A Child's Christmas in Brooklyn: An Italian Girl Remembers

Dylan Thomas, Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, and the Guardsmen: Xmas Words and Music.

Posted Dec 11, 2020

One Christmas in Brooklyn was so much like the other, that I can never remember whether I ate six cannoli when I was 12 or ate 12 cannoli when I was 6. 

What I can remember is that one snowy December—it was always snowing at Christmas—my older brother bought me a copy of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” I was 12 when Hugo gave me the small, perfectly square, periwinkle blue paperback, illustrated by woodcuts I knew should impress me even though I was yet still too young to grasp the lyrical, throat-tightening and glistening loveliness of Dylan Thomas’ narrative poem. 

The Welsh poet's collection of youthful memories might or might not be perfectly accurate and it’s become the essence of the season.

Books are what my brother had always bought me, he being a teenager and a man of the world and all.

Two Christmases earlier, when I was 10, he’d given me the book “Snoopy’s Christmas vs. The Red Baron” with a record of the song, then my favorite piece of music, on a 45-rpm single slipped inside the book’s front cover. “Christmas bells, those Christmas bells, ringing through the land,” sang the Royal Guardsmen in 1967, “Bringing peace to all the world, and goodwill to man.”  

In terms of table conversation, we were encouraged not to mention peace in any context, because it was 1967, and talking about peace meant you were against The War. “If you are against The War, you are probably a hippie or might become one, and then what will happen to America when the domino effect occurs?” asked my uncles.“Ix-nay on the eace-pay” was the Barreca family motto.

Earlier that very day, at St. Edmund’s Church, we had heard about the prince of peace, but that didn’t apply to what the uncles talked about at the dinner table. That was peace in general, which had nothing to do with politics. There was no need to pay close attention.

Mass was basically paying a formal visit to God, who was regarded as another type of mystical being we had little chance of encountering: a rich but distant relative who needed placating in case he could leave you something or do you a good turn in the future. 

The aunts loved the pageantry, but the uncles were skeptical of priests.

We knew that Uncle Fred tucked a small flask in his overcoat pocket and stayed behind in the pew to swig when the other grown-ups took communion. My cousins and I waited, very quietly, to hear what Uncle Fred would say as we scooted past him on our way to join the respectful, long, prayerful line down the church’s center aisle. “I hate seeing the poor Father drinking alone up there,” he’d take a slug and chuckle, “Week after week. We have an understanding that I stay here and keep him company.” He said the wrong thing, always.

On the front stoop at grandmother’s house, we stamped our feet to get rid of the snow and wet, because nobody ever took off their shoes, like savages. Inside, it was suddenly overwhelming.

The good living room, which was out of bounds the rest of the year except for Easter or after funerals, was filled with the brightest colors—pinks, cobalt blues, emergency-yellows, and the tree decorated in religious gold, rust-red and shining silver, with the tables festooned with flowers the size of dinner plates, and dinner plates the size of the flowers.   

The old people smiled, some with chipped or missing back teeth, small eyes like black granite, looking happy enough. They held in their knotted hands and in their layered hearts the ancient, authentic culture, balking at rules, standards, or laws—their dialects, like their beliefs, fed by more complicated influences and rooted in a denser, deeper past. 

The old aunts and uncles carried with them an unimaginable richness. But they liked cheap jewelry, too, and smoked cigarettes, and had big easy laughs.  

“And what’s wrong with that?” they would ask, and be right in their question.

The jingle-jangling of the aunts’ charm bracelets as they served the food, as they said, “Take more. There’s plenty” is what I hear from the past, and I send the past my gratitude even now.

Those Christmas bells, those voices, that laughter, the words from Dylan Thomas and the Guardsman and my uncles, ringing through the years. May your echoes through the holy darkness be as clear and true.