by Alexander S., 14
At midnight on December 24th, four children, three boys and a girl, sit around a Christmas tree. Christmas was always big for their family. One by one, they exchange presents. There isn’t much: perhaps one gets a toy train or an airplane made of wood. But what they lack in gifts is made up for with the love that the family shares.
Early the next morning, the youngest of the four, Vincent Riggio, sits in the kitchen, eating an orange from his Christmas stocking, listening to his mother and aunts bicker and laugh as they make Christmas dinner, trying to pick up on their Italian.
They live in the Down Neck Section of Newark, New Jersey. The neighborhood is filled with different ethnicities such as Portuguese, Irish, Italians, and more specifically in Vincent’s case, Sicilians. His entire family lives within a five block radius. Vincent often finds himself walking out of his grandmother’s house just to go down the block to his own. His father isn’t around much, being as he is working long hours at the family tavern, providing for his family and sometimes also extended family members.
Like most boys his age, Vincent enjoys spending time with his father and the other men in the neighborhood, listening to the stories of the old world, its traditions, and the importance of “la familia.” One thing his father discourages, though, is speaking Italian in the household, and especially in public. Although his father is proud of his heritage, it is important to him that the family is considered American.
You have to understand that it is 1942, and the U.S. is in the mist of WWII, and Italy is not one of the allies. Joseph, his father, wants to make sure that everybody knows his loyalties lie here in America.
However, there is an elderly man from the neighborhood who is a regular at the tavern, and whenever Vincent makes his way there after school, the old man stops him and says, “Vincenzo, pull up a chair and speak to me in our tongue.” Although he knows this is against his father’s wishes, he was also brought up to respect his elders. Besides, he always enjoys the coins that his friend puts in his hands after their conversations.
Eventually, the neighborhood begins to change, with more and more families moving to suburban areas of New Jersey. In his early teens, his two aunts move to Matawan with their families. It is there where Vincent meets one of his aunt’s neighbors, the Tomasellos, a family with eleven children. Vincent and his cousins spend many summers with the six Tomasello boys, and eventually, more than a decade later, Vincent marries their sister, Agnes.
Although Agnes is also Italian, her family is from the Naples region, and not all of their traditions are the same as Vincent’s Sicilian customs. Like most married couples, they take traditions from both sides of their families, weaving together a new fabric of familial tradition for their son and daughter.
This year, in his 80’s, as he sits at the head of the table during Christmas Eve dinner, Vincent reflects on years past. He is grateful for his parents, and even the elderly man at the tavern, who taught him how important it was to keep their traditions alive.
As Vincent’s grandson and the benefactor of many of his colorful stories, I realize how lucky I am to live with all of these privileges that my ancestors worked so hard to provide me. My hope this Columbus Day is that you will take from this what I have, the ability to look around and see everybody who is different from you, from the bus driver to the person sitting alone at the diner, because whoever they are, Italian, Russian, Asian, or Indian, everybody has a story rich with traditions that brought them here.
Morganville, New Jersey