Following the end of World War II, millions of G.I.’s returned home, got married and started raising families. Many of them purchased affordable track homes built in rural regions just outside of major cities all across the country. So it was with our Italian family.
Our house was small but seemed opulent to my two brothers, sister and me. We three boys slept in the large, upstairs bedroom barracks style, complete with foot lockers and single beds. My sister and parents got the main floor bedrooms. The one thing the tract homes lacked was a formal dining room, something our family desired very much. And so began the tradition of the basement Christmas.
Our home had an unfinished basement and like so many Italian families in those days, we converted it into the dining room for holiday dinners. I remember my father rounding up my two brothers and me, handing each of us a paint roller and saying, “Now watch me for a minute and just do what I do.” I couldn’t believe our father was going to let us paint the basement walls!
Of course, there was nothing in the basement, so there was little risk of any real damage being done but I can still hear my mother, shouting from the top of the basement stairs, “You gonna make a bigga mess and I’m a no gonna clean it uppa for you.” I loved her beautiful Italian accent. Undaunted, we started rolling on the white paint and soon had as much paint on ourselves as the walls. We eventually finished while Dad stood back and supervised with a beer in his hand. To this day, I don’t recall ever hearing him laugh that loud again.
After the painting adventure, Dad and my uncles put down gaudy, pink and black linoleum squares on the floor. My uncles kept asking, “Where the hell did you steal these tiles? From the back of some garbage truck?” They were ugly tiles but Dad was as proud of them as if they were hand cut marble.
Next came a second hand dining table, a collection of slightly mismatched chairs and a china cabinet with sliding glass doors to house and display my mother’s finest dinnerware. It wasn’t long before we were planning our first Christmas party in the basement.
Christmas dinner in our house was not just a one day event. It took hours of planning, food preparation and skilled cooking. My mother and father were incredibly talented cooks and our meals often rivaled food found in the finest restaurants, although I didn’t realize that until many years later. Everything was home made. There was no running out to the supermarket to pick up a can of this or a jar of that.
My mother and sister would start making ravioli-like desserts filled with sweetened ricotta cheese, fried to crispy crunch and topped with powdered sugar. My mother, who was from Naples, called them Casadeddi, a treat she and her mother made when she was a little girl. “Please, can we try one now, Ma?” my brothers and I would beg. If we were persistent enough, we would get to eat the ones my mother wouldn’t serve to her guests. To us, the rejects were simply heaven.
Next she would spend hours making gnocchi by hand. As she rolled and cut them to size, we kids would carry them from the kitchen to her bedroom and carefully place each one on a clean bed sheet laid over her mattress. By the time we were done, the bed sheet was totally covered with the tasty little pastas. There they would sit for several hours until my mother somehow knew they were ready to put in a bowl. Because our tiny refrigerator was already overflowing, she would store the bowl in the milk chute until it was time to cook dinner.
Being the oldest son, I was usually enlisted to help Dad make sausage. He would clamp the shiny, cast iron meat grinder to the counter and say, “Okay, start grinding the handle slow and steady while I stuff the meat into the top.” It wasn’t too long before he began adding his favorite seasonings to the ground pork mixture, including a healthy portion of home made red wine. The one thing I remember the most about making sausage with him was being given my own glass a wine. Dad would say, “You can’t make sausage without drinking a little wine. Besides, it’s good for you.” That made me feel really grown up for an eleven year old. The most anticipated moment, however, was the sharing of “taste burgers”, small patties of his sausage meat fried in an old iron skillet. He used the burgers to taste test the recipe before he actually stuffed the sausage. It was always perfect.
Stuffing the sausage into their casings was the most fun. It was like a magic trick to all of us kids. Dad would place the meat into the grinder while I turned the handle slowly and out came the perfectly shaped sausage from the funnel on the other end. Dad would put them in a large, roasting pan and keep them in the garage until he was ready to cook them. With another glass of wine in his hand, he would say, “Gotta keep that garage door closed…the damn dogs around here will have a feast if we don’t.”
We went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve in order to get an early start the next day. Christmas morning was best described as joyous bedlam. Opening presents seemed like just the beginning of a day full of excitement and fun. Even before the gifts were opened, Mother had already started preparing an enormous pot of tomato sauce. The house was soon filled with the aroma of simmering garlic, basil and oregano, aromas that forever define a part of my childhood memories. The small kitchen stove and oven were brisling with pans full of bubbling water and pastas, roasting sausages, and even chestnuts. The precision of the cooking was like that of a symphony orchestra performing.
Before we knew it, guests had started to arrive. Dad had friends with the most colorful names I had ever heard. Scoofer, Speedway and Presti, were like characters in an old gangster movie. Along with my uncles, aunts and cousins, we had a houseful. Everyone knew to go to the basement. Dad had set up a bar in the laundry sink, complete with blocks of ice and crystal glasses precariously placed on a piece of plywood covered with one of Mom’s best pillow cases.
After all of our guest arrived, the food parade began. Everyone carried a pot, plate or bowl of something from the upstairs kitchen down to the basement. Mother had hung some clip- on Santa and snowflake decorations to the overhead light bulbs adding festive color to the long dinning table. Of course, all the adults sat at the big table and me, my bothers, sister and cousins, all sat at the ‘kids’ tables. It seemed to me that the adults had more fun than we kids ever did.
The ensuing commotion can only be best described as that found in a present day casino. The din of clanging silverware and plates, tapping wine glasses being raised in one boisterous toast after another and of course, a thick, blue haze of cigar smoke that permeated the air signaled the party was in full swing.
After days of preparation, the basement feast was over in less than an hour. The festivities, however, would continue well into the evening. Mind-numbing, post meal football games had not found there way to television yet, so after dinner, Dad poured shots of Crown Royal for all the men and they began playing a rowdy game of poker. I remember standing behind Dad, having him flash his cards to me over his shoulder and ask, “Should I raise him?” I said yes every time, just to hear him laugh. Then someone would yell at him, saying, “Come on Mono, shit or get off the pot.” Someone used that line at every game and I still smile when I think about it.
While the men played cards, the women all gathered around the big, twin tub, concrete laundry tub and washed dinner dishes. That was always a sure sign that dessert was coming. A pot of steaming hot coffee, sweet ravioli cakes, cannollis and angel wing cookies were the perfect way to finish our first basement Christmas.
It was perfect then and still is today. And although my brothers, sister and I still have Christmas together, no one has to eat in the basement anymore. But we still gather “downstairs” for a glass of wine and a toast to those glorious memories of our basement Christmas’ that crystallized our family’s traditions and legacy for the generations to come.