Our Outstanding Italian American Women of Christmas

Fondest Christmas Memories Growing Up Italian

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Jacqueline Gagliano

Humanitarian, Activist, Promoter of Italian Culture

Howard Beach, New York resident Jacqueline Gagliano was recently named “Woman of the Year” by Zonta International. Mrs. Gagliano was recognized for her 30 years of humanitarian work for women’s rights, the protection and welfare of children and for promoting Italian culture. Jacqueline has served on the faculty of The City University of New York and New York University. She is a licensed psychotherapist and board certified diplomate.

I grew up in Brooklyn and it was the ideal place to grow up as an Italian American celebrating Christmas and the Epiphany (my birthday). It was magical in my house, beginning with selecting and decorating our Christmas tree from Mr. Marullo’s grocery store, which was known to have the best trees in town.

These delicacies were handed down for many generations in Sicily and carried over to Brooklyn when Grandma Vincenza and Grandma Giacoma arrived in the early 20th century. Two days before Christmas, my mother and grandmother began the long process of preparing the meals for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Christmas Eve supper was a simple fish meal of baccala and verdure (vegetables). We ate early so Grandma Vincenza could get ready to sing in the choir.

For baking, there would be Grandma Vincenza’s pignolata (honey balls) and mom’s cuccidati (fig cookies). Grandpa Cristoforo would heat up castagne (chestnuts) while our family’s favorite Christmas songs played in the background on our hi -fi stereo.

On Christmas Day, there would be the opening of gifts and my parents made sure to leave our front door open for neighbors to drop by and receive our holiday cookies. We finally sat down for our Christmas meal late in the afternoon – a meal of pasta and a big roast, all of which started very early in the morning when my mother and grandmother began making the sauce.

These evoke wonderful memories, but what stands out most of all was the day I discovered who Babbo Natale was. There was an orphanage in our neighborhood and every Christmas Eve, Santa Claus made a special trip to leave presents for the children. One Christmas Eve I awoke to see Grandpa Cristoforo changing into Santa’s costume; he didn’t even need any padding! I was at first shocked and then overjoyed when I realized that it was Grandpa who was the volunteer Santa at the orphanage. Our holiday came to an end two days after the Epiphany when the Christmas tree came down. My family is gone now, but the rich legacy they left me of traditions, songs and stories from Sicily to America can never die.

Renee M Arace, DMD

General and Cosmetic Dentistry

Dr. Arace is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickenson University’s College of Dental Medicine who has established a dental practice in West Orange, New Jersey, who specializes in general and cosmetic dentistry.

Christmas Eve and Christmas Day have been our Italian American family’s most cherished holidays, especially Christmas Eve! Our Christmas Eve traditions have been passed along through the generations. From my grandparents on down to my parents, my sisters and I continue with our beloved Christmas holiday celebrations. It should come as no surprise to the readers of the paper that although the event begins with Christmas Eve, the preparation begins weeks before. There are the recipes to gather and the selection of which fish dishes will be prepared. Although the Seven Fishes Dinner almost always includes clams, shrimp, calamari, baccala, smelts, scallops and scungilli, each fish has been prepared different ways and everyone has their favorites. In addition to the selection of recipes, there is the shopping and in our family it was never a one stop trip – even when it came to the bakery, there is one for the bread, another for the pastries and still another for the Italian rum cake.

I have such fond memories of my grandmothers and their incredible baking skills, without a measuring cup in sight, each could prepare their cookies year after year with the same delicious results – there were ‘S’ cookies, jelly ones too, struffoli and zeppoles. The sight of the Christmas treats on the sideboard was such a temptation when we were young, but before there could be any thought of the sweets, there was the entire family for the Seven Fishes Dinner, followed by Christmas Eve Mass. Then when we returned home we could all indulge in the decadent desserts!

The greatest blessing of this holiday is the joy of sharing it with family and friends. Telling stories and reminiscing about when my sisters and I were little always brings out the tears of laughter.

To this day, we continue these traditions and pass them on to the younger members of our family. My sister Toni continues the baking tradition and my youngest sister Nicole and myself prepare the fish. It is all about family, tradition and the birth of Our Savior.

Kellyanne Conway

Counselor to President Donald Trump

When it comes to accomplishments, the list is quite long for Kellyanne Conway. The New Jersey native and mother of four had quite a thrill when she was made Grand Marshal of the Hammonton Christmas Parade last year, near her hometown of Atco, New Jersey. Kellyanne had an Irish father and an Italian mother. Her parents divorced when she was three and she was raised by her mother, grandmother and two unmarried aunts, or as she has described – four Italian Catholic women. She developed a strong work ethic early in life, beginning with jobs in the area’s blueberry farms during her teen years. She realized then that the quicker you were, the more you would earn. In 1982, she won the New Jersey Blueberry Princess pageant and was also named the World Champion Blueberry Packer.

Mrs. Conway earned a degree in political science from Trinity College in Washington, D.C., graduating magna cum laude. She then studied at Oxford University and later earned a law degree with honors from George Washington University Law Center. She has practiced law, clerked for a judge in our nation’s capital and for four years was an adjunct professor at George Washington University Law Center. She has been married to George T. Conway III since April 2001.

Long before guiding Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and becoming Counselor to the President, Kellyanne formed The Polling Company and as president and CEO, led the company to become one of the nation’s leading firms in the field. She also was the editor and publisher of WomanTrends Online, a web-based publication that provides news on trends in areas such as lifestyle, finance, health, entertainment and technology.

Throughout her twenty-year qualitative and quantitative research career, Kellyanne has provided primary research and advice for clients in 46 of the 50 states and has directed hundreds of demographic and attitudinal survey projects for statewide and congressional political races, trade associations and Fortune 100 companies.

On July 1, 2016, Trump announced that he had hired Conway for a senior advisory position in his presidential campaign. It was the turning point in the campaign. From the moment of her arrival, the Trump message solidified and reached its intended audience, leading to his victory last November. Upon his inauguration, President Trump named Kellyanne to the position of Counselor to the President. Quite a progression for this Lady of Christmas – from blueberry princess to White House insider.

Dr. Angela M Raimo

Professor of Education and Psychological/Legal – Seton Hall University

Dr Angela M. Raimo loved her career as a Professor of Education and Psychological/Legal areas at Seton Hall University for forty years. With a Doctorate in Education, she earned a Law degree and has been published widely in areas of forensic psychology and education.

University life was most remarkable, I feel privileged. To be in a faith-based, educational community was inspiring, intellectually stimulating and spiritually fulfilling.

For me, the most festive holiday of the year is Christmas and for Italians, Christmas Eve is a very special event. Christmas Eve means the Seven Fishes Dinner. The tradition is cherished among Italian Americans and the grandchildren of immigrants continue the practice with reverence, love and joy.

Precious memories of my beloved mother and aunts gathering in the kitchen to bake all of the cookies on one day and the dinner entrees on another day, will never be forgotten.

For dinner, my mother prepared smelts, coated in flour and sautéed, shrimp, baccala salad, baked or sautéed baccala, filet of flounder, stuffed “devil fish” (squid) in red sauce and linguine in anchovy sauce.  Now, we were sure that it was pleasing to God, even if too exotic for most children! Pasta was the first course and salad was served after the main course.

Dessert was homemade cookies – biscotti, knots, honey-glazed crispelles, ribbons of fried dough made to look like rosettes and honey glazed struffoli.

On this special night, we felt loved and secure while we listened to the sounds of chains on tires of cars on icy roads. We listened to Christmas carols on the radio or Frank Sinatra’s Christmas records played on the Victrola. Children’s voices were heard as they dashed through the kitchen, while dads and uncles gathered in the living room discussing the politics of the day. By Midnight, young adults went to Midnight Mass, while children were “nestled all snug in their beds.”

Christmas dinner featured home-made ravioli or lasagna, with lots of family time and plenty of love. Toys and games were shared among cousins and excitement abounded.

With no cell phones or computers, everyone interacted with conversation. While indoors, children played with games. If there was snow outside, all of the children would go outdoors to build snow men and igloos.  Of course, everyone was warned that they would poke an eye out if they threw snowballs. I can only imagine how many generations of children have been warned about that! Well, I can still recall that we took the risk anyway and aimed our snowballs at our beloved cousins, brothers and sisters, anyway! These are the memories that I cherish and even though I have had a full life and loved teaching, there is nothing that compares to Christmas as a child and the magical experiences of growing up in my Italian American family.

Marilyn Ann Verna Ed.D

Professor at St. Francis College (retired)

Marilyn Ann Verna is a retired associate professor at St. Francis College and a former teacher and administrator in the New York City Board of Education. Her research specialization dealt with factors influencing exceptional students and has been presented at U.S and international conference. Her work is published in educational journals and books and Dr. Verna is also a genealogist specializing in Italian research. She is an active member of the Italian Genealogical Group and the Italian American Studies Association.

I fondly recall Christmas celebrations with my family. My only living grandparent lived in the same house with us, which was a great benefit in learning about life in Italy, plus family harmony and stability.  We had the two kitchens set-up (upstairs and the basement) and the whole family – aunts, uncles and cousins gathered in the basement every Sunday and on holidays.

During the Christmas season, I enjoyed watching my grandmother make the special cheese cake typical of Campobasso. I also remember her preparing the homemade pasta, first assembling the ingredients on a large pastry board and she would then make a well in the flour and deposit the eggs for mixing. I found it amusing that the eggs never left the board; I always expected the eggs to roll off onto the floor, but in all of my years of watching, she never lost an egg! But back to the pasta; after cutting the dough, she would let the pasta dry on a special cloth that would be laid out on the bed!

Christmas was a time when extended family members would come to visit my grandmother. I always looked forward to their visits; the older cousins and great-uncles would always have a few dollars for us youngsters. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the Sunday group would gather. The children were seated at a side table, separate from the adults for the meal that lasted all day. I smile when I think back to those days of drinking cream soda with a dash of Italian wine at our Christmas dinner.

On a typical day, opera would be heard throughout the house, but on these festive occasions the pianola rolls would entertain us with songs from the 1930s and 1940s.  I grew-up with a love for all of these old tunes. My father played the piano and accordion, while other members of the family played the guitar and banjo. My mother and aunts would be the vocalists and the music was heard all day long.   To this day, we remain a close knit family. I now make my Nonna’s cheese cake every Christmas and my cousins look forward to enjoying it.

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