For years Kim’s favorite Christmas present from me was the Italian Seven Fish dinner I cooked for Christmas Eve.
When we were first married, Kim’s Christmas Eve tradition was to go to one of her aunt and uncle’s houses on her mother’s side. There was plenty of food, a ton of family, and Santa would visit.
One year Kim and I sat on the couch with one of her younger cousins who was watching the whole Santa thing from afar. Her younger sisters stood waiting for Santa and her older brother stood quietly taking it all in.
“Look at him,” the young girl said to Kim, “I think he still doesn’t know.”
Kim and I laughed.
Another year I sat on that same couch with Kim’s sister with one of her oldest cousins on that side. Carolyn was trying to decide when to go to church. She could go to midnight mass or she could go on Christmas day. She just wasn’t sure.
“You went Sunday,” I said.
“Oh, yeah,” her sister said.
“Then I don’t think you have to go again.”
I was teasing. Carolyn knew it. Kim’s cousin, however, was horrified.
“That’s not right,” she said. “You have to go.”
“But she went yesterday,” I teased.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said, “you have to go for Christmas.”
The year before, almost no one had gone to their house for Christmas Eve. There was a flu going around and most people stayed home very sick. Even I was sick at home – and I never seemed to get sick.
Kim told me that it was just a few of them. Most people in the family had been sick. She was glad she went and glad I hadn’t.
At some point we started going over to our dentist’s house for Christmas Eve. He wasn’t just our dentist. Al was a friend who also had played the organ at our wedding.
His beautiful house was filled with his family and that’s where we learned about the seven fish dinner. Course after course of fish that Al and his sons prepared and sent out to the table.
On the way home, Kim and I would take the kids to see Christmas lights at a development where each neighbor tried to top the next. We’d put the kids in bed and then Kim and her sister would go to midnight mass.
Kim’s Christmas Eve tradition ended when she got back from mass and checked that the kids were safely asleep. She’d then put the presents under the tree and fill their stockings.
Al died way too young.
His family invited us to Christmas Eve that year but it was different. I don’t know if they still gather for the fish dinner. The following year we started our own tradition – borrowing heavily from theirs.
I loved cooking for her. She had favorites and her eyes lit up as I served each course. We had other people there as well and I was glad that they liked the food too – but this was my gift to Kim. I got angry a couple years ago because the table talk was disrespectful to Kim’s religion and traditions and she wasn’t able to enjoy the night. It was like opening a gift to find the glass had shattered.
Most years it was wonderful.
We started with caviar on sour cream on crackers. I also filtered and marinated anchovies packed in salt and served them the same way. Carolyn would often bring shrimp and cocktail sauce and some years we’d have steamed mussels.
The alice (ah – leech) was something we’d taken from Al’s family. Spaghetti coated with anchovies, parsley, and bread crumbs. So hard not to take seconds but more courses were coming.
Fried smelts were also taken from Al. Lightly breaded and fried in the back yard so as not to smell up the house.
When Kim and I were first dating, I’d be at her apartment around Christmas.
“Smell that?” she’s ask.
“What is it?”
Her landlady was frying bacala, salt cod, in the basement. Kim’s apartment would smell of it for days.
Kim loved bacala. You have to soak it for days and change the water twice a day. I wouldn’t fry it. I’d cook it in a tomato sauce with anise and hot peppers and serve it over polenta.
In between we’d have pizza with a clam sauce and some calamari.
It took years for Kim to convince me that that was enough. I used to make a salmon or other fish as the main course.
Dessert was always an Italian candy that Kim liked. And then church.
Kim would go to midnight mass and my final gift was to clean up the dishes and put the dining room back in order.
Kim would come back into, what I thought was, a clean house. She’d look around. I’m sure she was making notes of what she’d fix in the morning.
“Thanks honey,” she’d say, and we’d go up to bed.
Without Elena, Santa could sleep in. Maggie never got up early and never went downstairs before we did.
There was the year, when Elena was still alive, that Santa forgot to fill the stockings. Kind of an awkward moment. The look on Kim’s face was priceless when she realized Santa’s mistake.
Tonight we’re doing things a little differently. Kim’s not here to cook fish for and Maggie doesn’t like fish.
We’re having a few friends over.
We’ll do a couple of fish items. Instead of the clam pizza, I’m doing a buckwheat crepe with the same filling to remember our time in Paris. I’ve got a roasted vegetable soup and a barley, pomegranate, dill salad. It’s also the first night of Channukah so I’m making potato pancakes and serving them with sour cream and applesauce. I’m also serving them with smoked salmon.
I don’t know why I’m having so much more trouble with Christmas than I had with Thanksgiving.
I think it’s because Christmas was Kim’s holiday.
Kim loved the magic of Christmas.
One of her friends wrote me a letter about how she and Kim used to go shopping together for Christmas presents.
I had no Christmas tradition before Kim.
For me, she was Christmas.
That’s probably why it’s so difficult.
Without her it’s just not Christmas.