Saturday, December 17, 2005

Christmas Ghosts

Around this time of year I think about holiday seasons past and how great they were. The best memories are when I was growing up in New York. It was a given that I would see all of my family in the 48 hours that is Christmas Eve and Christmas. The Eve was always hosted by my parents at our house on Staten Island. My mother in her infinite wisdom and superb taste opted for our family to live on the older north side of the island in the neighborhood of West Brighton, far away from the garbage dump and the rest of the island populated with soulless ranch style homes that came out of a house factory. We lived in an old house built at the turn of the century heated solely by coal stoves, one in the kitchen and the other in the library. The charm of the house was multiplied by a factor of ten at christmastime when it was decorated.

As a child it was my job to greet our guests at the front door on Christmas Eve as they arrived for the impending feast. The moments of each relatives arrival are securely locked in my memory. I am the youngest child of five and am fourteen years apart from the next youngest in age. Essentially I grew up like and only child and seeing my family assembled together, all of whom were older, was a rare and welcomed treat. Each year I'd see the faces of my aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, and sister smile and enter into the house from the cold. At this time of year each one of their faces, just as they were then, flash in my minds eye.

Being completely Italian our family always had the traditional seven different kinds of fish on Christmas eve. It is said that this tradition originates from the Seven Sacraments in the Catholic faith or the seven hills of Rome. In hindsight I think it was the food and not the opportunity to spend time with family that drew everyone to our house. As soon as the guests arrived they would be assaulted by the fragrant odors of shrimp scampi, calamari, mussels, clams, baccala, polenta and a myriad of other traditional Italian dishes. Food is a powerful thing and every year it brought our family together. I would be so happy when I'd walk into the kitchen to see everyone standing around the harvest table grazing on all of the delicacies prepared by my mom and dad.

Of course this scene would not be complete without my parents in the kitchen arguing about how to cook each dish. Any guest that night that wasn't a part of the family eventually would ask if my parents were having marital problems. Insiders would laugh heartily and reply to them in an Italo-Brooklyn-Staten Island accent accompanied by hand gestures, "When they're not yelling at each other, that's when you know there's a problem."

One person in particular that I have the fondest memories of around this time of year is my grandmother. She was the only grandparent I knew and she and I were very close. Being the matriarch of the family she didn't feel the need to have to mingle with everyone but they all made sure to approach her and kiss her as they all entered. Being the youngest of the family I had the same kind of reception. Everyone was too old for me to talk to or play with for the entire evening but they all said hi. My grandmother was an indefatigable companion and we relished in each others company. I was always by her side in the library and as each person departed after delivering their salutation she would annotate each person with some kind of commentary, "Your cousin got fat," or "I don't understand how these kids dress." I loved every minute of it and I was thrilled to be her companion for the evening. When it came time to eat I would bound into the kitchen and prepare a plate of calamari for grandma and me. She and I had a penchant for the tentacles, or fangs as she called them, and we'd sit by the coal stove in the library and enjoy our fried treats.

When you're a child the forces of time and change seem inconsequential. I always thought that every Christmas would be like they were when I was a child. As I got older Christmastime was subject to the ravages of time and change. We moved to Arizona and thus no cold weather or charming coal stoves to warm the house. The family couldn't gather for Christmas Eve anymore and acquiring seafood in the desert was a trial. I'd lose a brother and my grandmother. However, time and change has also brought me nieces, nephews and Brad and his family. For me, and so many, Christmas is a melancholy time for me. I am filled with joy for the company of friends and family that are with me now but my heart aches for the Christmases of my childhood. Each year the memories get a little cloudier but the emotion associated with each is as strong as it was then.

Whatever happened to Christmas? It's gone and left no traces,
Whatever happened to the faces or the glow,
Whatever happened to Christmas, to Christmas way of living?
Whatever happened to the giving, the magic in the snow?
Remember the sight and the smell and the sound,
And remember hearing the call,
Remember how love was all around, whatever happened to it all?
Whatever happened to Christmas, bells in the streets were ringing,
Whatever happened to the singing, the songs we used to know.
Whatever happened to this Christmas, and when did it disappeared from view,
Where was I, and whatever happened to you?
Whatever happened to Christmas and you?
-Frank Sinatra


Blogger Hypoxic said...

Adam, great post! Thanks for sharing your early Chritmas traditions. I'm sure those memories are priceless for you.

My boss is from Bensonhurst and a very traditional Italian family and I've heard him talk about the fish on Christmas eve. I always though it was a strange custom because I just never associated fish with Christmas. - but it's those strang customs that make life so interesting.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Spider said...

Adam - Christmas memories are some of the best you can have - and yours sound wonderful - thanks for sharing them with us!

3:54 PM  
Blogger Donnie said...

That was beautiful Adam, thank you.

4:59 PM  
Blogger tornwordo said...

Thanks for the little trip down Christmas memory lane. I can't decide if "nostalgia" feels good or not. It does in kind of a bitter way.

6:43 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

Ah.... Christmas Tradition. Being half Sicilian, I know the Italian tradition. Chirstmas Eve is really more important to my family that Christmas Day. We do the whole Manacotti and calamari thing. The Asti Spumonte is flowing and we are louder than a bunch of screaming Fran Dreschers. Fortunately, we're all recovering Catholics, so we don't do the Church/Midnight mass thing anymore. Love your visualizations! Happy Holidays!!!!!!!!!

3:21 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

That was both sweet and sad at the same time.

I know what you mean about Christmas. A lot of the traditions from my childhood are gone as well. I guess you are at that crossroads where you can start your own traditions.

Your post really made me think about some things. Thank you for that. I know this Christmas won't be like the ones from your past, but I do hope you have a happy one :)

10:15 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

A sweet post

I understand feeling like an only child. I was the youngest of four brothers and the difference between me and the next oldest was eight years.

In the same vein, I only knew one of my grandparents and she died when I was seven.

11:34 AM  

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