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.