Having an Italian mother, and a 100 percent Italian grandmother, I’m lucky to get to experience the traditional Italian Feast of Fish every Christmas Eve. The 50-plus uncles, aunts and cousins on my grandmother’s side of the family gather every Dec. 24 at a small banquet hall to celebrate.
I sat down with my grandmother to talk about how our family traditions on Christmas Eve started and how they’ve changed over the 70 years they’ve been going on.
When my grandmother, Adrienne “Rene” Pagano (Grandma Rene), was born in 1946 her first Christmas Eve was spent at her grandmother’s (Nana’s) house. Nana, originally from Sicily, brought the tradition of fish on Christmas Eve to America. Nana, her two siblings, and all of their children and grandchildren gathered at her house to eat — and eat and eat.
For three days prior to the family gathering, Nana soaked a dried cod fish (baccala) in water in an unheated kitchen in the back of her house and changed the smelly fish water it was soaked in every day. The baccala was cooked in a stew with potatoes, carrots and my Grandma Rene’s favorite: big black and green olives. Nana also cooked eel, a delicacy in Italy, marinated in lemon juice, and spaghetti with octopus in it.
Grandma Rene said, “We never ate a certain number of fish, my grandmother just cooked what everyone liked.” Each year more family members were born, which meant more bodies at the Christmas Eve celebration. As Nana got too old to do the cooking for so many people, the party moved to Grandma Rene’s mother’s house and she took over the cooking. After the giant feast, coffee and roasted nuts were served and all the men played a game of Italian poker. They played “Sette e mezzo,” which in English means seven and a half. It’s played just like blackjack, except your cards have to add up to 7 1/2 instead of 21. At 11:45 p.m. everyone got dressed up and they walked to midnight Mass to the church just one block down the road.
Our family has grown so large since the days at my great-grandmother’s house that we’ve had to move the Christmas Eve celebration to a small banquet hall in order to fit everyone. Instead of just one person cooking now, the whole family brings a dish to share. Meat has worked its way into the meal but baccala stew and spaghetti and octopus are still served every year. When my great-grandmother was too old to cook the Baccala and octopus, my great-uncle Vinny took over the responsibility.
It was unusual in an Italian family for the man to cook, but he did it. When he passed away his wife took over the duty. “The biggest change from the 40s to 2010 is that now the Irish daughter-in-law (Uncle Vinny’s wife) cooks the traditional Italian fish,” Grandma Rene said, “and she doesn’t even eat it because she doesn’t like fish.”
Over 70 years, change will sneak into the traditions. My family has moved from a small house in Albany to a banquet hall, but our basic principles of the celebration stay the same.
Fish is still incorporated into our meal, card games are still played and we still enjoy the company of our loved ones. Accommodations have just been made to make sure everyone has the most enjoyable Christmas Eve that they can.