Jerry Della Femina
CHRISTMAS EVE IN BROOKLYN (12/22/20)
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
I repeat this column every year. It’s about family and memories. This Christmas Eve will be sadly different. It’s the first Christmas of my life that I won’t be celebrating with my wonderful brother Joe, who we lost to Covid in March.
I won’t be cooking for 40…50 members of my family this year; there will only be 8 of us. But we’re a strong family and we all love each other so much that with this meal there will be a promise…
The same promise that rang out in our beloved Brooklyn every year when I was a boy:
“WAIT ’TIL NEXT YEAR!”
************************ It wasn’t about Christmas Day for us. Christmas Day was about turkeys and hams and cranberry sauce. That wasn’t our food. The holiday ads of the time showed illustrations of waspy-looking, Norman Rockwell types bowing their blond heads in prayer before they chowed down the traditional Christmas Day fare. This wasn’t us. It’s not that we had anything against this. It’s just that our parents and grandparents were still desperately holding on to Italy and the Italian customs they brought to this country. We knew we had little in common with the people who owned this country, but Christmas was the one holiday equalizer. It was something we all shared. We just chose to celebrate the birth of Christ the night before Christmas instead of on the day itself. So my memories are Christmas Eve reminiscences, and they’re sweet and pleasant to recall. I remember my grandmother starting to prepare the Christmas Eve dinner in early October by pickling cauliflower and onions and peppers and anchovies... The sweet smell of chestnuts as they burned until they were inedible (we forgot them in the oven every year)... My mom haggling with the man who sold Christmas trees on Avenue U... She would buy the tree on the night of December 24. She always wanted to pay 50 cents. He would always hold out for a dollar. “You won’t be able to sell it in a few hours,” she would taunt. “I’d rather burn them,” he would reply. Every year they would settle at 75 cents... I remember eels being cut up in little pieces, dipped in egg, and dredged in flour. Then, after they were tossed into a skillet in hot oil, the pieces would start to wiggle. It was right out of a horror movie. It made me wonder about life after death... I remember how I would sneak into our tiny kitchen and sweet-talk my grandmother into giving me a taste of the mountain of food she had cooked for our family. The meal started with pinkie-sized, crisp little nameless fish that were fried and were to be eaten whole. Then came the polpo (octopus), which was cooked in a garlicky tomato broth. There was a rich, briny, clam sauce waiting to be tossed with linguini; shrimps baked, fried, breaded; baccala (cod), which had been bought dry and soaked for days, now rested in a platter, smothered with fried onions and capers. A fish salad with every delicious fish in the sea, swimming in garlic and lemon and olive oil. Today, so many, many years later, I marvel that the memory can still make my mouth water... All of our Christmas Eve meals started at 7 PM when my father came home from work. At 11 PM – four hours of solid eating later – it was time for dessert. There was fresh fruit for the faint of heart, but the diehards would dive into the white cardboard boxes that were filled with dozens of Italian pastries with wonderful names like cannoli, pasticciotto, sfogliatella. We wouldn’t stop eating until the boxes were empty. Each morsel, every crumb, was a way of holding on to the holiday for a few minutes more... I remember one year my grandfather, perhaps a little tipsy from the combination of food and drink, helped me to set aside a glass of red wine for Santa. It was empty when I woke up the next day... We were pretty broke, but somehow Santa managed to bring me everything I ever wanted. The best present I ever got was a new Schwinn bicycle. It shows you what a trip to Beneficial Finance could do to make the spirits bright... I took a chilly subway train ride with my dad one Christmas Eve in search of phonograph needles so we could play an old-fashioned phonograph and listen to some ancient Italian records. We found the needles in a little shop near Coney Island. When we rushed home and tried to play the records, we discovered that the phonograph motor was worn down and Enrico Caruso sounded like he was on Quaaludes. Not that anyone ever heard of Quaaludes in those days. The only drugs we knew were called Luckys and Camels and Chesterfields... When I was 16, my parents bought me a 45 rpm record player and gave it to me on Christmas Eve. That night, I had just one 45 record (Doris Day singing “Secret Love”). I listened to the same song over and over and over and fell in love with the blond, freckled singer. I still can’t hear that song without thinking of that night... Then there was the Christmas Eve night that Manlio “Junior” Fossatti (age 11) decided to tell me (age nine) that there wasn’t any Santa Claus. He told me while we waited in the 86th Street station of the Sea Beach line for our fathers to come home from work. While he was at it, he also told me about sex. You lose one, you win one, I always say... The Christmas tree ornaments were mostly handmade and had been around since the 1920s. My favorite was a little porcelain Betty Boop character. I realize now it was as close to a family heirloom as we got... Every Christmas Eve at midnight, Mrs. Calabrese from across the street (I was born on the second-floor apartment of her house – she was the midwife) would bring us a platter filled with hot zeppoli, which was simply fried puffs of dough covered with honey. My brother Joe and I would burn our fingers and tongues racing to be sure to get the last piece... The night before Christmas on West 7th Street in Brooklyn was always the best night of the year. The food was so delicious – it will always exist in our memories. It was a time when the language spoken was Italian with just enough English thrown in to remind us where we lived. It was a time when young couples walked past our windows as they went to midnight Mass at St. Simon and Jude Church or Our Lady of Grace Church. It was a time when life was easy... The night before Christmas on West 7th Street in Brooklyn. It’s with me at this time every year.
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