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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Family Tradition

From the Vault Dept.: Today’s Metroland features a piece I wrote about Christmas dining traditions throughout the world. I grabbed a bit of the information from myself – from a piece I wrote 27 years ago, about dinner at the rectory of Schenectady’s Church of the Immaculate Conception, where my friend Tom Savoy was music director at the time, and where I thus was able to see the feast described below in preparation. Like much of what passed through the editing process at Capital Region magazine, my words were sent through a savage editorial mill, so parts of this leap out at me as not at all mine, particularly the dorky finish. The original is lost to bit-space.


Photo by Mark McCarty
TO MOST OF HIS PARISH he’s Father Joe, a chubby, cherubic pastor you expect to find in a suburb of Rome. But he’s here in the Bellevue neighborhood of Schenectady, just beginning his eighth year at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, where he practices Christmas traditions that have been meaningful to him and his family for generations.

Father Joseph Cotugno was born and raised in the Italian section of Albany. And although his father was born on Front Street in Schenectady, the older Cotugno was taken back to Sicily as a boy, where he was raised. He passed away several years ago, but Father Joe’s mother, who is still alive, lives with her son.

“She’s technically and legally blind, but she can smell a dollar bill lying on the lawn,” chuckles Father Joe. “And she still does the cooking for our Christmas Eve dinner, one of our big traditions year after year.”

Food is central to Italian celebrations, according to Father Joe. And before every major feast day they have a vigilia, the vigil, which is a day of fasting and abstinence. Fasting means you eat very little and abstinence means you eat no meat. Thus, many Italians prepare a variety of fish.

“We’ve gotten away from the fasting part over the years,” Father Joe laughs, patting his belly. “But we’re very traditional about the fish.”

Baccala, dried cod that has been marinated for days, is served, in addition to calamari (squid), smelts, whitefish, shrimp, scallops and scungilli (conch). Dinner on Christmas Eve is eaten at about 7.

Father Joe’s mother, his brother and his family, whatever people may be at the rectory and those who are ministers nearby, are invited to join them.

“It’s become a big celebration:’ says Father Joe. “Last Christmas we had thirty at the table.”

Everyone eats and enjoys and then it is time for midnight Mass, when the powerful religious feeling of the evening begins to replace the merrymaking. It is the traditional time to celebrate the birth of Christ. Night and star images abound, and above the cold night air hangs a silent, blessed mystique.

Father Joe grows serious. “I love the procession with the infant Child down the church aisle to the crib. The crib set is a very significant symbol of promise in Italian households, and all Christian churches have some kind of Nativity set.”

On Christmas Day, food is secondary to all the celebrations, which is why dinner the previous evening has become such a paramount event.

“I like to keep the Italian traditions alive here,” smiles Father Joe. “And there are many in the congregation who appreciate that. The most famous Christmas carol they sing in Italy goes, ‘Tu scendi dalla stelli,’‘You come down from the stars.’ I insist we sing it here.” He laughs. “As the pastor, I can insist on such things.”

Perhaps whatever or whoever lies beyond those stars appreciates Father Joe’s insistence.

Capital Region, December 1986

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