At times I really envied my cousin Nadia’s family's rooted past. By the time I was five I’d had enough changes to last a lifetime.
My folks had to learn a lot of new things after they had come to America. For example, in Malta Christmas was celebrated without Christmas trees. Tree shopping was something very new for my parents. But, after their first two American Christmases, Ma was comfortable enough to get her usual real bargains.
We would go to the parking lot where the trees had magically appeared, like the ground beef at the A & P. There we’d browse until we’d found a tree we liked. Ma would quickly switch our chosen tree’s price tag with that of a cheaper tree which no one liked. Then we’d carry the chosen tree to the clerk, who gave us the fish eye as he noticed the fullness of such a ‘good find’. Then he’d sigh and take Ma’s money. The whole deal would be done in ten minutes.
Another American Christmas had begun for us.
In Corona Christmas was a festive season. It began with the first Sunday of Advent, was packed with feastdays of special saints such as St. Barbara on December fourth, and ended on January sixth with a visit from La Befana.
December twenty-fourth was an all-day family affair. At lunchtime we visited Aunt Demi. She was the eldest sister. It was a sign of respect. The visit there was always short. Aunt Demi never let us forget how much she had slaved over the holiday. She had a talent for inducing guilt with a weary ‘Do you know how long I slaved over this dish’ look. Everyone understood. The Aunts knew how many platters of cookies Aunt Demi had in the pantry. We all knew that she was determined to unload every one them.
Maltese desserts are simple: fresh fruit and cheese with an occasional cookie. One Maltese cookie, the biskuttini tar rahal, could be described as hardened library paste with a hint of lemon and a dash of rock hard royal icing. A variation on the biskuttini cuts the sugar by half and replaces the royal icing with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Both cookies are wonderful teething rings.
Another favorite is the biscotti. The big thrill with a biscotti is seeing how much milk it can suck up before breaking in half and falling into your glass. It’s like eating the sinking Titanic. For the holidays, we borrowed recipes from the Sicilians and made kannoli tar-rikotta (ricotta in a fried pastry tube) or a qassata (a sponge cake covered with vanilla custard).
For our main Christmas Eve festivities, we gathered at Uncle Des and Aunt Betty’s home. A whole corner of their living room was filled with Nonni DiNoto’s manger scene. St. Francis would’ve loved what Nonni DiNoto had done with his presepio idea.
Nonni DiNoto’s daughter Betty had married Pop’s brother Des. Then, two years after we had arrived in America, Nonni's son Salvatore had married Pop’s sister Helen. So, Nonni was a double Grandma in their families.
Since all my grandparents were in Malta, Nonni treated me as a grandchild, too.
Nonni’s manger scene was not just a simple shed with Mary, Joseph, three kings and one shepherd standing around Baby Jesus. Nonni had a complete village with houses, shrubbery, trees, hills, paths, ponds and animals. There were people walking around just minding their own business and doing real things. Some of the figures were really old and we couldn’t play with them.
But each year Nonni added something new: an old woman carrying a basket of eggs, a farmer carrying a head of cabbage, a man carrying a bundle of wood for a fire to keep the baby warm. There were rich people, too, walking through Nonni's Bethlehem and looking very important.
Nonni’s manger scene was better than any Manhattan Fifth Avenue store's window display.