Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear a couple of times each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.
Christmas Eve has always been important. I was an Altar Boy at Our Lady of Pompeii. Father Charles Borgognoni made us practice for many hours to get ready for midnight mass. I remember the Christmas colors, genuflecting on the sound of the clicker, the “O Bambino” song and the smell of incense. Father Charles had no patience for silly boyish behavior. Pompeii church would be full of parishioners, standing room only. The ceremony, a high mass with three priests and all the altar boys, had to be perfect.
For most Northside Italian families an additional layer of importance was added with the Feast of the Seven Fishes. My earliest recollections of the feast always go back to Grandma’s house. On my father’s side of the family, my Aunt Pauline did most of the cooking, while Grandma Russo, ever the great story teller, entertained everyone. On my mother’s side of the family Aunt Jenny, Aunt Antoinette and my mother, Sarah, all played the role of sous chef to Grandma Emmi. The challenge of the feast was to create seven interesting, tasty but different fish dishes all for one night.
As a youngster I remember the calamari most of all. It must have been the tentacles. Everyone had a different way of cooking the calamari. Some like their squid fried or stuffed. I remember the old timers making it with sauce and linguini. One time while sitting at the kids table at Grandma’s house I had the tentacles hanging out of my mouth. I was pretending to be a squid swimming under water. My father cuffed me on the back of the head and said, “Joey, don’t play with your food!”
Christmas Eve was a religious holyday and a day of fasting, no meat. Leave it to the Italians to turn a fast into a feast. My cousin Tony Cicci remembers his mom, Aunt Pauline, making spaghetti con tono(tuna) and pizza with anchovies. He and his wife Luann carry on the tradition in our nation’s capital with his friends and neighbors. Tony has added his own twist to the traditional menu. Smoked oyster dip, crab cakes and broiled scallops bring a multicultural flavor to cousin Tony’s Christmas Eve meal. My Aunt Jenny Seib carried on the tradition for more than 40 years after my Grandmother passed away. She added her own non-meat specialties such as roasted peppers. I will always remember what a joy it was to be at Aunt Jenny’s house for smiles, hugs, kisses and of course a great feast. As we all got older, married and found jobs in other parts of the country, it became more difficult to keep the Christmas Eve tradition. Some of my cousins like Tony carry on wherever they are.
My cousin, Rhea Wisniewski remembers, what may have been the best Christmas Eve tradition of all. Her father, Sam (Santo) Russo was a musician. A saxophone player and teacher, he learned his craft during the big band swing era. Every Christmas Eve Uncle Sam and Aunt Judy had, in addition to the usual feast, a jam session at their home. The most renowned local jazz musicians always spent Christmas Eve jamming at the Russo house.
So many friends and relatives have contributed to this memoir but in particular I must thank Michelle Loiacono Rourke. Michele sent me a link to the “O Bambino song” properly called “Tu Scenda Della Stella”. She also reminded me that the celebration didn’t end with the Midnight Mass but continued with more feasting, more smiles and more hugs. This tradition has changed with the times but shall live forever in our hearts.