The Christmas Eve dinner was a feast. Fish was traditional. Eel for the parents, bluefish for the children. There was also soup, chicken, pasta and vegetables, followed by ricotta pie, anise biscotti, pizzelle and cuccidati cookies, strufoli, creamy roasted chestnuts and torrone candy.
My favorite was the huge strufoli, a golden mound of tiny doughnut balls covered with honey and multi-colored sprinkles. Nadia’s favorite was the prune cuccidati. Aunt Betty’s Cuccidati were filled cookies that reminded me of fig newtons. Aunt Betty filled the cookies with a mix of prunes, raisins, dates, citron, ground almonds and cinnamon. Aunt Betty also made cuccidati using apricots or dates instead of prunes.
After dinner we played games while our parents talked. Then it was time to walk to St. Leo’s for the Midnight Mass. After Mass we returned to Uncle Des’ for hot chocolate and panettone. Nonni’s panettone was a wonderfully rich bread made with butter, raisins, almonds and citron.
Then Nonni would tell us to look at the manger scene for the surprise. The blessed Bambino, Baby Jesus, had suddenly appeared!
Christmas Eve was a wonderful night. But the big day for us children was January sixth - Epiphany, Old Christmas. The night before we had hung our socks and gone to sleep expecting La Befana to fill them with treats and toys. In the old days, Nonni told us, the children would place their shoes on the fireplace hearth for La Befana. But in America we didn’t have a fireplace. Nonni said she liked using the socks since they were cleaner than our shoes.
We knew all about La Befana, a little old lady who had been sweeping her house when the Wise Men suddenly knocked on her door. They had been looking for Baby Jesus and had stopped to ask La Befana for directions. They then invited La Befana to join them. The old woman refused, saying she had work to do. Later that night a shepherd passed by and invited La Befana to come to Bethlehem, but she again said no.
Later that night, when it was dark, a great light and angels appeared in the sky. La Befana realized that the Wise Men weren’t kidding about somebody special being born that night. Broom in hand, La Befana tried to catch up with the Wise Men. She never found them, Bethlehem or Baby Jesus. Every year she searches for Baby Jesus and leaves presents for good little boys and girls.
La Befana took wonderful care of me for four years.
Then, when I was five years old, I was hit with a megadose of change: I got a new baby sister, I started going to school and I got Santa Claus.
A few months before I started school, it was time for my sister to be born. While Ma was in the hospital I stayed with Aunt Betty, Uncle Des and Nadia. It was nice living in Corona again. A few days after Ma went to the hospital, Nonni diNoto took me to the local five and dime. She gave me a quarter.
“Buy for sister.”
I didn’t have any idea what a baby sister would want. I liked watching westerns on television, so I grabbed a toy gun.
“No. Buy rattle.”
A rattle? That sounded boring, but I bought a pink plastic rattle.
In those days children were not allowed to visit anyone in the hospital. When Aunt Betty visited Ma, she gave the rattle to my new sister. I waited outside the hospital and waved to the window of Ma’s room.
When Aunt Betty returned she had a gift from my new sister for me: three fancy pieces of chocolate. Well, wasn’t that nice of my new sister, Barbara. Not as nice as a toy gun, but I thought that maybe that was all Barbara could get from where she’d been.
Maybe having a baby sister wasn’t going to be too bad.