A Christmas Story

A blending of fact and fiction by Anthony Grano

In a small hill town in southern Italy, a young man prepares to leave his home, his family and his country. The past two years have not been good for the family and Papa has decided to send his oldest son Carlo to America to live with his Zio Giuseppe in the hope that Carlo will find a better life than the family is faced with in Italy. Carlo really does not want to leave, but knows that the land has not been kind to Mama and Papa and that men of his trade, a stone mason, find little work in the Mezzogiorno of Italy.

Mama has washed his clothes and packed a spare shirt and pants along with a small loaf of bread and a package of olives and cheese, the fruits of the land, for Carlo to take with him. Even this little bit will strain the resources of the family. Papa and Carlo begin the long walk that will take them thirty or forty kilometers to where he will board the train to Napoli. At the station, Papa embraces his son, kisses both his cheeks and wishes him well. Papa does not ask Carlo to write to them as neither Carlo nor Papa can read or write. All he asks is that Carlo obeys Zio Giuseppe, work hard and never forget his family.

In Napoli, the agent who has arranged for his travel permit and passage escorts him to the ship that will transport him along with 1000 third class passengers and 250 first and second class passengers to the United States. The accommodations are completely segregated from the first and second class passengers, two decks below the main deck. The air is thick with humanity and Carlo becomes ill the second day out as the ship passes from the Mediterranean into the Atlantic Ocean and pitches and rolls through the heavy seas. Even though food is available, he cannot bring himself to eat and as the days pass, he cannot leave his bunk. A fellow passenger brings him bits of bread and cheese to help settle his seasickness and as the passage enters its fifth day, he is able to leave the compartment and get a bit of fresh air.

On the seventh day of the voyage, everyone gathers at the rails of the ship to stare at the largest statue that they have ever seen in their lives. Everyone points at the statue of the beautiful “ Lady of the Americas” as the ship slides past her into New York harbor. The first and second class passengers are allowed to disembark directly into New York but the third class passengers must stay aboard ship as it returns past the Lady to a small island in the harbor with two slips for passenger ships.

With his feet finally on dry land again, Carlo follows the crowd into the long brick and stone building where he meets his first American. He hands over the paper with his name and the town he was born in to un Americano who mispronounces his name, stamps the document and passes him on to the medical area where he is examined and pronounced fit. After the exam he is fed his first meal on American soil, a fairly hearty vegetable and potato broth with soft white bread. The bread looks and tastes nothing like the bread that Mama baked in the village’s communal oven, but hunger wins out over appearance. Later, he is reunited with his meager belongings and led, along with a large group of immigrants, to the waiting ferry that will take them to lower Manhattan and the real America.

Landing in lower Manhattan, the immigrants meet up with sponsors and relatives and disperse to their new homes. Carlo looks for his uncle but does not recognize anyone in the crowd. After a while he is one of the few men left on the docks. Looking up, he sees a policeman in uniform approaching. The policeman addresses him in Italian with a thick Sicilian accent and asks where Carlo is going to in New York. He shows the policeman the paper with Zio Giuseppi’s address and the officer gives him directions to the Italian neighborhood where the family lives and tells him to ask for directions to his uncle’s house when he gets to the area. Carlo thanks him and thinks that this is not a bad start in a new country.

With wide-open eyes, he walks north through lower Manhattan following the directions that the officer has given him. The sights, sounds and smells are extremely foreign to a young man from a small village. There are so many people crowded into tenement houses with laundry hanging everywhere. Children run and shout, playing in the streets dodging in and out of the many horse drawn carts and vendor stalls. Carlo also notices that the streets in this part of Manhattan are not paved with gold! Looking up the street, he spots another policeman in uniform and walking up to him, addresses the officer in Italian and hands him the paper with Zio’s address. The officer looks at him and at the house next to them and slaps Carlo on the head. He points to the street sign, Mulberry Street and to the house number on the paper, 640 Mulberry Street. The officer then points at the house in front of them, number 640, and shaking his head walks away. Carlo comes to the realization that he has just met the real America.

The months roll by and Carlo finds work as a laborer at a construction site. The days are long and the work hard. He gives Zio Giuseppi part of his earnings to pay for room and board and also some to save and send back to the family in Italy. As he works, he picks up bits and pieces of the English language and also bits and pieces of the lifestyle of America. But in his heart, he still longs for the simpler way of life and his family in Italy. Even though he lives in a sprawling Italian community, he sometimes feels that he is alone as the American experience spins around him.

As the Christmas holiday is approaching, Carlo withdraws into himself. He knows that the holiday in Italy is a beautiful time of the year when the entire village celebrates the birth of the Christ child with the solemnity that only a deeply religious people can feel. Even though the people of the village have so little to spare, they always find a way to give to each other and to make the day special for all the children. As they attend the Midnight Mass, a special joy comes on the people, a joy that can only be expressed by those who give freely from their meager possessions. This is the feeling of Christmas that he longs for.

Zia Lucia notices that Carlo has become distant and suspects that he longs for his family, friends and traditions of their village in Italy as the Christmas Holiday approaches. Taking him aside, Zia tells him that they will celebrate the traditions of the holiday as best as they can here in America. It may be a little bit different here but they will do their best. She directs him to get his best set of clothes out and make them ready to attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve with the family at San Rocco Parish. Zia Lucia also decides to speak to her husband about Carlo and he responds that he has been thinking about Carlo’s problems also. He tells her that he has an idea that may help with the problem.

Christmas Eve arrives and the family sits down to the traditional dinner. It is not quite what it had been in Italy but it is the best that can put together here. After dinner they go out and visit friends and Pisani from their village and prepare to go to midnight mass together.

As the family enters San Rocco Church, Carlo hears the sounds of singing of the holy songs in his native language and as the Mass begins, a new felt sense of belonging comes over him. The chanting of the priest in Latin and the strong fragrance of the burning incense brings back memories of the midnight mass that his family attends in their village. In the homily that the priest delivers in a dialect very close to his own, Carlo listens intently to the story of the family that must leave their home and travel to a distant area where they are forced to reside in squalor as their Child is born. He realizes that the conditions almost 2000 years ago were not far off from the poverty and hopelessness of the village he came from and gains a new understanding of his Father’s decision to send him to America. As the Mass ends, he leaves the church with a different frame of mind.

On Christmas day, after dinner, Zio Giuseppe tells Carlo that the two of them are going to the home of a friend for coffee. As they enter the apartment, Zio’s friend, his wife and their children greet them. The table is set and the coffee poured. The coffee is strong, the torta is sweet but Carlo’s eyes fall on their host’s daughter Flavia who passes more sweets to him. Flavia is an American, born shortly after the family’s arrival from Italy. She has attended school here in New York and speaks English without an accent. Yet, she speaks Italian perfectly in the dialect of their region. Their eyes meet across the table and a slight smile comes to both of their faces. Little do they know that Zio and Flavia’s father have spoken to each other about the young couple.

As they leave the apartment and begin to walk through the neighborhood to their own home, Carlo says to Zio Giuseppe that his first Natale in America has been an eye opener for him and that he feels so much better about things. Zio just pats his nephew on the shoulder and smiles knowingly.