The tasty part of Christmas

Dec 19, 2018 1139

BY: Charles Sacchetti

Christmas is a wonderful holiday.  As I grew up, this was always evident and proven year after year in our loving Italian-American family. Most importantly was the religious aspect of Christmas, where we celebrated the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by attending mass and receiving Holy Communion. Our little church, Our Lady of Loreto, at 62nd and Grays Ave, in Southwest Philly, was always beautifully decorated and upon entering on Christmas day one could feel the warmth and love that permeated the small sanctuary. 

Our home was also full of decorations, the artistry provided by our mother.  In addition to the typical wreaths, garland and holly, Mom displayed her own creativity in many different ways.  Every year she would take out a tube of her favorite lipstick and write “Happy Birthday Baby Jesus” on the large wall mirror in our living room.  She would do the same in our large picture window at the front of the house. 

Mom would also decorate our inside wrought iron stairway with red and green ribbon that attached about 50 white Styrofoam bells. Each year, it was my job to put up the outside lights which I did with my best buddy.  We didn’t have to do a very large area, since our row house was only about 20 feet wide.  Much of our time was spent untangling the wires that we “neatly” stored from the year before and picking up the broken multicolored lightbulbs that crashed to the pavement when we dropped them.  Eventually the job was done and it was time for Mom to whip up a batch of hot chocolate for her hard working boys who were always chilled to the bone.  As I look back, it seems that winter was always colder back then. 

Oh yes, and then there was the food!

Each Christmas eve, we dutifully celebrated the Festa dei sette pesci or Feast of the seven fishes. Mom would work for days in preparation and usually my efforts to raid the kitchen, for a little pre game “quality control” work, were thwarted.  A typical Christmas Eve meal would consist of: Spaghetti with white clam sauce; Spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and anchovies, (in Italian….La Alice, pronounced Ah-lee-chi); Fried smelts; Baccala (salted cod); Fried shrimp; Fried flounder; Stuffed calamari (squid) in marinara sauce. 

Mom was great with numbers.  She could beat me in speed addition with ease but she had a little trouble with the number 7.  Many times the 7 fishes became 8 or 9!  My favorites were the stuffed calamari and the spaghetti with anchovies. If I close my eyes, I can smell the aroma that is imprinted in my mind.

It’s important to note that this Christmas Eve meal was usually attended by just immediate family.  The get together with the extended family happened late Christmas afternoon and evening after the gifts were opened and the 1p.m. Christmas meal was enjoyed.  This meal would usually consist of either ravioli or stuffed shells.  Of course, Crusty Italian bread, meatballs, sausage and pork would be served after the pasta.  Escarole (scarola) soup, now called “Italian wedding soup”, with little meatballs would precede the main course and the salad was always served last. The meal was topped off with fresh biscotti, cookies or one of Mom’s signature creations, like Pineapple Upside-Down cake.

The Christmas evening get-together occurred at Grand-Pop’s house on Moore Street in South Philly.  Here all of the brothers and the only sister along with their spouses and kids would gather for more desserts, some homemade wine, nuts of all kinds and some hotly contested card games.  When my cousins and I were little kids, we would have a ball running around the spacious living room and playing with some of the new toys we brought with us.  When we became 12 years old we were permitted to have a little of Grand-Pop’s homemade wine.  It was a coming of age.

The period of time between Christmas and New Year’s was spent visiting the homes of my aunts and uncles.  All of my aunts were great bakers and made their own favorite cookies for all to enjoy.  It simply was not possible to enter one of the homes and not eat. It would be an insult.  Not that I needed any convincing.  One regret that I have is that many of the recipes for these great pastries were never written down, existing only in the heads of these wonderful women and ended going to heaven with my mother and aunts. It’s a good thing that angels and saints don’t have to worry about gaining weight!

Christmas is still a wonderful holiday alright but it will never be like it was back in the old days.  It was a magical time, full of tradition and people that we loved and enjoyed.  I choose not to lament over the loss of those times but instead to enjoy our new family traditions and regard the old Christmases as a yearly blessing given to all of us in honor of the birth of the One who we love most of all. 

Charles Sacchetti is the author of the book: It’s All Good: Times and Events I’d Never Want to Change. His new book, Knowing He’s There: True Stories of God’s Subtle Yet Unmistakable Touch in the final stages of production.  Contact him at [email protected]

You may be interested