Italian-American families like mine will find just about any excuse to prepare and devour a huge feast, starting with the antipasto and ending about seven or eight hours later with fruits and nuts.
Most might assume Christmas is the big one but Easter Sunday is actually considered the holiest day in the Christian calendar. That makes Easter second only to Christmas Eve on the Italian culinary calendar. Because when it comes to Italian food, family and faith, Christmas Eve is truly the alpha omega.
In my family, preparation for Christmas Eve begins a few days prior with a lesser-known religious rite we call The Buying of the Vegetables. This time-honored ritual begins with taking my wife and mom to 3 Guys from Brooklyn on 65th Street. A few hours later, they will emerge weary but determined with several dozen shopping bags stuffed with every plant or part of a plant rumored to be safe for human consumption.
The most famous part of a true Italian-American Christmas Eve is festa dei sette pesci or The Feast of the Seven Fishes. As you can imagine, there are many hypotheses for what the “7” represents. Some say its for the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Others say its the seven hills of Rome. Most assume it symbolizes the day God rested. Bottom line is I have no idea why it’s gotta be seven but its gotta be seven. And where to buy the fish is always a big deal. Make no mistake, your entire life and credentials as an Italian-American will be judged based on this decision.
Back in the day, we made the pilgrimage to DeMartino Fish Market on Douglass Street. There was definitely a sense of pride in eating what assimilated American society at the time considered inedible. I’m really not sure how else you’d explain eating tripe. And this was back when Anthony Bourdain was still slinging Caesar salads at the Rainbow Room.
These days, my mom, the inimitable Mary Immaculata, hosts the Christmas Eve/Christmas doubleheader at her house. By now she’s basically been awake and cooking for 36 hours straight. God bless her. But when I was a kid, Christmas Eve was spent in my great-grandfather’s dimly lit basement on 17th Street in Windsor Terrace. Pasquale, or “Poppa” as we all called him, was built like an actual fire hydrant.
Like most everyone, he came to America through Ellis Island. He’d fought in the Navy. The mermaid and anchor tattoos on his forearms were so old, the black ink had turned green like Statue of Liberty copper. In fact, I look a lot like him; we have that same concrete Mediterranean peasant head. My wife hates when I say that but, hey, it’s the truth, babe.
I think Cadillac Bonnevilles were standard issue back then because everyone had one, except us. Dad was working for RCA at the time and we had the company car, a Chevy Citation. He’d blast CBS-FM the whole way there and back: Brenda Lee, The Ronettes, The Crystals, The Beach Boys, Gene Autry.
I remember there were so many of us down in Poppa’s basement that we had to use every table we could find. It created this magical quilt of card tables, folding tables, end tables, night tables – you name it, we used it. Chairs were the same. Every chair in the house was brought downstairs. I think some people got smart and started showing up to the feast with their own table and chairs.
The food was still being prepared in the kitchen. Steaming pots of salted, boiling water simmered as others prepared enough antipasto to feed the Marines and the Air Force. But the best part was later when it was time for pasta. Trying to ration enough spaghetti with crab sauce appropriately for each dish to a family of this size wasn’t easy. I distinctly remember one year we all had to surrender our bowls, passing them back to the head of the table like a reluctant bucket brigade for redistribution because whoever was serving the pasta had served too much, too soon and now there wasn’t spaghetti with crab sauce for everybody. Portion control was never our strong suit. That runs in the family even at a table of two or three.
After dinner we sang songs and Christmas Carols as everyone nibbled on fennel – finocchio in Italian – because it’s supposed to aid in digestion. I swear only Italians worry about this stuff. One of my uncles or cousins would play Santa. This was after all the elders convinced the kids that a few tiny water stains on the drop ceiling tile were actually the imprints of reindeer hooves. Hey, at the time, I totally bought it.
It’s sad but all too common: the matriarch or the patriarch of a family passes on and the family unravels. Indeed, after Poppa died, so did Christmas Eve on 17th Street. Everyone went their separate ways and started their own traditions with their own families. But, don’t worry, we still keep it real at my house. Even Grandma Napoli at 92 is still cranking out the struffoli and the guanti. Imported from Bensonhurst with love and devoured in Bay Ridge in seconds.
Buona Natale and happy holidays to you and your family! Cherish every moment with your matriarchs and patriarchs. Because, at the end of the day, family is all that matters.
Justin Brannan is a community activist, born and raised in Bay Ridge. He and his wife Leigh own a small business on Third Avenue. He is also exploring a run for City Council.