12/21/2012 02:52 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Squid and Mantovani: Remembering Christmas, Italian Style

Nothing says Christmas quite like squid.

Every year, from the time I was knee-high to the kitchen counter, we could count on seafood bound to give a kid nightmares: octopuses with long tentacles thawing in the sink and whole squid that had to be cleaned and the eyeballs cut out before cooking (now there's a culinary tip you don't get every day). The only time I ever saw my momma cry on Christmas was when, in the late hours of the 24th, she discovered the ink-spattered curtains in the kitchen after Dad made his famous seafood salad. The washing machine ran late that night.

Welcome to Christmas, Italian style, a cornucopia of craziness. Dad, who was full-blooded Italian-American, and Mom, half French and half Irish, drew more battle lines than Napoleon on the march. She wanted roast goose; he wanted zuppa di pesce made from dried, salted cod that smelled even worse than it tasted. Somehow, though, they managed to pull together a sit-down affair around a table extended out of the dining room and into the living room, with a card table and folding chairs on the end. (Even now, I get nostalgic for a wobbly seat and a table leg on which to bruise my shins.)

They don't make holidays like that anymore. Not that the old days were perfect (think more Fellini and less Currier & Ives); nor was childhood (I have entertained many a therapist with my stories). But no matter what new episode in the family drama unfolded, we knew how to do Christmas; quite frankly, in a dynamic as dysfunctional as everybody's, holidays were what we did best.

It was not about stuff. Indeed, childhood photos of what seemed at the time to be quite a haul show only a few board games, basic five-and-dime store dolls, books, and a stuffed animal or two. Mom sewed new clothes for my old dolls (I remember green Capri pants and tops one year) and tagged them "From Mrs. Santa Claus."

The real bounty was at the table, both on it and around it. Even though we saw the relatives all the time, and in some cases nearly every day, we put on our best for the holiday, with velvet dresses and taffeta skirts, all made by Mom on her trusty Singer. Nobody would think of sitting down in sweatpants and an "I'm with Stupid" t-shirt. Pajamas pants most definitely not allowed.

These were the traditions, spoken and unspoken. When Aunt Jeanne brought her fruited jello salad in the cut glass bowl, all was right with the world. We knew Mom's fruitcake was so dry we'd have to choke it down. (Many years later, I learned the reason: She, being a teetotaler, didn't add extra whiskey to "cure" it.) But her turkey and dressing and roast goose are still the best I've ever tasted (including out of my own kitchen). And, Dad's seafood salad was gone before the serving dishes hit the table.

In decades to come, when I moved to New York City and then to Chicago, I used to bring squid and octopus for Dad in my carryon bag, packed with ice in case of delay. (I remember five harrowing hours at O'Hare, hoping the seafood wouldn't start to smell.) As Cousin Joe used to say, you know you're Italian if you fly with food in your suitcase.

Most of all Christmas meant music. We opened presents to the Ray Conniff Singers and the David Rose Orchestra. By the time the cousins arrived at mid-day, we commandeered the coffin-sized hi-fi in the living room and converted it to play 45s: Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, the Beatles--all at the maximum allowable volume, while Dad bellowed "Mantovani!" in the background. At some point, he'd get his wish--for about 18 minutes. Then, when he was preoccupied with conversation and Chianti, we'd bring back the rock 'n' roll.

Christmas was a big deal back then because we made it so--how, I don't know, exactly. In all these years of vacillating between trying to replicate it and creating my own customs, I never seem to quite hit the mark. Perhaps the lens of the past is more forgiving than my scrutiny of the present, but I think there was something about the unique combination of the times, the people, and the place. All I know is the holidays were special because we made them so.

Perhaps it's time to break out the squid and the Mantovani.

For a look at scenes of Christmases past, see the slideshow:

Squid and Mantovani - Remembering Christmases Past