With the raging pandemic, the 2020 holiday season will be different. Many family rituals, traditions, and yes even curses will fall to the wayside. In an effort to make things seem more “normal” I am sharing a holiday ritual and tradition about my family, from my book Inside the Spaghetti Bowl. I hope you see some of your family’s rituals and traditions and the memory make you smile.
Our families got together for every holiday and nearly every weekend in the summer. Summer weekends were water skiing, picnics, and playing some game that involved cards or a ball. The major card games were cribbage where my Father and Uncle Joe held a “god-like’ status; seven and a half – a modified version of blackjack that all the cousins played for pennies every Christmas eve and pinochle, my grandmother’s game.
My grandmother would play pinochle nearly every day, be it on her breaks at work, at her church events, and at every family gathering. The cards would come out shortly after the meal and they would play for hours. The games were like marathons. Pinochle is like a “poor man’s” bridge. It took four to play, two per team. There was bidding for potential points, you had to follow suit or you could trump if you were out of a particular suit. The idea was for your team to win the most tricks. Teams kept score. The first team to 1500 points won.
My Grandmother usually won. She had a secret weapon – she cheated, but she was so good at it no one realized what was happening.
The players were usually Grandma, Uncle Joe, my Father, and Uncle Pete unless my Father or Uncle Pete could hide until another victim was recruited. Once the grandchildren got close to our teens, we were recruited to play. My Grandmother usually won. She had a secret weapon – she cheated, but she was so good at it no one realized what was happening. Pinochle at our family gatherings or her church socials included food, wine, conversation, and laughter. In other words, it was not an intense environment. Grandma was diabetic and had trouble seeing the cards ‘when it was convenient for her’ per Uncle Joe. Grandma would not always follow suit, but given the frivolity around the card table, no one paid much attention. Paul and Frank, who were the same age, did notice once-in-a-while but said nothing. They determined how to make money playing pinochle against their school friends by developing a few signs. Since they were usually partners, the two created a set of very subtle signs to let each other know what suit to play. They became very good.
Grandma had enough, threw the cards across the room, and yelled, “Paul and Frank cheat.”
One holiday Paul and Frank were playing against Grandma and one of our other cousins. Paul and Frank were cleaning up. They must have won four or five games in a row. Now Grandma being so competitive replaced one partner with another, then another, but Paul and Frank kept winning. Finally, at one point, Frank scratched his ear, which was not one of the signs. Paul played a card; Grandma beat his card then Frank trumped her card. At that point, Grandma had enough, threw the cards across the room, and yelled, “Paul and Frank cheat.” This made the entire house erupt in laughter. Uncle Joe said, “What’s the matter Grandma, do they cheat better than you? “This brought more laughter. For the rest of her life, whenever the cards came out to play Grandma would announce “I’m not playing with Paul and Frank, because they cheat!” I will let you in on a little secret -all my cousins cheat when we play cards.
Christmas Eve was our all-time favorite event. We would rotate houses for each holiday but Christmas Eve was always at my parent’s house. We would bring in long cafeteria-like tables and everyone had to bring folding chairs to accommodate everyone. It was like a Norman Rockwell scene if he was Italian. Picture this, twenty-two children, five sets of parents, and Grandma Zaccari. There was more food than you can imagine plus a huge Christmas tree and gifts for everyone. We almost needed an extension to the house to hold everything and everyone.
Once the Pope lifted the no meat ban, Christmas Eve meals became legendary.
For many years Catholics didn’t eat meat on Christmas Eve, so many Italians would do the seven fish’s meal. We however didn’t do that. Grandma would try to make a squid thing – but it was terrible. All the grandchildren didn’t have to eat it since we were children and the Pope wanted children to eat something. It was amazing how many aunts and uncles volunteered to help the grandchildren and then eat with us to avoid the squid. Once the Pope lifted the no meat ban, Christmas Eve meals became legendary. The meal would start with spaghetti or lasagna, more times than not both. Of course, there were ample amounts of meatballs and Italian sausage. Next was chicken or turkey, ham, and every side dish you can imagine. Then, of course, there was salad, fruit, and nuts. (Italians eat salad last). The desserts look like a scene from the Food Network show Cake Boss. There were several cakes, waffle cookies (pizzelle), fig cookies (cucidati), and cannoli. We learned at a very early age that a homemade cannoli is so rich, you can only eat one a year at Christmas time or you will have a heart attack and die on the spot.
We didn’t have just a meal, we had a feast. The kitchen was the sole domain of my mother, Aunts, and Grandma.
They all made sure everyone knew how much time and effort it took to produce such an amazing spread. They would complain about how tired they were or that they would appreciate a little help, but anyone who dared to enter the kitchen was quickly and often loudly dismissed. The Italian comedian Mike Marino does a routine about his Italian mother that describes the holiday meal perfectly. To paraphrase Mike Marino:
My Mother had one job and that was to make food every day for fifty people. They weren’t there but she made it just in case someone came over. At every holiday she would say the same thing– “I’m getting too old to do all this cooking. One of you better learn how to make this meal, because I am getting too old and too tired. In fact, you tell your Uncle Joe to take a picture of all of you eating because this is the last time I’m cooking.” Next holiday someone would try to help and my mother would throw them out of the kitchen. In fact, I believe it was one of my very early female relatives who is responsible for the painting of the Last Supper. I bet it went something like this: “Jesus Christ, come here, I want to talk to you about something. First, put your hair in a ponytail and put on some sandals, you know I hate it when you dress like that. You know Jesus; your apostles don’t appreciate all the food I make for them. I’m getting too old for this. One of your apostles needs to take a turn and cook. I’ll tell you what; this is the last time I’m doing this. In fact, you call your friend Leonardo de Vinci and tell him to paint a picture of all of you eating my food, because I’m not doing this anymore this is The Last Supper.”
You know Mike Marino is 100% Italian, because at every holiday in every Italian home this story occurred.
After the meal, which took quite a while, there was a gift exchange, general family conversation then pinochle until 10:00 PM when Grandma would announce that someone had to take her to church so she could get a good seat for midnight mass. It’s 10:00. Midnight mass starts at midnight, but it didn’t matter someone had to drive and go with Grandma at 10:00. The selection was between one of Grandma’s children. My father and his brothers and sisters would draw straws or cut cards, or roll dice or make a cash bribe to determine the “lucky one” that would sit at the church for two hours before mass starts and then two more hours for midnight mass. The more rational people would head over to midnight mass shortly before midnight. The ones who did not go to midnight mass would take the homemade rolls out of the freezer and start to cook Italian sausage so everyone could eat after midnight mass. People would get back to the house after mass at about 2:00 a.m. and the feast would start again. Finally, about four in the morning the party broke up. There was nothing like Christmas Eve.