For me it’s the best day of the year. It’s about food and family. I cook until I’m ready to drop. But at one point of the evening I stop and think of what it was like when I was a kid. I reprint this column every year because I will never forget …
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 for the traditional Christmas Day fare. This wasn’t us. 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 . . .
All of our Christmas Eve meals started at 7 p.m. when my father came home from work. At 11 p.m.—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 . . .
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 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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