I was 6 years old and excited to hold not only one more finger up, but a whole new hand, when I told people my age. The days before Christmas were magical, and everyone was in a festive mood. My mom and dad were smiling with an occasional kiss (yuck). My grandfather, aunt, uncles, and cousins were all coming in with packages, along with bags of groceries for the big Christmas dinner.
Every house on Mazeau Street had lights, Santas and reindeer in their front yards, and some even had lights on the trees and in the bushes. Grand Avenue was lit up with Christmas lights and garland hung over the street as far as I could see. The stores had lights around the windows, some with big Santa faces or snowmen in the center. All the windows had fog from the heat inside, saying, “Come on in, it’s warm in here.”
On Christmas Eve, as on many other occasions, I accompanied my grandfather to the corner of Mazeau and Grand, and stopped in to Maggio’s Deli. The store couldn’t have been more than 12 ft across and 35 ft long. Mr. Maggio was from Italy and spoke broken English just as my grandfather did. When those two guys got together the smiles and Italian language just went on and on. I had no idea what they were saying, but I would help carry the groceries to Mr.Maggio, and he would ring them up on a big iron cash register with long keys that when pressed, made white cards pop up with numbers on them, accompanied by the clang of a bell. That was always fun to watch. When the bags were filled and Mr. Maggio was paid, he then took out a dark green bottle that featured a clipper ship in black on a yellow label. He poured what looked like ginger ale into two very small glasses and they both drank it very fast, and made sounds as if it were hot. I asked if could I have some, and my grandfather said “No, dis is a medicine for da cold, and you no hav-a da cold, so lets go” and off we went carrying his last minute items for the big day.
The next morning, it would be Christmas Day, but Christmas Eve was a holiday unto itself. The house seemed to be buzzing from the time I woke up to when I went to bed. Mom and Aunt Stella were both busy cleaning and baking. The house smelled like Pledge and butter cookies. My father and Uncle Dutch were replacing Christmas light bulbs that burned out, while grandpa was making sure there was room in the driveway for guest parking and talking to neighbors and passersby. My job was to build a snowman in the middle of the front lawn. When the masterpiece was done, I would tell grandpa, and he would bring out the old hat and scarf, along with stones for eyes and a mouth, buttons for his front, and maybe a carrot for his nose. And every year grandpa would put one of his stinky De Nobili cigars in the snowman’s mouth for the finishing touch.
Back in the house there was an argument taking place. Does the angel go on top of the tree now, or at 12 midnight? I’m not sure who won, but eventually the angel had taken her rightful place atop the tree. This particular year we had a white tree, and it was the first time I had ever seen one. I thought it was odd, but also magnificent. A white tree, wow! My job was to help put the tiny houses and manger together under the tree. These great little things were only seen on Christmas, and not to be played with. Bah Humbug.
After all my hard work, observations, and being yelled at for doing things wrong, it was finally time to eat. This was no ordinary supper. It was “The 7 Fishes Dinner”. The tradition was seven fish courses as a Christmas Eve feast. We had shrimp cocktail, deep fried calamari, clams oreganata, mussels with white wine and garlic, cod fish salad with lemon, garlic and oil dressing, baccala (dried cod) with potatoes in a red sauce baked in the oven. My favorite was lobster. I don’t remember anything that looked or smelled so good until this day. When we finally got through the 7 dishes and sides, along with a dessert of struffala ‒ small balls of dough deep fried and covered with honey and topped off with tiny colored sprinkles, the adults had black coffee or espresso and maybe some anisette. I had milk. The women cleaned off the table and washed all the fine china while we men went into the living room to watch TV and play cards. The room came alive with laughing and talking when the women joined us.
I got sleepy because it was getting late (and because of the wine grandpa snuck into my Coke) but I wanted to stay awake to see Santa. My mom and dad took me upstairs and took out the special plastic dish with Santa’s face on it, and asked me to choose what cookies I wanted to leave for him. I always chose Oreos with a glass of milk in the “Santa glass” which featured a scene of Santa and reindeer flying over houses.
I was cleaned up, put into my red Christmas jammies with the feet, and crawled into bed while I said good night to my parents. I don’t know what was the hardest, staying awake for Santa, or trying to get to sleep.
The next thing I remember, my room was filled with daylight. I missed seeing Santa, but I couldn’t get to the living room fast enough to see what he left me. I raced past mom and dad in the kitchen and was stopped dead at the living room door by the sight of a brand new green-and-silver Schwinn bicycle with training wheels and streamers hanging from the handle bars. I turned toward the tree and saw The Great Garloo and Robot Commando ‒ both battery-operated ‒ along with Lincoln logs, a Slinky, an Etch-a-Sketch, Rock’em Sock’em Robots, Silly Putty, and a Super Ball. I was totally stunned by all this stuff. I felt I wasn’t that good of a kid to be worthy of all of this, but there it was. Then I noticed that some cookies were eaten and all the milk was gone. That was one of the happiest days of my life.
That day taught me a great lesson about the joy of receiving from a child’s perspective. From that day on, and for whatever occasion, I have always given children toys, because I remember how great it was to get them. I don’t remember the gloves, socks or sweaters, just the toys.
Paul DeFalco grew up in Maspeth.