Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Little Bit of Christmas Nostalgia

Like many of us, I have fond memories of my childhood at Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we first visited the home of my paternal grandparents, where the cooking seemed to go on forever. My grandmother prepared the traditional Seven Fishes, though not a single adult could explain the significance of the number to us. Just when you thought you couldn't possibly eat another thing, out came the desserts. Piled high on a plate would be mounds of my grandmother's strufoli, which were the best I've ever eaten. These little fried dough balls soaked in honey were topped with decorative jimmies and candied almonds. I wish I had learned to make these from my grandmother, though I'm not sure what good it would have done to ask her for the recipe. Her pat response was always "It's not important for you to know how to make them. It's only important that I know." I guess she thought she was going to live forever. Or, perhaps it was her way of making sure we missed her when she was gone, to never show any of us how to carry on her traditions.

Her pizzelles tasted remarkably like her pancakes - too big, too much egg and too soft, but she made up for it with her biscotti which she iced and topped with green and red jimmies.

My grandparents never had a Christmas tree, but to shut us kids up, my grandfather would decorate the lemon tree in the living room (which incidentally never produced a single lemon) with a strand of multi-colored lights. A star that changed colors brightened up their front window, but that was the extent of it. My grandparents put all of their energies into the food and the wine and left the decorating to their Americanized children. I wondered aloud how Santa Claus ever found such a sparsely decorated abode, particularly one that had no chimney, which would prompt my Uncle Sonny to tell us some fish tale about encountering Old St. Nick in the hallway when he was just a boy. Christmas at my Calabrian grandparents' house bore little resemblance to the Victorian holidays of my dreams.

After dinner and dessert, we would depart for the home of my maternal grandmother, who did have a tree and lots of lights and decorations. When we would drive down the 1300 block of Wolf Street, which was the brightest-lit block in South Philadelphia, the excitement would really mount. The neighbors to this day carry on the tradition of stringing large old-fashioned bulbs in horizontal strands connecting the north side of the street with the south side. When we drove under them, the enchantment was indescribable.

From there, we would visit my uncle John in his apartment above his restaurant on Broad Street, where he lived when he wasn't at his palatial estate in Florida. The only time I'd ever seen my uncle in church was for funerals but come Christmas Eve, without fail, the television was tuned to Mass at the Vatican. My sister and I couldn't wait to get home and would worry ourselves into a frenzy that Santa was going to skip our house because we weren't at home in bed.

As a child, I only attended one Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and I'll never live down what happened. I was in the school choir, and Sister Edna got the idea that we would sing a little concert of carols at 11:30pm before Mass began. We were all dressed in choir robes and beanies that had to be returned to the convent on the day after Christmas. We also carried candles with paper doilies, and the church was darkened so that the primary source of light came from our candles.

About 3 carols into our repertoire, hot wax began dripping down my arm. I was more afraid of Sister's reaction if I disrupted her concert than I was of getting burned, so I stood stoically still. Then all hell broke loose - literally. The paper doily caught fire and fell to the beautiful oriental carpet on the altar. I stomped on the blaze and put it out with my foot. I could see Sister's eyes open wide as saucers and she was so stunned by what happened, that she started us off on the wrong stanza of Silent Night. To this day, it is with great trepidation that I carry a lit candle in church.

What do all of these memories have to do with Our Savior's birth? They go to show His extreme generosity and the profound effect His coming has had on our lives. There is no other event in the world that produces the excitement and memories that Christmas does, even if it's true that too many people overlook the real reason for the season. Nor is there any other time of year when so much cheer and goodwill is evident. And it all started with Him.

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