A Bridgewater Christmas To Remember ~ by David Moore

Christmas Eve was always an event to remember. My mother’s Portuguese family consisted of 12 brothers and sisters with strong ethnic traditions of family gatherings. The most memorable of all was Christmas. Preparations for the celebration would begin with our mother trying to get us to take a nap after lunch so we could stay up very late on Christmas Eve without getting too grumpy. As you would probably guess no kid can sleep on the day before Christmas Eve with all of that excitement to look forward to. Before going down to the “house” we would eat a light supper at home.
Around 5 PM we would travel to my grandmother’s and the other cousins would arrive one by one, until the whole gang was there. In the corner of the living room was a display that my Grandmother would set up each year. It was a manger scene but not your ordinary one. To call it ordinary would like calling a Newport mansion a summer cottage.
A month or so before Christmas Eve she would start little pots of ryegrass that were placed around a group of beautiful ceramic figurines. In the center was baby Jesus, bigger in scale than all of the other figures, but after all, he is what it’s all about. All around the display was a series of unique little lights. Many of the lights had a short, little glass tube on it, filled with a colored liquid that would have little bubbles coming up. She put hours into arranging it and it was quite a display. I am sure my description does not do the display justice but only because I saw through the eyes of a little boy. It was a lot bigger than me, unlike any manger scene, I had ever seen in anybody’s living room.
The aunts would be in the living room talking and the only room for kids was sitting on the floor. Sometime early in the evening we kids would all be gathered in the living room and we were told to listen for Santa. There would be the sound of sleigh bells out front on the lawn and he would then come through the front door. Failure to come down the chimney in the living room was never an entry issue because there was usually a fire in the fireplace during the holidays. With his appearance, he would have at least one present for everyone earlier in the evening. We would all be seated in front of him with his big bag of presents. He would then call out our names to come forward. This gift usually kept most of us busy until the great feast after midnight mass.
The men would be gathered in the upstairs kitchen and others in the cellar kitchen. Gathered around that table in the cellar would be four or five of my uncles. There was always a card game while the men were waiting for the evening to pass, before going to midnight mass. The smoke from the cigars and cigarettes would be so thick you could hardly see the other side of the room.
In the cellar kitchen, my grandmother always had a special bowl of salt cod marinated in vinegar, garlic, and spices, with hot peppers. Over time I acquired a taste for it and often ate too much, despite the warnings from my uncles.
Once the card game was over my uncles would wander about the house singing. It was quite a sight; they had usually been drinking and always carried a bottle along with them. My grandmother would add to the excitement a little by bringing around a tray with these little glasses filled with a yellow lemon liquor of some kind, for the adults only.
Just before midnight quite a few of the older relatives would leave to go to the church for midnight mass. About that time my grandfather would go to the basement and get out the steak.
We had never seen such a large piece of beef, wrapped in brown butcher paper, enough for 30 or 40 people. Earlier in the evening, he had started a cooking fire in the back of the house. It was usually about 8 feet long with plenty of room for everyone.
Before the steak was brought out to the fire it was doused with a good coating of salt, pepper, and garlic roasted garlic. Regardless of how cold or how deep the snow was on Christmas Eve at 1 in the morning the cooking, on long steel rods held over the fire never failed. The smell and flavor of that meat have spoiled me forever on buying steak in a restaurant, for a taste that doesn’t even come close to that experience.
As we got older I took over the job, sort of a right of passage thing, and eventually passing it on to my kids. One of the last years that I engaged in this Christmas ritual I was out at the fire and this little guy was helping his Mom cook some meat. It was only natural that I volunteered to show him the finer art of doing it, just as my elders had shown me. After we finished and he went inside I realized that I had just spent time showing my god father’s great-grandson the art, talk about feeling a little old. As close as I can figure my grand parents’ family Christmas gathering took place at their home for well over 75 years, passing down through the generations.