Christmas Eve celebrations in Italian families are legendary for the amount of food, fun and of course faith. And by faith, I mean a trip to church for Midnight Mass. But let’s get back to the food. With the exception of an Italian wedding, you’ll not see this much food at any other time of the year.
It’s a pescatarian feast with every kind of fish and seafood known to man. It’s known as Il Cenone di Vigilia, the feast of the seven fishes, but there are often more than seven courses. In my family, everyone’s favorite dish was always the salted cod called Baccala. And boy could it stink up your house.
You can imagine my Irish-American husband’s reaction at his first Christmas Eve dinner “tra famiglia” at my mother’s house with all of this strange and exotic food.
It was also our first Christmas as a family, as we had our first daughter who was about nine months old at the time. And boy was she energized by all the festivities. She sat on my lap watching the comings and goings of friends and family throughout the night. She ripped open presents, she clapped and she sang. But she didn’t eat a thing.
It was then I knew that she was definitely her father’s daughter as she turned up her nose at every appetizer I put before her. My husband looked at her and nodded in sympathy as he waited trepidatiously for the main course of stuffed lobster.
But my mother was adamant about not putting out any main dishes until my brother Tony arrived. After all she said this was “his day.”
Carmen looked at her skeptically as he just finished his second bowl of calamari in brodo. It was getting late and we were still waiting for the guest of honor. It was strange that he wasn’t home yet. My mother finally gave in and gave the nod to proceed as the food was getting cold.
And just as we were about to dig into the main dishes, the front, back and side doors burst open. And we all jumped as three men entered the house. I’d like to tell you they were the three wise men but they were not – it was law enforcement.
Up until this time I had no idea that my brother was involved in anything other than a floating crap game. My husband and brother Carmen, however, were a bit wiser but thought it best not to worry me.
My mom, my daughter and I couldn’t be more surprised if St. Nick popped out of the chimney tap dancing.. I presumed they were Federal Marshals from the six pointed stars they wore. The irony of it made me laugh as I looked at the star on top of the Christmas tree.
Then they asked my mother if she knew the whereabouts of my brother. My mother was as stunned as I was. And so she said the first thing that came to her head, “Try church.”
The men, satisfied that Tony was not in the house, left as abruptly as they came. Our festa was ruined. Tony was missing and everyone was upset – everyone except for my daughter who didn’t have a clue as to what had just happened and didn’t care.
Many years later she and I were talking about all of the fuss that goes into making baby’s first Christmas a special event these days. And even though she doesn’t remember it, she laughs when she thinks about her first Christmas. And to make me feel better she likes to tell me, “I’d rather have a good story than some silly ornament that puts in an appearance once a year.”
I never needed an ornament to tell her that to me she was a star. Shine on!