On Christmas Eve, the nonnas meet on the corner near the Church. Each talks nonstop, paying no attention to the others, about the feast she has served for the Vigilia. Seven fishes. Eight side dishes. Baccala. Struffole. Panettone. Zeppole. By the time they reach the Church, they are out of breath. They genuflect hastily, cross themselves, and ready for the caroling that is to begin, they settle in “their” pew.
The scent of pine decorating the altar mingles with the scent of incense as the organ begins and the horns– special for this one night only– join in. The nonnas listen to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Their granddaughters sing in the choir; each strains to hear the voice of her particular 16-year-old. Their grandsons, altar boys, are arrayed in miniature vestments on the altar.
They hum along to “The First Noel,” and raise their voices as they sing, “Noel, Noel.” Each glances at her wristwatch, one also looks at her lapel-watch adorning the collar of her black coat; they are all ever more eager for midnight to arrive. It is at that moment, after the pastor places the Babe in the manger, that their holiday truly begins. It is their once-a-year day. Soon, soon, they know it is approaching as they sit through the choir’s soprano singing solo, “O Holy Night.”
Now to the strains of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” the procession from the main altar begins. The nonnas rise to watch the Italian pastor and the two Irish curates make their way to the back of the Church into the vestibule. The oldest and tallest altar boy, the thurifer, walking backward in front of them, gently swings a censer filling the air with a “this is Church” aroma. The altar boys follow the priests.
When the procession passes, the nonnas look in anticipation at the side altar where the empty manger rests, carved almost lifesize in the Neapolitan fashion. Mary and Joseph, gazing on either side of the straw-filled cradle, are surrounded by fronds of pine, where oxen and sheep nuzzle.
In minutes it is midnight. “Adeste fideles, oh, come all ye faithful joyful and trimphant,” trumpets loudly from the choir loft, the bells peal, and the congregation sings exultantly “Venite adoremus. . . . Oh, come let us adore Him, oh, come let us adore Him.” The procession makes its way toward the altar. Swaddled in the pastor’s vestments is a figure, a lifelike-looking baby, the baby Jesus. A single tear slides down the cheek of each nonna as the procession passes.
The pastor gently places the Babe in the manger. The organ and the horns accompany the choir as it begins to sing softly, “Tu Scendi dalle Stella. . . . You came down from a star.” The nonnas clasp hands as they sing the centuries-old carol, their knuckles white from the pressure each is exerting on the hands of the other. It is the one time of year they hear and sing a hymn in their mother tongue.
Now more than one tear glistens on their faces. It is Christmas Eve in Brooklyn. But for them it is Christmas Eve in a town they haven’t seen in more than half a lifetime. They are children again at home.
“Buon Natale,” they whisper to one another as the music ends.
- 2 pounds dried cod, baccala (soaked in refrigerator for at least 2 days, with water changed frequently)
- 4 large Idaho potatoes, peeled, sliced
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 cup dry vermouth
- 10 or 12 peppercorns
- 10 garlic cloves, peeled, sliced not too thin
- 1 to 2 cups olive oil (doesn’t have to be virgin olive oil)
- 1 to 2 cups heavy cream
- 3 to 4 tablespoons fresh breadcrumbs
- French bread croutons, baked until golden
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees
- Place potatoes in a large pot. Add cold water to cover. Add pinch of salt. Cover pot; boil potatoes over high heat until very tender. Drain. Place potatoes back in pot; shake over medium heat until potatoes are dry.
- Place vermouth, peppercorns and bay leaf in a shallow pan. Add fish and enough water to barely cover. Place pan on medium heat. Bring to simmer. Cover pan; poach 15 to 20 minutes or until it flakes easily.
- In another skillet over very low heat, sauté garlic in 1 cup olive oil with a pinch of salt for 20 minutes, or until garlic is golden brown.
- In small saucepan, warm cream over very low heat.
- Rice or mash potatoes in the hot pot in which they cooked. Work in all but 2 tablespoons of olive oil and garlic (add additional oil if mixture isn’t creamy enough). Stir in flaked fish. Add warmed cream to taste.
- Spread mixture in shallow heatproof casserole. Sprinkle with crumbs and reserved oil. Bake about 25 minutes.
- Serve with baked croutons.