It seems everyone is anxious for the Christmas season to begin, and with good reason. People are often nostalgic for the Christmases of their youth and I’m no exception. Seeing a box of glass Christmas ornaments made me think of all the Christmas Eve dinners we had at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house when I was growing up during the 1960’s.
My mother’s parents, lived in Detroit, just south of Eight Mile Road. Every Christmas Eve, we would dress in our finest clothes and make the trek, often through the snow, to their house. My grandparents lived in a very small two bedroom bungalow. Every Christmas it was filled to bursting with their five children, spouses and a whopping eighteen grandchildren. Luckily, Grandma and Grandpa had a basement where the Christmas Eve feast was held.
The basement on Eastburn Street was a wonderful place, full of exotic smells. Grandma had a full second kitchen down there. I’ve heard that they are now called Italian kitchens, but back then, I just assumed everyone had a kitchen in their basement. The smell of the homemade wine still hung in the air from that year’s bottling. A big vat of tomato sauce simmered on the stove. Grandpa and my uncles smoked cigars and cigarettes in the corner while the women prepared the meal.
My sisters, cousins and I would sit on the steps leading down to the basement, in order to stay out of the way. I would try not to get my dress, usually a hand me down from my older sister, dirty and try not to tug at my scratchy tights. My brothers, would prowl around my uncle’s workshop. Uncle John was a life long bachelor who lived with Grandma and Grandpa. He had a corner of the basement where he invented all sorts of electronic gadgets.
Dinner always consisted of the same thing; mostaccioli with tomato sauce, Italian sausage and meatballs. I never cared for my Grandma’s homemade sausage. She put too much fennel in it for my taste, but her meatballs were divine, the kind that melt in your mouth. The children were always offered a sip of the homemade red wine, but I never acquired the taste for it. To me it tasted like grape juice that had gone bad. My children are shocked when I recount this story for them. They can not believe that an adult would willingly offer a child an alcoholic beverage. But Grandpa was born and raised in Italy and that was how things were done.
My favorite part of the meal was dessert, of course. Grandma loved to try out new recipes that she cut out of magazines and she always had a big plate of cookies ready. One of our favorites was a chocolate spice cookie covered in chocolate frosting. One of my cousins said the cookie looked like a meatball and the name stuck. Meatball Cookies were present every year.
After the Christmas Eve meal, the kids would sneak upstairs and sit in the living room. We would turn off all the lights in the house except for the lights on the Christmas tree. My Grandma always had an elaborate, multi-level Nativity scene staged under the tree complete with shepherds, angels and the three wise men. She used white felt covered with glitter as the base. When I asked her about it one year, she said it represented the snow on the ground. This made perfect sense to me until I grew up and realized that Bethlehem probably never saw an inch of snow. One of the older cousins would volunteer to be Santa and sit in Grandpa’s La-Z-Boy recliner. The younger cousins would take turns sitting on “Santa’s” lap and asking for funny or outrageous items. Then we would sing Christmas carols while the adults cleaned up the dishes. One year, while we were singing, Grandma came upstairs to put some leftover food into the refrigerator. We begged her to sing a song with us. She sang her favorite Christmas carol, which was Silent Night. Other than the occasional Happy Birthday, I think that was the only time I heard my Grandma sing.
With the dishes done and the food put away, the grown-ups would come upstairs. The adults would crowd onto the couch and chairs and the children would sit, cross legged on the floor. Then my mom and her brothers would pass out envelopes to each niece and nephew. Each envelope contained a dollar, except the envelope I received from my Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank was my godfather, so every year, he slipped a five dollar bill in my envelope. Grandma and Grandpa also gave us envelopes. By the end of the evening, I felt so rich!
Grandma and Grandpa are both gone, the house on Eastburn has been sold and my cousins have scattered to the four corners of the country. Now that I have children of my own, I try to recapture the warmth and strong sense of family I felt during those special occasions. These days, my Dad gathers with his children and grandchildren on Christmas day. We sit down to a meal of mostaccioli and meatballs. Meatball Cookies are still made by me, although my children are rather disgusted by the nickname and we have to be careful to call them chocolate spice cookies. My daughters and son talk with their cousins while the adults clean up the dishes. I am looking forward to this Christmas to build some new memories.