Family Food Heritage Holidays Tradition

For Want of Christmas Eve

As a child, I looked forward to Christmas morning. Waiting impatiently in my room for the okay to head to the living room to see what Santa left for us. Throughout the day I would stack and restack the boxes and show my presents off to my relatives.

As I hit high school and became an adult, it was Christmas Eve I really liked. It came down to three things: faith, family, and of course, food.

We didn’t call it the “feast of the seven fishes,” or any other fancy name. We just called it Christmas Eve. It was the one time of year Grandma took our her pink bowl to make the smelts. We would eat a little later than our regimented 3:00 p.m. we observed on Sundays and most other holidays. We would enjoy a meal of smelts, cold baccala salad, seafood salad, scungilli, stuffed calamari, and linguine with either white or red clam sauce, among other wonderful treats usually served only that night. Of course there was always plenty of wine.

Glenn and Andrea, Christmas morning, Irving Street
Glenn and I on Irving Street; our first Christmas morning as husband and wife.

We would sit and eat, and talk, and laugh. Dessert was usually quite simple. Nuts, fruit, and maybe a cheesecake or other pie. But not always.

When I was in high school, I would meet up with my friends and as a group we would go to Midnight Mass. Where we went would vary based on our meetup location and which church was holding mass. My parish was Holy Family in Nutley, but I don’t remember going there very often for Midnight Mass. After mass we would all as a group go to the Arlington diner for coffee and more dessert.

Christmas was still exciting and fun, but Christmas Eve; well, that was where it was at.

It was always my father’s job to get my Aunt Mary’s table out of the basement and attach the legs. We would then reposition the current dining room table to accommodate the additional table. We used to joke about whomever got stuck sitting at the spot where the two tables joined was the “10th child.” We were a huge bunch.

Now, not so much.

Our holidays are down to single digits and it gets harder every year. No one eats smelts and I am only one of two of us that still enjoys baccala. It’s a real challenge to keep those traditions alive.

I still only eat fish on Christmas Eve and I make sure to watch the Christmas Eve mass from Rome. Another long-standing tradition now that fewer and fewer churches offer Midnight Mass in my area.

Times change. People change. But I can think back and remember and share those memories with my niece. Hopefully she will carry forward our family traditions and recipes.

Buon Natale.

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