we gave our parents little rest because we could hardly wait to open our Christmas presents. There were fourteen of us, so we outnumbered them, plus we were very persistent.
There were gifts for everyone. One year I got an electric train and another year I got a sled while my sister usually got either clothes or dolls.
And when we finished opening the gifts we started playing with our toys, while my relatives sat around the table drinking more coffee and sambuca. We spent the rest of the time chatting and laughing and singing Christmas carols until well into the night.
The party ended late but on Christmas Day, the feasting started all over again!
There was more antipasto and more pasta with both gravies but this time there was no fish. In its place we enjoyed capons, small tender chickens whose meat fell off the bones. And there was roast pork and venison, along with my mother's sausage stuffing. There was still plenty of homemade red wine and another twelve loaves of homemade bread to be dipped in olive oil or soaked in gravy.
Of course, once again, we ended the meal with fresh trays of cookies and plates of pies and more of those balls of deep-fried dough with honey and nuts. Only now the honey tasted even better because it had hardened slightly. And there was more hot cappuccino and shots of sambuca.
Altogether, it was two days of feasting even the old Romans would have envied!
When it was over the women would start clearing the tables and cleaning the dishes. We played with our toys while the men lit cigarettes and cigars and poured more shots of sambuca. Then the men would gather in a separate room to chat.
Those were the days when neighbors were neighbors, and family was family. When my grandfather died, my grandmother dressed in black and wore a picture of him around her neck until it was her time to go. If you were sick, someone would make a pot of soup and bring it to your home. We looked out for each other in good times and bad. And in our houses and somewhere downtown, there was a thing we proudly called... a