“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.” ~ A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Gumbo is on the menu for Christmas Eve this year but that really has little or nothing to do with this post. It’s the panetonne that’s important. How are panetonne and gumbo related? Well, not at all. I’m talking about the store display. Okay, I’ll get to it. While I was at the store shopping for ingredients for the gumbo, there in prominent display near the front of the store was a stack of those distinctive trapezoidal boxes that could contain only one thing – panetonne. I guess you could call panetonne a sort of brioche dotted with candied fruits and raisins with its roots in Milan but if there’s someone out there with a better description then please fire away. I could never properly describe it to my childhood friends besides to inform then that panetonne was one of the most delicious of holiday treats.
Near the store display of panetonne was another, this one stacked with other cakes and sweets from Italy. It seems that Italy is now a Christmas sensation – as it should be. Italy is mom’s mother country and it gave my family, to this day although now diminished, many holiday traditions and memories. For instance there was il pacco.
When I was a child it was about this time of year that we would be receiving the family Christmas package from Italy that we referred to in the mother tongue as, il pacco. Il pacco was the yearly treasure chest of goodies from mom’s family in Italy, that were literally, like the song says, “Brown paper packages tied up with strings.” When il pacco arrived mom would cut the strings, tear off the brown paper and pull out newspaper packing which my maternal grandmother (Nonna Maria) would peruse for any interesting news from the old country.
After a few layers of paper, mom would reach the mother lode; torrone (nougat candy), pandoro (a yellow cake dusted with powdered sugar that hails from Verona), panetonne, Perugina chocolates, chocolates filled with various liqueurs and hard candies filled with assorted fruit jams. There might be tins of coffee and if dad was lucky there might be a bottle of booze, maybe VAT 69 or a liqueur such as Sambucca. As delicious as these treats were, I always waited impatiently for the crown jewel of il pacco – marron glaces. Zio Georgio always came through with a big box of those exquisite, heavenly, glazed candied chestnuts that originated in the north of Italy.
In those childhood days of mine, many of those treats were hard to come by. I imagine that mom and dad could have found them in a specialty shop like Molinari’s Deli in San Francisco’s North Beach but mom and dad viewed a trip to San Francisco as they would an expedition to Everest.
Nowadays you can get most of these goodies at just about any supermarket. Marron glace are a little bit dicier to find but they are available. And while I could recreate il pacco by taking a short drive to the store it just wouldn’t be the same; no anticipation, no twine to cut or brown paper adorned with a big patch of Italian postage stamps, no sweet smell and no racing pulse as I waited for the reveal of the marron glace. Over time the tradition of receiving il pacco faded away as a sweet memory.
A Christmas Codfish
Christmas Eve during my childhood was observed with a meatless meal at home; above all and everything it was celebrated at home with family. There was never, ever any thought given to the sacrilege of Christmas Eve dinner or any other holiday dinner outside of home and family. In my entire life I violated that unwritten law only once when I spent Easter Sunday with a girlfriend’s family in Sacramento. It was a felony that was on about the same level as shooting the dog and incurred a similar wrath – and no I’ve never shot the dog. A change came when Denise, my first serious girlfriend invited me to her family’s Christmas Eve dinner of seafood pasta. I couldn’t miss either without some serious fallout and so it was time to man up as they say and have two Christmas Eve feasts; dinner with my family and then a trip to Denise’s home for a second Christmas Eve dinner. Two dinners should not be a problem for an active young man with a raging metabolism. And it wasn’t. The problem turned out to be a piece of fish.
The showpiece of Denise’s family dinner was seafood pasta in a red sauce complete with bacalao (salted codfish), a delicacy I’d never had before. That pasta was advertised by her family as a delight to make the finest chefs in Genoa envious. I scooped up a piece of the bacalao with my fork, rolled some of the pasta around it and the instant that the fish hit my tongue I knew that it would not reach my stomach; no way, no how. And even if it miraculously did get down my throat it wouldn’t reside in my stomach for more than an instant. It was the foulest thing since the liver and onions my Aunt Bonnie cooked on a camping trip that forced me to eat hot dogs with the little kids.
I pocketed the offending finny impurity in a handy corner of my mouth; “Delicious,” I lied. I knew that swallowing that fish risked a raging flood of the fish and mom’s entire Christmas Eve dinner and so there it resided until I could figure out a way to get rid of it.
Is it a chemical reaction that occurs between saliva and a hunk of foul food that makes the taste ever more disgusting the longer it stays lodged between cheek and gum? It seemed to be rotting in my mouth as I waited for the right time to excuse myself to the bathroom so that I could exorcise the demon into the toilet and flush it back to its original home. Before Denise and I broke up I went through a couple more of those Christmas Eve dinners but had learned to spot and avoid even the tiniest fleck of bacalao.
Is there anything that can ruin a kid’s Christmas more than church?
After the Christmas morning gift unwrapping we neighborhood kids could barely contain the excitement of showing off our Christmas toys. We were bound however by the observance of the traditional waiting period; a vague, ill-defined period of time to let families complete their Christmas morning rituals. Parents usually cut us loose about ten or so even though every family on the block had completed Christmas morning about 5 hours earlier when the kids rousted their parents from 3 hours of sleep after having spent all of the night and most of the wee hours of Christmas assembling toys.
When we were finally allowed to go out we’d gather in the front yard to compare Christmas loot. Except for those of us who were compelled to observe that most troublesome of Christmas traditions – church. Church – on Christmas morning? What was the world coming to? We churchgoers begged our heathen friends to stay in the neighborhood so that we could catch up with them when we got home from mass.
Getting ready for church wasn’t like it is now when you can throw on your favorite football player’s jersey and a pair of ratty jeans. We dressed properly in a white shirt, a clip on tie and itchy woolen slacks, as if sitting through a lengthy Christmas mass wasn’t enough to make a boy fidget.
And so while dad stayed home and probably had a belt or two of eggnog and rum, mom drove to church and along with the rest of the flock cursed and railed about the parking. Once inside we joined the teaming congregation made up mostly of folk who hadn’t seen the inside of a church since Easter Sunday past. It was always easy to spot those Christmas Catholics. While the regulars knew all the plays by heart; when to stand, kneel or genuflect, the bandwagon Catholics often double clutched and started to kneel when the church playbook clearly called for sitting. Every now and then some fool lost in the reverie of his Christmas gifts or fantasizing about what the wife would look like in that lingerie he gave her for Christmas when he couldn’t think of another gift would be the only one standing while everyone else had seated; that is until his wife tugged on his coat and, mortified and red faced, angrily gestured him to sit.
With mass completed and everyone feeling godly and graced the flock got into their cars so that they could curse and rail at the traffic getting out. Once home I raced into the house shed the shirt, the tie and the wool pants and got in my play clothes to find the rest of the neighborhood kids.
The Office Holiday Party
Is there any greater vehicle for gossip, inappropriate behavior, embarrassment, drunkenness and buffoonery than an office holiday party? Well, okay, there is Washington D.C. but that’s long been a given as a haven for debauchery, silliness and embarrassment. The office party is the annual event that spawns immortal anecdotes about someone who’s decided that the best place to spend the evening is near the punch bowl full of liquor laced eggnog. After sampling early and often he or she gets as lit as a Christmas display and creates a scandal that lives on forever in corporate lore. Over the years my Christmas party experiences have run the gamut from none at all to pretty extravagant (at least by my standards).
Having just retired, I’m officially done with office parties. I guess that the company I just left had their party this past week. There really isn’t much party to it. After a routine morning of work we would get summoned to the training room for a catered lunch and then after an hour or so the staff would start to drift back to their desks or one of the meeting rooms for business as usual only with a little wine buzz. It’s a desultory little thing topped off with a heaping slice of bah-humbug without even a dollop of whipped cream because the sense is that if management could get by without the lost work and expense they would gladly do so.
My wife worked for 14 years at Clif Bar and the Clif Bar parties are the stuff of legends and not for any bad behavior that I ever knew of. Okay wait, there was that very first one when me and a fellow named Randy got so staggering drunk that our angry wives had to lead us back to the hotel. As I recall we weren’t the only two who had ventured so deeply into our cups and we didn’t cause a commotion that I know of. But I was drunk so who really knows?
Dinner was always sumptuous and came after a wine reception that usually included a raw bar. We made our entrance and then I would let Cora drift off to chat with coworkers while I camped out at the raw bar and made a meal of oysters and sushi.
For me though, the most memorable and enjoyable office parties didn’t include ornate appetizers or flutes of champagne presented by roaming servers; no bartender, no band, no DJ. They weren’t held in a restaurant or a party boat or the office. The best, most memorable parties were held at the home of one of the employees of the retail store that I worked at. I was in my twenties, a college graduate with no promise of a career outside of wasting my young life and working at a hardware store in downtown San Francisco.
The store owners made it clear that they weren’t going to pay for a venue or have a party in the store but they did provide for the main course; a ham, turkey or a roast and some money to buy any incidentals. The rest of it was pot luck and we gladly contributed some of our favorite specialties to the feast. The other main course was booze – and plenty of it.
I guess what made those parties special is that they were OUR parties. We planned them, contributed to them and owned them. None of us, save the owners and manager, were remotely comfortable financially. We all lived on a low budget, had no real future or mapped roadway to success but because we enjoyed a unique camaraderie that I’ve never really experienced since, we loved our jobs and each other’s company. There was no pettiness, no grousing, no shirking and no malicious gossip. The silly politics that pollute the work environment today didn’t exist there.
But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t some historic events at these parties. The single most memorable took place at our store manager’s beautifully appointed flat in an upscale building on San Francisco’s Russian Hill. He had a beautiful white couch that faced a picture window with a panoramic view of the city.
It was for us the grandest of affairs with meats and platters of specialties prepared and presented proudly by the workers and all with a big helping of the festive companionship of the season. It was merry and joyful right up until the time that the store’s locksmith lost his Christmas cheer and all of the specialties that he’d eaten all over that beautiful white couch. After a quick cleanup and a few expressions of “Gee, look at the time,” the party adjourned.
Unless Christmas Eve fell on a Sunday when the store was closed we worked until the final last minute shopper was ushered out and then most of us walked over to the little dive bar across the street. We shared some drinks and appetizers, wished each other a Merry Christmas and then headed off to our various bus stops and home for the evening and a welcome holiday off.
There was Daniel, the hippie couple Barbara and Steve, Frank, George the plumbing expert, Daniel the locksmith, Mary Wilson the head cashier and the twins brothers Howard and Horace. There was Larry, Jim and a couple of Johns. There was Coleen who was the life of any party, who a few years later thought it would be a good idea to bring a keg of beer to one of the busiest street corners in San Francisco to celebrate the evening that the 49ers won their first Super Bowl (the wife and I, not wanting to know what the inside of the city jail looks like begged off and went home instead). Christmas ghosts of 4 decades past. I know that some of those coworkers have since passed but that hardware store is still there at the corner of 4th and Mission albeit under different ownership. Whenever Cora and I are in the area we stop by and cruise through the packed aisles of the store; its where we first met.
Cora and I are celebrating our 37th Christmas together. Each is unique and not all have been perfect. There have been some failed pies and overcooked prime rib roasts, domestic drama and occasional hurt feelings. We’ve kept some of my parents traditions and added some of our own and along the way the passing of the years require that some traditions are no longer practical.
Our first Christmas was just the two of us. We were living in a third floor flat in the far western reaches of San Francisco (when San Francisco was affordable) just a half block from the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. At night we heard the barking of seals on Seal Rock just offshore and when fog shrouded the coast the alto song of the seals was joined by the bass of a foghorn.
Our first tree was relatively small. It had to be. It was all we could afford and we still had to buy ornaments. We were barely treading financial waters, living from paltry paycheck to puny paycheck and so we settled for paper and fabric ornaments and a few colored balls. We allowed one exception that we splurged on – a Hallmark first Christmas together, commemorative ball.
Traditions run their course. For more than 25 years Cora and I hosted Christmas dinner at our home. Our children are grown up now and have their own Christmas obligations and Cora and I have come full circle to where we started. Christmas is just the two of us once again and we find ourselves mulling over the spirits of Christmases yet to come.
We’ve talked about starting over with a new tradition of taking a short trip to a different place each year over the week of Christmas – the snowy mountains of the Sierra Nevada or the seashore at Monterey, California. I’ve often thought that it would be fun to spend Christmas in Mexico.
This year our ghost of Christmas present will take Cora and I to the grand mass at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, and then maybe a walk along the shoreline at Crissy Field and an early dinner at Chinatown for Dim Sum or a duck that’s “smiling at us” as in the movie “A Christmas Story.