Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas Eve Traditions and Memories

For a lot of people, Christmas comes attached to a healthy dose of melancholy intermingled with all the colorful lights, festive music, and hustle and bustle. As a boy I could never conceive of why one single person wouldn’t welcome Christmas with open arms and a happy heart. For me, its one-two punch of anticipation and excitement truly made Christmas “the most wonderful time of the year.” But now with my youthful exuberance pretty much spent, and so many key Christmas players no longer on the scene, the season just isn’t what it once was—and I understand completely.

Once upon a time Christmas Eve meant gathering with the cousins, exchanging gifts, and enjoying a traditional Italian dinner featuring Spaghetti Aglio e Olio—garlic and oil—and multiple fish dishes. I believe the official tradition calls for seven, but we never quite reached that number with fried eels, baccalĂ  (salted cod) salad, boiled shrimp, and calamari (squid) in tomato sauce rounding out the menu. Honestly, I can’t say I ever relished this particular fishy melange, but my grandmother had a knack for making just about everything as good as it could possibly be—really. Fish, in fact, were very hard to come by in my grandmother’s hometown of Castlemezzano in the rocky mountains of Southern Italy. Her village was pretty poor and accustomed to the most humble of fish fare, and the tradition crossed the ocean. There were no swordfish steaks, lobster tails, or sushi on our Christmas Eve tables. Actually, her spaghetti was more than enough for me on this one night a year. I would sample an eel or two, which were peculiarly edible, and a few benign shrimp as well—but that was the long and short of my seafood intake.

The image of my grandmother preparing Christmas Eve dinners, with a mother lode of cooking oil at her disposal, is seared in my memory. Interestingly, though, it isn't olive oil I recall but peanut oil—in big gallon tins. It seems that during World War II, olive oil was pretty hard to come by and—when available—too expensive, so my grandmother substituted with Planter’s peanut oil. It was comparatively cheap and, as it turned out, tasty enough to pass muster. She purchased it at the Arthur Avenue retail market in the Bronx’s "Little Italy." Times have changed. Peanut oil is now hard to come by and pretty expensive when you do find it.

The Christmas Eve tradition endures—I think we’ve even reached the magic number of seven fish—but the memories do too of genuinely exciting times from the past and the people who made them so. There is a definitely a downside in having exceptionally fond memories of what once was and is no more.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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