Many of us have enjoyed Michael Thorn’
s wit and humor throughout this month’s Advent Calendar. He has been a kind and gracious guest, welcoming everyone and cracking us up (Oops, maybe a bad metaphor…thanks for ruining that particular one for me permanently, Michael!) with his jokes about being in the corner. He is, as you see, on display in the corner due to his VERY naughty behavior. I think all of us should send his wife Season a nice hello or two, don’t you think?
Michael is here to tell us today about his Christmas traditions in an Italian-American family. Before I let Michael take over, please remember that all prize winners must contact your donor within four days, or the prize will be re-assigned!
Our naughty list of prize winners who have not contacted me (or helper elf Kathryn Blake) include:
- Emily Tilton
- Michelle Willms
If your prize donor has not responded to your first email, let me know. But because the Advent Calendar helper elves all donate their time to ensure everyone has a good time, we really appreciate when you let us know about prize distribution. If you have received your prize, respond with a thank you note and notify Kathryn or me.
Prizes are announced most days in the late afternoon or evening (anywhere between 4 and 9 PM EST). Check each day to see whether you have won and consult the Prize donor contact list as well as the FAQ. Thanks!
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And here’s Michael!
I am second generation Italian-American. All my grandparents were born in Italy. Growing up, Christmas Eve was just as important as Christmas Day, and observed not only with the reverence of church, but also with the celebration of family, food and drink. In our household, and that of my Italian relatives and friends, Christmas Eve was meatless so we ate fish, and boy did we eat fish. Seven or more courses of fish hence the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Actually, more accurate would be seafood as the menu consisted of scallops, shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams, scungilli with the only fish being baccala.This was the basic menu but some years there would be more than these seven or sometimes other seafood substituted depending on quality and availability. Lobster (very rare) crab, oysters, tuna filet and even eel on occasion which does NOT taste like chicken.I remember the baccala, which is dried salted cod fish, being hard as a board and had to be soaked for a day or more to soften and remove the salt. And while the calamari and scungilli were delicious if as kids we knew it was squid and sea snail (specifically conch) we might have considered it too yucky to eat. The food was prepared in a variety of ways and always served with pasta or as we called it, macaroni. In fact, growing up it was more often than not referred to as the specific type of macaroni so when asked what was for dinner mom would answer ziti or rigatoni or rotelli. The only time we used the word pasta was for specific dishes such as pasta e fagioli (ditalini macaroni and beans) and pasta piselli (ditalinl and peas).
The calmari was served in marinara sauce which was a change from our usual meat sauce which was made with meatballs, Italian sausage usually hot, and pork chops. The mussels were also in marinara sauce. My dad cooked the mussels and I can still see them steaming in the pot their shells opening and closing like narrow mouths which made us kids squeal in wonder and delight. Now that I think about it I don’t know how my mom, dad and grandmother cooked the meal with us kids scurrying underfoot. As we got older we helped with the meal but not at this early age. But that’s part of what made the day special, we were not distracted with toys which wouldn’t be opened until the next day, but were caught up in the preparations for our Christmas Eve celebration.
The meal started with scungilli salad and clams oreganta as an appetizer, work its way through the other seafood courses and conclude with the baccala cut into pieces served over spaghetti aglio e olio – spaghetti in olive oil and garlic. Afterwards there would be a fruit and nut course then desserts of cannoli, homemade cookies and pies, two flavors of jello – strawberry and lime – so it was in the Christmas colors and strong cups of espresso into which my dad and grandfather would add anisette, the licorice smelling liqueur. The meal would start about 2:00 in the afternoon and last into the early evening, and the next day on Christmas we would repeat this sumptuous feast substituting lasagna and meat sauce for the seafood.
Why seven? In our family it was the Feast of the Seven Fishes even though many times it was more than seven, but in other families, including some relatives, the number was nine, or twelve or thirteen. There are many theories about the number seven for the feast. It is the most common number in the bible; it represents the bible verse in Genesis telling how God created the heavens and earth in seven days or it could be for the seven Sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not sure about the number nine, but twelve could be for the twelve Apostles and thirteen could be for the twelve Apostles plus Jesus Christ.
I also mentioned drink as being a part of the celebration, and this is where my grandfather took center stage. Like many Italians he kept a garden even in the most urban of areas. His table always included homegrown vegetables from his garden. Various types of tomatoes and peppers. Squash, eggplant, peas and herbs such as basil, oregano and parsley. And grapes grown on a trellis for homemade wine. Growing up I got into trouble many times climbing on grandpa’s trellis. He made not only red wine but also liqueurs such as amaretto and anisette with 190 proof alcohol which I think he purchased through the local pharmacist. Part of my grandfather’s Christmas Eve tradition was in the evening he would take a large jug of his homemade wine and visit neighbors offering them a glass. He would be invited in and while he poured a glass of his wine the neighbor would reciprocate and pour a glass of his own homemade wine. As I got older I marveled that my grandfather never stumbled home, but walked straight as could be up the stairs and into the house. But he did go to sleep immediately upon getting home, sometimes never making farther than the easy chair in the living room.
Growing up that’s how we celebrated Christmas Eve. I miss my parents and grandparents and am forever thankful I have these Christmas memories to look back upon. I know you all have special Christmas memories, and hope you are making more precious memories with each passing Christmas.