I was raised Italian Catholic. If you are Italian Catholic, there are very specific foods to be cooked for very specific occasions depending on where in Italy you are from. You may serve a five, seven or twelve fish dinner on Christmas Eve depending on your tradition but it is always a seafood only night.
My nona continued the tradition of soaking bacala for days on end until all the salt was gone and then she made bacalao salad. My mother wouldn’t eat it. Neither would us kids. In fact, my mother barely wanted it on her holiday table. But my father loved it so a small bowl of the salad would appear for him and nona to eat. Long before unagi got to be so popular in Japanese restaurants, my nona and dad also cooked eels in my mother’s kitchen. She didn’t hang around for that either.
But the best thing about Christmas Eve was midnight mass at the church next door. St. Michael’s was the neighborhood parish. So, everyone showed up for midnight mass wearing their new Christmas coats, gloves, shoes, and hats. There would be five or six masses on Christmas morning but only one midnight mass. So, if you wanted to be sure to be seen, that’s where you went.
When my best friend Grace and I finally were old enough to stay up and go to that mass, it felt like a rite of passage. We were almost adults. And when the mass was over, everyone went around to everyone else’s house for a glass or wine and some home baked pastries. If you weren’t waiting in bed to hear Santa Claus arrive, this was the next best way to spend Christmas Eve.
Christmas Day brought a whole new set of joys. There was, of course, opening presents. We didn’t have a lot of money, but mom and dad always managed to fill the space under the tree. Given that the stockings we hung contained oranges we knew came from dad’s store downstairs, they weren’t quite as much fun. But then, after opening the presents, we got to get all dressed up again in our Christmas best for the drive to Philadelphia from Atlantic City. Inevitably, some parishioners going to mass next door would come up the alley and ring our doorbell because they forgot something they needed for dinner. My dad would open the store and go get it for them. This usually got my mother steamed as she just wanted to leave.
Eventually we did start out for Philly. My brother and I were allowed to take exactly one toy each for the ride and to show off to all our cousins when we got there. The ride was slow because my dad refused to use to the expressway since it had tolls. He preferred the old Black Horse Pike. We traveled at about 45 to 50 miles per hour and stopped frequently at red lights. I can still hear my mother’s voice as she got frustrated at the slow drive saying to my father, “Go ahead. Save your money. Don’t take the expressway. But when you’re gone, I plan to spend all of it on tolls on that road.” My dad died before her, and she never took the Black Horse Pike to Philly again.
What we kids loved most was that when we got to the Tacony-Palmyra bridge to Philly, they did not charge their usual fee. Instead, crossing was free on Christmas and kids in the car got candy canes. How can you not love that? My father would explain how the bridge was built with private money, the bridge had paid off all its debts and this was why it was free on Christmas. It was also, in my father’s eyes, part of what made America so great.
By the time we got to Aunt Ida’s, ate antipasto, pasta, roast, salad, pies, cookies and espresso coffee with Anisette, everyone was ready to pass out. My mom would want to see Christmas lights on the houses on the way home so dad would drive through some neighborhoods. My brother and I usually passed out on the back seat before he turned the first corner.
And for what it’s worth, the best Christmas present I ever got from my childhood was my friend Grace. Seventy years later, we are still close friends. You can’t ask for anything better from Santa Claus than that.