Christmas in America
By Mary Sicilia
When I was eight, my parents began running a boarding house in Duluth, Minn. It was my mom, dad, me and nine “guys” for Christmas Eve and every other eve for that matter.
Mostly they were Great Lakes shore men or steelworkers — all of them were immigrants or first generation Americans — from Finland, Sweden, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Poland and Wales.
One or two of them spent the holiday with their families, but most were alone. At least as alone as you can be in a household of 11 grown adults and one very chatty child.
Each year, everyone gathered for a fine dinner and then we exchanged simple gifts, most of them lovingly but clumsily wrapped by the men. We came from different cultures, spoke several different first languages, had widely varied political and religious viewpoints, but Christmas Eve, we were all the same — human beings longing for home.
One Christmas Eve, a particularly snowy night as I recall, Mr. Ragoni, our Italian boarder, returned home from Mass sometime around 2 a.m. I remember I could hear him whistling as he rounded the corner at the end of the block. I snuggled deeply into my quilt and began to drift to sleep. With his arrival, everyone was safely home.
But suddenly I heard him stamping up the front steps loudly. The door bell rang wildly. “Buon Natale, Buon Natale!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “Wake up! Wake up! It’s Christmas in America.”
Suddenly the sleeping house was alive with lights and slamming doors. Men appeared from every corner of the house, mostly in ragged long johns, sweaters and boots. Running into the cold night air, they shouted, heads thrown back in laughter, eyes ablaze. They stooped down, packing snowballs to lob at Ragoni and one another. Most of the men were in their fifties, sixties or seventies, bent by the burden of impossible work, rendered silent much of the time by the weight of difficult lives. But at that moment in the earliest hours of that Christmas morning, they were little boys, running and ducking and laughing wildly.
After awhile, the uproar died down. They stopped fighting and started shivering, stamping off the snow, stomping up the stairs. My dad got out the wine, we toasted one another and, in eight different languages, truly wished each other a Merry Christmas.