If some of you remember Perry Como, you know that he was a mainstay in the pioneer medium of TV in the 1950s and early 1960s when he hosted “The Perry Como Show.” During a 1962 holiday special, Perry’s opening number, which I always associate with him, was “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.” This year that lyric will undoubtedly resonate with many of us in more ways than it has in the past because, in most instances, home is literally the safest place to be in this extraordinary year of the Covid-19 pandemic. We may not attend a company Christmas party or a New Year’s Eve party, and we may not be with extended family and friends for the holidays; nevertheless, our memories and recollections of years gone by can warm us and keep us together, as one of America’s songwriters reminds us, in “stories from long, long ago.”
Some of my recollections of Christmases past begin in my early years on Derby Street. As native Jamestonians, we all know the city is located in the “Snowbelt” of western New York, and lake effect snow, bearing down from Lake Erie, usually provided a White Christmas. Living almost directly across from Fenton Park, I remember that winter brought a whole new scene to what had been a summer playground and fall excursions when we gathered bags of hickory nuts that were so abundant. With deep snow sparkling on the hills in front of the mansion, the sledding was spectacular, especially when each drop from one terrace to the other put a little air under your sled as you smacked your way to the bottom. And if that wasn’t your style, then creating mountains of snow and sliding down in snow pants made an afternoon exhilarating and tiring for a six year old who had just lost her two front teeth! Snow softened the sounds of the city, but in my memory I do recall the “click-click-click” of tires with chains on them as cars from Allen Street made their way along South Main to Brooklyn Square. And who could ever forget the muffled sound of bells being rung by the Salvation Army as shoppers in the Square and throughout the city paused in their hurry to complete errands to drop some change into those Red Kettles, reminding us that it was the giving season.
That was the outdoors that led to Christmas, but indoors it was the sight and smells of food and pine that meant that long awaited holiday was on its way. My father would usually buy a tree at Bill Morse’s Sunoco service station at the corner of Derby and South Main, one of the many gas stations that were in or near the Square. A few bucks could get you a decent balsam. If any lower branches needed to be sawed off, my mother would make a swag to hang on our front door. One year I decorated it with a Styrofoam snowman face that I had seen in a “make-your-own decorations” section of Good Housekeeping magazine! And during some grade school years when I attended R.R. Rogers School that was not far from Water Street where Jamestown’s woolen mills were located, we made holiday decorations from cone-shaped cardboard “spindles” used for winding yarn. We painted them green, slathered them with glue and glitter, fastened small handmade decorations on them, used wooden spools from the mills as a tree stand, and proudly brought home a mini-Christmas tree to find a place on a table or desk.
The City Market and the myriad Mom and Pop grocery stores that peppered the Square and environs supplied us with all of the traditional foods for the holidays. Each year my mother would buy dried lupini beans at Ciancio’s Grocery on the corner of Derby and Hanchette Place. She would rinse them and then cook the large, flat pale yellow lupini beans until they were tender. After they cooled, she would keep them in fresh salted water in a large covered kettle. We would dip them out by the handful and munch on them or serve them to adults with a glass of wine. My mother always told the story about the lupini plant, which she had probably heard from her childhood as a Southern Italian folk tale. When Jesus was making his way from his captors, he walked through a field of dry lupini plants that rustled and gave away his escape. It was said that he cursed the plant that the beans they bore would never satisfy hunger.
Other seasonal foods that Ciancio Bros. stocked were all kinds of nuts sold in bulk as well as Italian chestnuts, prickly pears, kumquats, torrone (a nougat candy studded with almonds) and Red Delicious apples. One year my mother used a stack of beautiful, shiny Red Delicious to make a table decoration that captivated my Uncle John because my mother had made it! She cut out a small opening at the top of each apple and set a small white candle in each hole. It was festive when lit and in the end, we could eat the centerpiece!
Sweets made up much of our holiday table. My mother was an excellent baker, and each year she would buy enough sugar and flour from the corner grocery to make Scandinavian thumbprint cookies, Mexican wedding cakes, Italian fig bars, and fruit cake (a recipe that I’ve used for over 50 years!) with candied fruit that she would buy at Murphy’s Five and Dime. Another seasonal favorite was anise pizzelle that she made on her mother’s old hand-held pizzelle iron that made one crispy little cookie at a time held over the open flame of our stove burners.
Christmas Eve usually found us at my paternal grandmother’s house on Allen Street. It was a tradition that brought the whole family together. I think what I remember most, besides getting presents, was my Aunt Anna frying sfinge at the stove. Sfinges are a light, airy fried dough that can be savory, stuffed with anchovies because the Vigil of Christmas was a meatless meal, or sweet, rolled in sugar. The bowl they were served in seemed bottomless!
And one of the lasting memories I have of a Christmas Eve when I was sick in bed with bronchitis and we could not go to my grandmother’s was the time my Aunt Sarah, my father’s older sister, brought me one of the foods I loved best as a kid: Sicilian rice balls. I was tucked into bed full of medicine and undoubtedly had my chest rubbed with Vicks Vaporub and was drowsing off when I heard some foot steps on our back porch, stamping to clear the snow, and then someone coming up the back steps. It was my Aunt Sarah, and after the usual Christmas greetings, she came into my bedroom and stood very close to me, smiling as only she could, with a gleam in her eye. She was a rather jolly person, and she teased me a little bit: “What do you think I have for you?” With that, I’ll never forget my aunt pulling her hand out of the pocket of her winter coat and handing me a warm rice ball wrapped in waxed paper that she had brought to her niece on the long, cold walk from her home on Allen Street to Derby Street. I can still recall how warm and plump it was in my hand, how the waxed paper was slightly damp and crumpled from the dense heat of the rice being kept warm by my aunt’s hand, how I unwrapped it, and how the fragrance came to me. My Aunt Sarah was a good person, motherly and kind, and the goodness of her heart was reflected in the goodness of that food.
These are memories from my Christmases past, and I take comfort in them. They nourish me. We must all have a recollection or memory of a Christmas that we can hold dear to us from our own childhoods or from a holiday not so far in the past as the one I recall. And even if we can’t all be together this year, chances are we can next year. Keep well, stay safe, and do what you always do because there is a contentment in keeping traditions. (And you can even google “Home for the Holidays” and listen to Perry on YouTube! or, if you’re lucky, on vinyl!) Do have yourself “A Merry Little Christmas”!