• Joseph F. Berenato

On Santa Claus, celebrations and slicing up fruitcake

Christmas will be here in 10 days, and I am thrilled.


Santa Claus waved to the crowd on December 4 in downtown. (THG/Joseph F. Berenato. To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

Our tree has been up since the day after Thanksgiving. My lights are up outside. My cut-outs are taped to the cabinets, and the nativity that my parents made—Mom cold-cast and painted the figures and Dad built the manger—is on display (with a statue of La Befana in attendance for good measure).


Our Christmas cards are in the mail.


My wife, Robyn, has been busying herself nightly wrapping presents that she started buying in July.


My presents are mostly purchased and hidden in strategic locations throughout the tri-state area so Robyn can’t find them.


I have been eating fruitcake and panettone like it’s my job.


What a difference from last year.


You all remember last year, so no need to rehash the particulars, necessarily, but Christmas spirit was kind of hard to come by—though we made the most of it.


We had a lovely dinner at home on Christmas Eve, wherein I got to try my hand at making piscistoccu, the traditional cod stew my family has been enjoying for generations. It was my first time making it; my father has been making it for years, as did his father before him, and his mother before him, on and on probably since cod first came to Sicily during the Norman invasion a thousand years ago.


It came out great.


I love the way my dad makes it—it’s delicious—but mine tasted just like my grandfather’s. By sheer happenstance, I think I stumbled onto his secret—don’t stir as vigilantly as you probably should; the bottom of the piscistoccu will stick and burn. Don’t tell anybody what happened; instead, say that it’s supposed to taste like that. They’ll believe you and declare it a masterpiece.


This year, we’ll once again be going to my father’s for Christmas Eve, having already gotten together on Thanksgiving for the first time as a family in almost two years. And, while I’ll miss making the piscistoccu, I still don’t think I’m old enough to make it, so I’ll let my dad continue to take point on that for the next decade or so.


I’m just glad the fates have allowed us all to be together again.


Our home dynamic has changed since last year, as well. Now, it’s just the two of us and Carter; Fraya and the grandbabies moved out once she and Ben married in July, so Christmas morning will be a little quieter than I’ve become used to—though, admittedly, I’m usually the one making the most noise because none of the rest of these people know how to Christmas.


I’m the oldest person in this house. Why is it, then, that I am up before the sun every year, coffee made, fruitcake sliced, wondering why on Earth it’s 7 a.m. and nobody else is up?


Last year Robyn made me wait until almost 8 a.m. before I was allowed to wake anybody else. I was near apoplectic—and then, once the presents were opened, I was positively insufferable, parading around the house in the Dracula cape that Robyn bought me.


I can’t help it. Christmas brings out the kid in me.


Whenever I see Santa Claus somewhere—in the center of town at the tree lighting, on a firetruck outside of my house or on a roadside somewhere—I wave and scream with delight, and probably even louder in recent years. I know I’m a grown man, but I’m a sucker for the magic of Christmas—and Lord knows we could all use a little bit more of that magic these days.


“For we need a little music, need a little laughter / Need a little singing ringing through the rafter / And we need a little snappy, happy ever after / We need a little Christmas now.”


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.