When I was growing up in Indiana in the 1960s, Christmas meant time off school, time to play in the snow and make a snowman. I always received Perfect Attendance Awards in school, mostly because I was healthy, but also because, even if I had a tummy ache, my mom ignored my complaints and sent me off to catch the bus. Unfortunately, as soon as Christmas vacation came around, I usually got sick and spent the first day or two in bed with the flu.
Christmas time meant a family drive to Chicago to see the Christmas decorations in the shop windows along the Magnificent Mile, a one-mile stretch of shops on North Michigan Avenue between Oak Street and the Chicago River. I loved my Dad fiercely as he fearlessly drove alongside big trucks and thick traffic to get us safely into the heart of the big city. We splurged on paid parking, but we saved on meals: mom packed her homemade impinialata (olive onion bread) and had prepared plenty of hardboiled eggs. In our family, there was no driving adventure without at least a dozen hardboiled eggs in tow. (Years later, the first time Rick went on a road trip with my family, when offered a second hard boiled egg, he asked me, “What’s with the eggs?”) In the big city, bundled up as I was, my little feet always got painfully cold and my dad had to give me horseback rides up on his shoulders! The Christmas decorations looked especially beautiful from up high.
Christmas meant having the whole family together. It meant dad coming home early from work at the Indiana Toll Road on Christmas Eve. He entered the house, bringing in snowflakes and a gust of freezing wind, holding a gigantic basket filled with jam, cured meats, mustards, nuts, various types of cheese, crackers, fresh pears, dried fruits, and deluxe chocolates. He proudly handed the basket over to us as we unwrapped it and inspected its rich contents. He won a gift basket year after year for being one of Indiana Toll Road’s best and hardest working employees.
We loved Christmas because it meant my dad had a few days off work and we got to spend every waking moment in his lovely company, all of us! We played his favorite opera and Sicilian folk music records on the turntable. He told us stories of the old country, he sang for us, and he smiled his beautiful contagious smile as he and mom made homemade sausage. The sausage meat mix was ground pork, flavored with salt, cracked pepper, oregano, aniseed, and red pepper flakes. I begged for bits of raw seasoned meat before it made its way into the sausage casings via the hand-crank machine. Again and again, mom and dad patiently swatted my little hands away. Those were the happiest of times.
Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at St. Stephen’s was packed with other large Catholic families. Some families were so big, they took up a whole pew. My family -seven of us always arriving late- took the back row. Why were we late? Because mom always had one more chore to do, one more dish to prepare, one more item to put away, one more daughter to dress, one more door to lock. Dad waited patiently in the car. He sat rubbing his gloved frigid hands together and kept the engine running, the car warming up, the windows frost-free.
No one saw our new outfits at Midnight Mass. We kept our heavy coats on during mass because it was so cold. I felt like an Italian-American Eskimo, but at least I could snuggle deep into my coat and doze on and off, unnoticed, during the long late-night mass. The priest, rather than celebrating the many people attending midnight mass, scolded those who only showed up for the holiday masses. I counted the seconds for mass to end. Mom stood at her full height, which was not very tall at all, proud of her well-dressed, bundled up daughters and her handsome husband, proud of the fact that my family never missed a single Sunday mass throughout the year. We were not the ones being scolded. Dad had a smirk on his face as he remembered Midnight Mass of his boyhood at Santo Rocco back in Grotte, where he, the cute blond prankster, tied all the widows’ black shawls together so when they made to leave, their shawls fell off their shoulders in one big tangle! What a commotion! He dared repeat his prank every year and no one ever figured out who the prankster was!
After mass, we came back home and opened gifts under the artificial silver Christmas tree that we, as a family, had proudly assembled and decorated with tinsel and mom’s ancient Christmas ornaments from Grotte, Sicily. The ornaments were hand-painted, made of delicate glass. How carefully we handled them, knowing they were mom’s treasures. She’d certainly kill us if we broke one.
The other treasure was the nativity set my family had brought over from Sicily. On the days leading up to Christmas and for days after the holiday, I loved to say goodnight to baby Jesus before going to bed. I could stare at the tiny figures for a long time and study the faces of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, the three kings, the sheep and the cows. The figures of the nativity cast a spell over me. Their faces held magic, a mystery that was too profound for me, a mere child, to understand. The nativity set, I knew, represented the rock that held my family in a steadfast knot of faith.
After midnight mass, we were each handed a wrapped gift from under the tree, while an electric light-gadget facing the silver decorated tree went round and round, magically casting colors and turning the silver tree and tinsel into a spectrum of red, blue, green, gold, and orange.
When I was little, my big sisters told me that Santa was a hoax and that the gifts from Santa actually came from mom and dad. I cried because what they told me was dreadful. How could they have come up with such a cruel story? I told my mom what I had heard. My mom sternly told me that if I continued to believe in Santa, I’d keep getting gifts from him, but that if I chose to believe that he did not exist, Santa would then stop bringing me gifts. It didn’t take genius-brains to figure out what I was supposed to do. I continued to receive gifts from Santa until I was 12.
I received dolls and toys until I lost interest in them. Most of the dolls came from Aunt Lily. Aunt Lily did not have children, so she splurged when it came to gift giving for her brother’s children. She was my godmother and adored me! She brought gifts for all my sisters, but I thought my gifts from her were always super special. I secretly believed she loved me more than anyone else in the world. When I lost interest in dolls, I started receiving practical gifts: underwear, socks, a winter coat, boots, a sweater, scarf, hat, mittens, flannel pajamas, slippers, and long underwear. We children received clothing items to keep us warm during long Indiana winters.
Mom cooked and baked for days before Christmas. We children were given the difficult jobs, like cutting onions and peeling garlic. Can’t believe I am divulging this embarrassing detail, but she made us girls wear hairnets in the kitchen! Serious eating began for my family on December 24 and continued for the next 24 hours. On Christmas day, Mom put a sea of fold-up tables together in the basement and then came the tablecloths, one tablecloth overlapping another. Out came her finest plates, the best glassware, and polished silverware. The concept of potluck did not exist in my family. If my mom was hosting Christmas, she made the entire meal. My dad’s sisters came over and helped with the finishing touches.
The gathering was no fewer than 20 people. We began with a pasta dish, usually lasagna or spaghetti with meatballs, followed by Italian Sausage with roasted peppers and onions. There was always a potato salad with hard-boiled eggs, a baked ham, salad, homemade bread, olives, and dad’s homemade wine. The meal went on and on. I will never forget those Christmas meals!
We ate with gusto and we all drank wine, including the children. Everyone talked and laughed at the same time. The noise level kept going up. My boy cousins could really tuck the food away into their bellies. Watching them eat pleased my mom to no end! The adults and the children all sat at the same table and we all interacted with one another.
At some point, eventually, my mom and the other adult ladies would clear the table, quickly do the dishes, and pull out the baked cookies! Someone started a pot of coffee. Even though I was allowed to drink wine, I was not allowed to drink coffee. A well-kept secret was that Aunt Lily let me drink coffee when I spent the night at her house. I kept my word to Aunt Lily and I never told my mother. I loved how the coffee made my heart pound! I always loved the smell of coffee. It smelled of comfort, warmth, of happiness. It smelled of home. My home.
And out came the desserts! Mom’s Sicilian Fig Cookies were the best. Mom called them cucciddrati. I think she made them from memory because I never found her recipe for them (recipes are below, just before the photos). The best part of cucciddrati is that they are topped with a frosting made of butter, confectioner’s sugar, and milk, and topped with colorful nonpareil sprinkles. Mom also made Anisette Cookies. Nonna Licata used to send a box of baked cookies for Christmas. The treasure in Nonna’s box sent to us from Grotte was the cobaita, a pure-goodness-almond-brittle that my grandmother made with sun-roasted almonds from her orchard. They tasted of Sicily!
Mom also made Sesame Seed Cookies, which are called giugiuleni in Sicilian. These hard cookies were delicious dipped in coffee. When in my mother’s house, I dipped them in milk. At Aunt Lily’s house, I dipped them in coffee!
Don’t forget we lived in Indiana, so a bit of the Midwest came into the dessert scene. Alongside the almond cobaita, the dried fig filled cucciddrati, and the sesame studded giugiuleni, mom presented her freshly made Hoosier delicacies such as potato chip cookies, or jello embedded with either cottage cheese or miniature marshmallows.
And NUTS! Christmas was not Christmas without a huge bag of roasted nuts. By the end of the evening, there were piles of nutshells on the table. My dad would crack nuts for me because I didn’t have the strength to crack a single nut. I couldn’t even crack open my favorite almonds and hazelnuts! As my dad cracked the nuts for me, he’d tell his stories!
After the gargantuan meal, the adults played card games. Sounds of coins, banter, laughter still fills my ears. It feels like yesterday when I watched the adults become as playful as we children were. Sometimes we all formed a circle or a train and did Sicilian folk dancing. We’d move the tables so mom and dad could dance the tarantella. They were so light on their feet. Sometimes we children played “chase” and if you got caught, you nearly got tickled to death. The adults told jokes not meant for children’s ears. We were sent off to play, but we hid nearby and listened. We had a hard time understanding the play on words and the various puns in their slurred fast-clipped wine-dipped Sicilian dialect. The jokes went over our heads.
My mom would tell her animated played-out funny stories for all of us to hear. Every year, her bawdy stories grew more embellished, more dramatic, more comical! She told her entertaining stories about flatulence happening at the most inopportune moments. One of her stories, which took place at the Italian-American picnic grounds, was about an unfortunate elderly Sicilian immigrant lady, about to sit on a toilet seat, surprising a bird that was taking a dip in the very toilet she was about to sit on. Mom also had a pocketful of stories about the many colorful characters back in Grotte. Her stories filled every corner of our humble home with resounding laughter. Every Christmas, our house became a palace, complete with a banquet hall, a ballroom, and a court jester!
My Christmases as an adult are now quiet, the way I have grown to love them. This year, Rick and I spent three exquisite days at La Push, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula. The weather treated us well. We enjoyed cold crisp frost-and-sun-filled days, took long walks, enjoyed each others’ company, caught up on sleep, read books, watched the sunrises and sunsets, and savored life as it is today. I find I do not yearn for the Christmases of my childhood, but every Christmas I do say a silent prayer of thanks to my parents and my aunties for giving me the gift of Christmas memories I will carry in my heart for as long as I live.
- Recipe for cucciddrati (on line they are spelled without the “r” though my mother pronounced an “r” in the word)
- Recipe for giugiuleni (and also another one for cuccidrati)
And below are photos from our fabulous Christmas this year at La Push, Washington on the Olympic Peninsula.