With only a few days left before Christmas Eve, 2016, I feel compelled to write about what this magical night meant to me as a child growing up in New York.
It is by no means an exaggeration to say that this was my favorite day/night of the year, hands down.I think I may be speaking for my brother as well, but he may address that himself.
Much of the credit for making this such a special evening for me goes to our parent, who made certain we experienced all the emotions that the evening could muster. I think it was probably their favorite night of the year as well.
I have previously written about putting up the Tree, our trips to Rockefeller center and Saint Patricks along with all the other preparation for Christmas. Well, all the excitement, planning and anticipation culminated for me on Christmas Eve. I looked forward to this evening as soon as Thanksgiving was over and all other activities, such as those just mentioned, were wonderful teasing preparations thatled up to the joy of the Christmas Eve meal at our small apartment.
Christmas Eve was “our” holiday to host. Each family unit had a holiday at which the rest of the familywould gather at their “place” to enjoy the wonder of the day. Christmas Day was Aunt Ruth and UncleVincent’s Home, New Year’s Day was Aunt Mary and Uncle Dick ,etc. But Christmas Eve was ours and,somehow, Mom and Dad would find a way to squeeze the majority of the family into a smallapartment and make them feel comfortable.
The day started with Dad and I ,and when he was old enough, Robert heading down to Bleeker Streetand Little Italy to get all the finishing touches for the feast Mom was preparing: Fresh bread,delectable pastries and cookies and fresh fruit, and of course, cheap wine. The Pasta, Fish, salad andother ingredients of the main course were already being prepared at home by Mom. The aromas inthat apartment were mouthwatering.
I loved the walk and shopping in Little Italy. The streets were crowded with people purchasingdelicacies for their Christmas Eve meal. In the NY Italian community, Christmas Eve was it, no close seconds. If a trip to Little Italy on Christmas Eve didn’t put one into a festive mood, nothing would.
When we got home, we helped, as best we could help mom get the table ready, move chairs andprepare our small bedroom to become a coat closet rather than a place for Rob and I to sleep. As theday moved toward evening, the excitement raised to fever pitch. The gifts mom had bought for mycousins were placed under the small tree, the pasta water began to boil, causing the closet sizedkitchen to turn in to a sauna, and the sauce simmering in the huge pot on the stove began to give outits delectable aroma. The Fish and Shrimp broiling in the oven began to take on the almost done look.I think Mom began perspiring around 3 in the afternoon and she didn’t cool down until everyone left,close to 11PM.
AS afternoon gave way to evening, the city light would come on , adding to the overall atmosphere.Our tree lights were lit and now all there was to do (for us kids anyway) was wait for family to start toarrive, and about 5pm they did exactly that. Aunt Fil, Uncle Jim, Aunt Mary, Uncle Dick, cousins Robin and Lorraine, Uncle Tony, Aunt Agnus, Aunt Mildred, Uncle Santino……… all bearing beautifully wrapped gifts which we placed under the tree.
The wine came out and poured, appetizers served and the feast began. As most of you know, a holiday Italian dinner is about 300 courses, and this was no exception. Salads, fish, pasta, cold cuts,breads, pastries, coffee, nuts, cakes, fruits……. It never ended until we were so full we felt we musthave looked as fat as Santa himself. After dinner was the time we looked forward to most, the givingof the gifts to the kids. One of the Uncles always took the role as the gift announcer. His job was toread the card and announce to which kid the gift was to go to. The ritual then involved the lucky kidopening the gift, showing it to the crowd (to the obligatory “oohs” and “Ahhs”), and then thanking thegiver: “To Donald, from Fil and Uncle Jim….” What great time.
Once the gifts were opened and “thanks yous” made, the kids became engrossed in their treasureswhile the “grown-ups” enjoyed yet more food and drink. As the evening wore down to a close, one ofthe adults always, without fail, warned us kids that we had better get to bed soon, as Santa wouldsoon arrive. More magic. There was always the radio station helping the situation by reporting Santaspotted over the Atlantic and on his way to New York…. We could not get to bed any faster!
We drifted off to sleep, very slowly may I add, holding on to our gifts and waiting with excitedanticipation for the morning and the discovery of Santas’ gifts.
One of my fondest memories of a Christmas Eve was when I was seven years old.Robert was just one.It was getting close to the time the guests would arrive and I realized I didn’t have a real gift for Mom.I did have my hand made Christmas card that I had made for her at school , but I wanted to give hersomething… a real gift. I told Dad, and bless his heart , he said , “ ok, let’s take a walk to 14th streetand find her something. It was perfect: it had started to lightly snow and it was good and cold. Thestreets were alive and I felt alive . Now, what to get her? Dad suggested perhaps a record? That wasit! JShe loved music and Dad and her were always listening to Sinatra records, maybe we could findone she didn’t have!. We went to one of the many record stores on 14th street and began scouring thealbums for something by the Chairman of the Board. I remember looking up and seeing a sign, it wasfor a new release by Sinatra…. “A Jolly Christmas” from Frank Sinatra. That’s what I wanted to get her.Dad agreed and shelled out the money for me to get Mom a gift. (lol)I held the album tight to mychest on the cold walk home. I was so excited to give it to her and I remember her smile as if it wasyesterday. “ oh! You got me an Album by Frank? A Christmas album? I didn’t know he had one out!”.Dad said he didn’t either and maybe it would be good.
We played the album as we waited for the family to arrive and the rest, as they say , is history. Fromthat moment on, every Christmas since then to today…. This album has been a vital part of whatChristmas is for our family…. Four generations later and going strong. I fully expect my great, greatgrandkids to be playing this album on Chrisman Eve …
My favorite night of the year.