We spent Christmas Even at my grandmother’s. Suzie and Anthony lived in a modest house in a working class neighborhood, 19th Street in Niagara Falls. On our drive there we would pass the Hooker Chemical and Carborundum plants, five of us kids in the car breathing the industrial fumes and agreeing the scent was sweet and perfumey, and then arriving at Grandma’s and entering a house smelling of garlic and squid—another scent that will always trigger my memories of Niagara Falls.
My mom and her mom prepared the traditional Italian dinner of fishes: stuffed calamari, fried fish, and macaroni with anchovies.
I loved all the dishes, even as a kid, but the squid was the showstopper, and it looked weird. Pale tubes stuffed with breadcrumb and Romano cheese and garlic and parsley. A twist of purple tentacles holding the stuffing in place. Baked in the oven with a little braising liquid so the tubes don’t dry out before the tentacles were fully cooked.
After dinner it was time for presents. My unmarried Auntie Jay, a beautician with dyed pink hair, lived with my grandmother. We had to watch her open a million gifts of soaps and scents and nail polishes given to her by her customers at the beauty shop. Not one of those gifts held my interest.
The fake silver tree sparkled in the corner. The wrappings landed everywhere. We kids got envelopes with a few dollars. I was the fourth of five in my family and that end of the birthing order got less, maybe two dollars instead of three, or three singles instead of the coveted five-dollar bill.
At some point my mother took over hosting Christmas Eve, and the stuffed squid was always the focal point, because it was the one day of the year we’d have that dish. My grandmother and Auntie Jay drove to our home in Buffalo, a half hour away from Niagara Falls. Some of my Niagara Falls cousins would come, maybe Uncle Carl if he was in town that year, and if he was, the liquor cabinet got opened a bit wider, the volume on the table conversation turned a little louder. I’d hear a few Italian phrases followed by laughter, something only the adults could understand.
Year over year, I looked forward to the comforting scents and tastes of Christmas Eve.
Soon, we all grew up and moved away and my Mom died and I moved again and again, different states, different people, and I didn’t make it home for as many Christmas Eves and the traditional fishes were no longer on the whatever menu I was eating off of that day. Some of my siblings kept up the tradition with their families, but the era had ended.
Then about twenty years ago, nineteen years ago, I’m not sure, Christmas Eve came back. We were living in a town where we had no extended family and our kids were babies, just a couple years old at most. We didn’t have family but we had our friends the Prellers, also with young kids, and we had them over for a low-key Christmas Eve dinner. I made stuffed squid for the first time, not exactly like my Mom did—mine were braised in tomatoes and wine and sliced to present something slightly more appealing than an inner tube. Tentacles were still featured, of course. The garlicky scent still very much the same.
The squid was yummy once again, but the squid wasn’t the point. The point was Christmas Eve with your people. The Barretts joined us a few years later and our three families have been doing Christmas Eve ever since, taking turns hosting. We have ambitious and talented cooks among us. We serve seafood in many varieties and presentations: scallop ceviche, tuna tartare, smoke salmon. Some years I make squid if the muse strikes, but not every year.
When the kids were little we fed them first and put on a movie so the rest of us could be adults for a while. Soon the families started eating together. We’ve added fun games. We’ve begun putting in money for charities. Our kids became young adults.
Christmas Eve was the one day we all got together and it has again become a long-standing ritual for me, just as it had been in my childhood.
Last year, Julia and Owen said it was the best Christmas Eve ever. I think it’s the accumulation of memories, the deep appreciation for others, and the desire for ritual and tradition that inspires us.
This Christmas Eve will be different.
This year we’re going to meet in a driveway around a fire and bring our own drinks and make a dish to share that each of us can take home and add to our individual family dinners. No stuffed squid—it’s not a dish everyone appreciates, and I’m not really up for making it.
Covid has forced us outdoors and restricted our plans. It’s supposed to rain this afternoon, hard. It’s supposed to be a bad day to be raising a glass outside. Still: tradition, togetherness, I want it to continue.
One hand to raise the glass, one hand to hold my umbrella.