• Joseph F. Berenato

Judy, Joe & Jethro: Mohawk Corner’s merry little Christmas


Downtown Hammonton's Christmas tree lights up the sky. (THG/Kristin Guglietti. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

Christmas time is here, which usually brings with it happiness and cheer, but those seem in rather short supply as of late.


(As of this writing, for instance, I still have not decorated my house, and I arrived home 30 seconds too late to watch Santa ride past my house on a fire truck.)


I’ve lost friends to the pandemic.


The schools are remote again.


I won’t be spending Christmas Eve with my extended family, which completes the trifecta that started with Easter and continued with Thanksgiving.


It’s been a year. For all of us.


But we’ll get through it.


I keep finding myself thinking about the lyrics to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the way Judy Garland sang them in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis, which seem extremely appropriate this year and which give me hope.


“Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Let your heart be light / Next year all our troubles / Will be out of sight. / Have yourself a merry little Christmas / Make the Yuletide gay / Next year all our troubles / Will be miles away.”


It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? We’re so close to a new year, and the distribution of a vaccine, and the possibility of maybe, just maybe this pandemic being consigned to the history books.


My wife sometimes gets exceedingly befuddled by my eternal, unbridled optimism—and, for the life of me, I have no idea where that ever came from, because I used to be the most dyed-in-the-wool pessimist that ever came down the street—but, dammit, I think we all need to be a little optimistic.


“I think that ’21 is gonna be a good year, especially if you and me see it in together,” I tell her. (Yes, I know those are lyrics from The Who’s Tommy, but they fit, too. Work with me here.)


Maybe, just maybe, next year all our troubles will be miles away, out of sight.


“Once again as in olden days / Happy golden days of yore / Faithful friends who are dear to us / Will be near to us once more. / Someday soon we all will be together / If the fates allow / Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow / So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.”


Now there’s the message that really resonates.


I’m not going to see my dad and his wife on Christmas Eve. I’m not going to see my sisters. My nephews.


I’m not going to eat my dad’s fried shrimp—I have no idea what that man does to it, but I swear to the Good Lord that it’s better than any I’ve ever had in any restaurant.


I’m not going to have any of Debbie’s desserts, or any of Annie’s sangria (for which my liver is probably going to be rather grateful).


And the piscistoccu is another matter entirely.


Since time immemorial, that cod stew has been the centerpiece of our Christmas Eve dinner. Everyone has to try it, at least once, unless you have a documented allergy to any of the ingredients. Some people like it. Some people don’t. For some, like me, it became an acquired taste; I didn’t like it when I was little, but I’ve absolutely loved it since high school. For others, like my grandson Jethro, it’s an immediate hit; he first tried it last year, when he was 2 years old, and—to the amazement and delight of my father—happily asked for seconds.


My grandfather made the piscistoccu for decades, using a recipe that he got from his mother, and for who knows how many generations prior it was served in Gesso. When Old Joe Mohawk got tired of having Christmas Eve dinner at his house—where I now live—he still made it and brought it to my father’s house before deciding to officially pass the torch about 10 years ago, when Dad was 61.


I’m 42. I don’t think I’m old enough to make it yet.


When Dad and I were talking about the plans for this year’s dinner—separate houses, separate meals—he gave me a brief rundown of the ingredients, but I feel like I’ve been handed a box of Ikea parts and a picture of the finished product with no idea of the steps involved.


But I’m going to make it anyway—and, considering the fact that Mohawk still wanders around the joint from time to time, maybe he’ll step in and give me a hand.


It’s been 10 years since the piscistoccu has been made in this house, and at least 15 since a Christmas Eve dinner was held here. This time, there will be no extended family, just me, Robyn and the kids, but we’ll make it work.


We’ll have ourselves a merry little Christmas, and we’ll let our hearts be light.

Someday soon, my family will once again be together, if the fates allow. Until then, we’ll just have to muddle through somehow.


Hopefully, by this time next year, all of our current troubles will be out of sight.


Merry Christmas, all.




Joseph F. Berenato began as a mild-mannered reporter for The Hammonton Gazette in 1997, and returned to that position in 2019 after an 18-year sabbatical, during which he farmed, taught, became a grandfather, dug graves and wrote, but never so prolifically as he has since his return. You can email him at jberenato@hammontongazette. com or find him on social media at @JFBerenato and at www.jfberenato.com.