We Italian-Americans take our Christmas tradition seriously – as do Texans. I’m fascinated by some of the “Texas-American” customs, including Fried Turkey, on Christmas Day, which I haven’t yet had the pleasure of tasting. My son-in-law, a fabulous cook, promises that one day he’ll do it for us.
I cannot, however, separate myself from my cultural heritage being only a second-generation American, and more of an immigrant than I’d ever realized, having grown up in an immigrant community of Italians, in Corona, New York. I’ve lived my life until six years ago, in New York surrounded primarily by other Italians and Jews, many of whom graced our home and table to share our Christmas Eve rituals. Many are no longer with us in this world, but my love for them spans time, distance, and death – Here’s what they shared with us, and what I brought to Texas with me.
The tradition of the special Christmas Eve dinner for La Vigilia (the vigil), came over with the unwanted Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the U.S., it evolved into The Feast of the Seven Fishes.
Hundreds of years ago, until the reforms of the 1960s, the Catholic liturgical calendar specified several days of abstinence from food and meats altogether; Christmas Eve was once such day. Although no longer required by the Church, preparing meatless meals and specifically fish dinners on Christmas Eve is still a widespread tradition across Italy and other predominantly Roman Catholic countries. Its origins, however, were rooted in the impoverished areas of southern Italy, where locals relied on fish because it was considerably less expensive than meat.
Some of my warmest childhood memories of Christmas Eve are of my grandmother preparing a range of fishes. Baccala (dried cod) salad, followed by spaghetti with a red sauce with eel (which I never ate) and/or Linguini with clams and anchovies (I always picked out the anchovies – which got me into a world of trouble.) Following the pasta dishes were lots of vegetables, fried smelts, maybe some baked flounder or redfish (what she bought depended on price). Fruit, coffee and hard biscotti ended the meal – and we all looked forward to the sumptuous dinner we’d have on Christmas Day.
For many years, in my home in New York, the Vigil dinner on Christmas Eve brought family and close friends to our table to share food, fun, stories of my husband’s and my backgrounds, as well as the tradition of our friends of other cultures who’d join us.
Typical menus always started with appetizers, followed by salads, then at least two different fish dishes. When my mother-in-law was alive, she’d prepare my husband’s favorite, a Sicilian dish of codfish in a red sauce with potatoes and capers. Linguini with white clam sauce was a constant, as well as bakes flounder and shrimp scampi. We always had an array of vegetables and the meal ended with coffees – espresso, American and decaf, as well as fruits, and cakes. (For our non-Catholic friends I always had roasted chicken and beef), but I held my family’s feet to the fire: No Meat on Christmas Eve!
When my children were very young, we made a big production of Santa’s arrival at midnight (Yes, that’s the one night a year I’d wake them from a sound sleep to greet Santa). Well, children grow, life moves on, many of the elders pass away, and we moved to Texas, where new traditions add to the old.
This year, on Christmas Eve, we were a scant fourteen because only one of my daughters lives in Austin. She, her husband, and three children were here, along with my son-in-law’s mother and my friend, our Scottish/British friends and their triplets, and, of course, my mother, the still cooking and baking nonagenarian.
I decided for this Vigil dinner, I would prepare a seven fish menu. We began with appetizers of sardines with jalapeno cream cheese on crackers with hot sauce; smoked salmon on toasts with cream cheese and capers; a halibut salad, anchovies, and spicy green olives, shrimp cocktail and an assortment of other olives and cheeses. Most of these were consumed with pre-dinner drinks – gotta keep those appetites going!
The first course at the table was a green-bean and sliced pepper salad – then came the star of the evening: Cioppino – Something I’ve adopted as my Christmas Eve tradition
Cioppino traveled from west to east. Created in the late 1800s by the Italian fisherman in California, this tomato-based seafood stew contained leftovers from the day’s catch, and cooked on the boats while at sea.
There are some myths concerning the origin on the word Cioppino; it is not the fractured English of fisherman asking each other to Chip-a EENO. The immigrant fishermen were predominantly from the Genoa region of Northern Italy. In the Ligurian dialect, the word “ciuppin” (chu-pin) means “to chop” or “chopped,” which is an apt description of the process of making Cioppino.
Here, almost 200 years later, in my home in Austin, my Cioppino contained cod, shrimps, clams, scallops, and crabmeat. ( All store-bought, by the way. I’m not a fisherperson.) I served Texas toasts and crusty Italian bread to soak up the delicious liquid in the bowl. Stuffed, we then refreshed our palates with fruits and took a rest to track Santa’s progress from the North Pole.
The meal ended with an assortment of cakes, from cheesecake to my mother’s homemade apple turnovers, biscotti, and pound cake – Yes, at 96, she still bakes.
Before everyone departed to rush home before Santa arrived, the children gathered around the crèche. I passed the figure of baby Jesus from child to child and last to received Him, placed Him in the manger. The next day we’d celebrate His birth. This is a new custom I’ve started to remind them why we celebrate Christmas.
I don’t know what the next iteration of our Italian-American/Texas Christmas Eve traditions will be, but I’m confident the constant will be family and friends.
Buon Natale e felice anno nuovo a tutti!
(Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. )