Maspeth living room is transformed into a Thanksgiving
dining room that can seat visiting family. Tribune
photo By Brian M. Rafferty
& Italian Holiday:
Christmas Eve All-Nighter Has Evolved
By MICHAEL CUSENZA
For Gaetano Giacalone, the holiday memories are as warm and rich as the bounty that was beautifully laid out on the dining table every Christmas Eve at his aunt's house in Sicily.
Born and raised in Mazara del Vallo, a town of about 55,000 in the southwestern province of Trapani, Giacalone remembers everything with such precise detail it's difficult to believe he left Sicily more than 40 years ago. Giacalone hasn't been back in quite some time, but his stories are his ticket to travel and an excuse to become tour guide, if only for a brief moment.
And it's through his insightful, loving recollection of the town, the time and the tradition that we are transported to Giacalone's native land and the birthplace of the customs he has brought with him to Ridgewood in the borough of Queens - one of the most ethnically diverse counties in America and a grand confluence of cultures and their distinct holiday practices.
"It was so much fun - everyone singing, laughing, joking," Giacalone said with a broad smile as he began to relate the family custom of early-December cookie-making.
He's sitting in his kitchen in Ridgewood, but it's easy to see that his eyes have wandered out the window as if he was watching his childhood on an 8 millimeter reel.
Giacalone perked up when he explained the process, his youthful exuberance belying his salt-and-pepper crown and 62 years, and talked about nearly every family member taking part in creating the "cassatedri," or fig cookies - making the dough, shaping it, preparing the figs.
Giacalone estimated that every December his family made approximately 60 pounds of cookies to last through the holidays. These cookies would be stored in glass containers and while they were reserved for the celebration, no one could resist the temptation of sampling some prior to Christmas Eve.
Raised Roman Catholic, Giacalone also recalled the trips to the town general store for the figurines that would comprise his home's blessed Nativity scene. He said every house had their own scene depicting the birth of Jesus that incorporated its unique interpretation and personal touch.
These steps signified the anticipation of the main event: the Christmas Eve feast.
The Big Day Arrives
"Christmas Eve is the biggest day of the year in Sicily," Giacalone said.
He fondly remembered how the day was spent meticulously preparing for the evening's sumptuous family banquet at Zia Peppina's house, anchored by a variety of seafood and pasta.
As he rattled off a makeshift menu that fed about three dozen people, Giacalone's olfactory sense triggered treasured memories of lobster, octopus, shrimp, calamari and pasta al forno, among many other dishes. You couldn't smack the smile off his face.
"It was the best dinner you ever had," Giacalone gushed.
The meal was followed by cookies and coffee. "This would go on all night," Giacalone recalled.
Giacalone would later explain how he and his family brought the big Christmas Eve meal tradition with them to America, and still celebrate in the same fashion.
After everyone had their fill of espresso and cassatedri, the large group split up. The men ambled into another room for marathon money games of "zicchinetta," a traditional Sicilian card game, while the women and children gathered 'round the dining table for bingo.
When 6 a.m. rolled around, it was time to get the "sedio," a special ricotta cheese-based breakfast, which Giacalone explained, would be funded by the zicchinetta winner's ransom. Sleep was on the agenda after that.
Christmas was not marked by a visit from Santa Claus ("Babbo Natale") or gift-giving. Giacalone said St. Nick and presents were more of a northern Italian tradition. Instead, it began with a mandatory church visit in your Sunday best and culminated in yet another large dinner, this time boasting dishes like chicken cacciatore and special pasta.
While the women prepared the meal, the men would go to the local billiard hall and shoot pool for an hour or two. On the way home, they'd stop at the bakery to pick up pastries like cassata Siciliana, an iced, sweet cake with cannoli and liqueur filling. There were still plenty of cassatedri left, of course.
Giacalone said New Year's Eve dinner wasn't as grandiose as Christmas Eve, but it still gathered the large family around the table. As midnight approached, the family would go to the balcony in anticipation of the kickoff to a new year. When the clock struck 12, Giacalone said, the family would toss old dishes and other objects down to the ground below, symbolizing a new beginning - out with the old, in with a new annum.
"You can't do that here now," Giacalone laughed, "you'd get arrested."
"Here" is Ridgewood - Palmetto Street to be exact, mere feet from Fresh Pond Road which has already been peppered with 2007 holiday trimmings. Giacalone, like many Sicilians at the time, immigrated to what was called Lower Ridgewood in 1966. He spent his next five Christmases at 280 Suydam St. and still buys pastries from Circo's Bakery on busy Knickerbocker Avenue.
Giacalone said it was in Ridgewood that he and his family began incorporating elements of American holiday tradition into their small-town, old-world customs. Christmas trees and gift-giving have now become essential threads in the festive fabric of the season.
"We adjusted to the new environment," Giacalone said. "Everyone was doing it, so we did the same thing."
Family is everything, and Christmas Eve still reigns as the king of all holidays. Seafood is a mainstay - Giacalone and his younger brother Tony now pick up ocean fare like lobster, flounder and shrimp at the markets on Sutphin Boulevard - but the feast only has to feed about 10 people instead of several dozen.
Cassatedri have given way to a mix of Italian and American desserts and coffee. Zicchinetta has morphed into hours of gift-giving, conversation and catching up.
New Year's Eve is the same - a large family dinner, followed by coffee, cookies and pastries. The family gathers 'round the tube for the countdown to tomorrow and pops Champagne when midnight hits.
No balcony. No tossing of dishes. You can't get away with that here.
"When you grow up, everything changes," Giacalone posited.
But it's quite clear that while the environment is vastly different, the concept of sharing special days with loved ones has remained a joyous constant in Giacalone's life. From the southwestern shores of Sicily to the brick-and-mortar borough of Queens, traditions have evolved into an amalgamation of cultures, but the foundation has survived its greatest challenge: moving to another country.
For Gaetano Giacalone, he has created new memories in Ridgewood built on the timeless tenets of family, food and laughter - the basis of holiday tradition in any language.