My friends’ homes had interesting sights and smells, too. On the tables there were bunte tallers: dishes filled with nuts, candies, cookies and fruit. The stoves had bubbling pots filled with bratwursts and potatoes.
My friend Elise invited me to supper. She told me to smear the bratwurst with the spicy mustard. The green beans and carrots were familiar. The bread was dark. I was used to Italian bread and Maltese hobtz. But after I put butter on the rye bread I had to admit it was good, too. I’d had mashed potatoes before, but I’d never had hot potato salad. I was curious about how Elise’s Mom made the potato salad. It was sweet, spicy and tart. Elise’s Mom smiled and blushed when I told her it was so good. “Ach, it’s only potatoes.”
After Thanksgiving, Sister brought a box of kringeln to class. The kringeln were almond studded sugar cookies which had been twisted into figure eights. We helped her hang them on our classroom Christmas tree. It was beautiful and the cookies smelled wonderful. We all oohed and aahed. Then everyone sang a song, O Christmas Tree. I just smiled and silently moved my mouth.
Then Sister told us to gather around her. She was going to read us a story, The Visit from St. Nicholas. Sister showed us the pictures in the large thin book. They were drawings of Santa Claus and his eight tiny reindeer. Sister said Santa was a “right jolly old elf.”
My friends were delighted. I was confused. I had never heard any of this before. There wasn’t any mention of La Befana.
Santa was supposed to slide down every house’s chimney and land in a fireplace. We didn’t have a fireplace. We had a huge, oil-burning furnace in the basement. Ma hung our stockings, along with all the other wet laundry, on a clothesline near the furnace. The furnace made awful noises and had fire in it. If Santa landed in it he’d fry like a strufoli. That would end Christmas forever. I didn’t think Santa would take such a risk for a total stranger.
Oh, boy... I was in big trouble. The lovely cookies felt like a giant rock in my stomach.
Sister talked about Santa checking his list of good little girls and boys. Santa had a list? I knew we were on the Registered Aliens’ list. Every January a man on the television reminded Ma to fill out green cards so that the American Government would know where we were. If we didn’t fill out the cards we’d be in big trouble. We could either be sent to jail or back to Malta.
How could I get on Santa’s list? Could Santa get my name from the Registered Aliens’ list? Did I need to fill out another card?
The afternoon went from bad to worse. Sister told us we could put our letters to Santa in the special mailbox in the classroom. A letter? What language did Santa speak - English or German? He’d never heard from me. I wasn’t on his list. What could I say? “Hi, you don’t know me, but I’d like some toys.”
I’d never written a letter to La Befana. She just gave me toys. When we had moved to College Point, Ma had to fill change of address forms. Was there a change of address form for Santa? Could La Befana still visit me? Did Mr. Santa Claus want to shoot La Befana because she had come to College Point?
Oh, boy... I was in big trouble.