"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 26, 2023

'Pass The Lasagna' - The Real Meaning Of Christmas

Joseph Ponti  had never been a fan of Christmas.  The Holidays were supposed to be happy times, but they never were. No matter how much his family tried, they always ended up squabbling, drunk, and pissy.

His Aunt Leona did all the right things.  She and her sister cooked all the right things -ham, turkey, sweet potatoes, and mince pie.  Uncle Eddie strung the lights on the yews and in recent years went upscale and wound blue LED lights around the dogwood. All the cousins were there, great uncles and neighbors.

Everyone started off on their best behavior until Myrtle Bottoms just couldn’t help making a crack about her brother’s trophy wife. “A tart”, she hissed to her husband but loud enough for half the living room to hear; and then went on to lavishly and sarcastically praise the outrageously inappropriate outfit that she wore – oversized breasts pushed up and out in a wide décolleté, spiked heels, retro-bouffant hairdo, and diamonds as big as the Ritz on four fingers.

Joseph’s second cousin Margaret was drunk before the last guest arrived and started in on Lou Layman, the only Jew in the house, the aging consort of the maiden aunt of someone.  “Read Acts”, she shouted at him, “if you still want to deny the role of Jews in Christ’s death”. 

Religion for Lou Layman ended at the last book of the Old Testament; but he had read Acts out of self-defense. Luke had it in for the Jews, he knew, never let up on the scribes and Pharisees, and after the crucifixion, went after Jews with a vengeance.  Of course Jewish kings, courtiers and lieutenants wanted him dead.  All a matter of politics, thought Lou, not rising to the bait of drunk Margaret Grillo who looked around the room for someone else to badger, but vowing never ever to have Christmas in New Haven again.    “Next year I’ll do a Shylock”, he said to himself. “No dinner with Italians.”

“Very nice ham pie”, said Great Aunt Mary who made a great show of chopping  her slice into little pieces and eating them with a spoon. “Very nice indeed; but next time you might want to be more generous on the eggs.” Leona had slaved in the kitchen since five in the morning, she was never too shy to tell us, and she had finally had it with Mary, an old crone who should have been boxed up and buried long ago.  She went into the kitchen, pulled a potato-masher out of the drawer, and hammered the pie down to glue and ham bits and dumped the mess on Mary’s plate.

The children whined about their presents, the adults belched and farted after way too much lasagna, corn fritters, and eel, and Joseph listened to the car radio wrapped in the horse blanket his father kept in the trunk for winter emergencies.

Christmas morning always started right.  Everyone in the family went to church, received Holy Communion, and wanting to preserve their State of Grace for as long as possible avoided every occasion of venial sin.  Joseph’s father was mild and considerate to his mother instead of ordering her around. His older sister helped set the table without bitching and moaning; and his mother smiled through the eggs benedict and cheese toast, her one English, non-Italian meal of the year. 

Joseph Ponti had never been religious.  Although he was raised Catholic, the religion never took.  He simply never believed the cant, ceremony, and injunctions.  Despite the Carmelite nuns, the wild ravings of Father Brophy, and the censorious priests in the confessional, he emerged relatively untouched and, unlike a lot of Catholics, unscathed.

Catholics don’t pay much attention to the Bible, for the Church has always asserted its right to mediate between man and God, to interpret Christ’s teachings, and provide a strong institutional home for the faithful.  ‘Tradition’, as Catholic teaching stressed, was as important as Scripture; and although Biblical references could not be avoided, the Bible itself was not seen as the sine qua non of religious enlightenment.

As a result, Joe had never read the Bible; and although Harold Bloom had made extensive references to the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Isaiah in his course on Romantic Poetry, Joe skipped over them and parsed Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright and Mt. Blanc on what he thought were their own merits.

Only in later life did Ponti return to Bloom, Blake, and the Bible - the Via Dolorosa, crucifixion, and resurrection, ideas taught by the nuns on Sunday mornings, but only catechetical verse and response (Who made you? God made me. Where is God? God is everywhere).  The signs of the cross, the statues on the altar, the blandishments of Father Brophy, and a quick grace before Sunday dinner were all there was to religion which, for his father and mother, was necessary finery, proper dress to belong in a modest, simple little town. 

Coincidentally Joe’s study of the New Testament coincided with Christmas. “It was not a good time to read the story of Christ”, he said. Aunt Leona’s Christmas dinner was never pretty, he said, but this time every mouthful of food reminded him of poor Lou Layman, dead and gone, sloppy eater, Jewish table manners, a guest at the dinner of the year, all to do with Leona's ham pie, Angie's eggplant, and Emil's Ferrara nougats, and nothing to do with Jesus except the creche on the mantelpiece, a bit of pop art  bought to help out the old Italian vendor on the boardwalk at Atlantic City. 

"Pass the lasagna", said Lou across the table as Joe tried to formulate something appropriate - the dinner at Cana, the loaves and the fishes, the fisher of men - but nothing took as the crowd pushed back from the table and turned to anisette and coffee.  He waited for an epiphany, some bit of grace at for all his efforts.  Forget the tinsel, the plastic Walmart wreath, and the cheap ties - those were expected. It was the pedaling without progress, the images of the saints which came and went with the mashed potatoes and corn fritters, Mantovani and Perry Como that derailed him.  

All for naught. Where was Harold Bloom when he needed him? He, old Jew like Lou Lehman and dead and gone as well, could have made a difference.  A word about Tyger Tyger or Mont Blanc would have raised the discourse. Even oblique spiritual references would do to change the subject. 

It is easy to be in the right frame of mind at Christmas mass at St. Sulpice, the music of Bach on the grandes orgues, reverberating for what seems like minutes through the cathedral.  Not so easy at Aunt Leona’s exactly where Jesus was meant to be found amidst the clutter and soup stains.   

'Don't be so morose', said Auntie Angie, used to Joe's wet blanket and always there with another piece of ricotta pie; but one bite of that delicious, creamy, delightful pie would have sent him drifting farther and farther from Jesus and the miracle of his birth. 

And so it was that Joe Ponti kept accepting Leona’s invitations to Christmas dinner - it was a matter of pride.  Even through all the gravy, stuffing, antipasto, and Valpolicella, he would find Jesus.  

And so it was that 'Pass the lasagna' derailed him yet again and the ricotta pie finally got him to succumb. Christmas at Leona’s was Falstaffian - there was Harold Bloom again - and maybe that was enough. 

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