Anthony Gargiulo Jr. (center) at age 20 with his Aunt Maria and cousin Biagio.

I left my home in River Forest in August of 1982 to study in Rome for a year. I looked forward to experiencing a new culture, learning the language and visiting family in Calabria in southern Italy.

After a visit to Calabria in October of that year, my cousin hugged me goodbye at the train station in Cosenza, and firmly told me I’d be expected at Christmas. “E’ sicuro, no?” As most Italian-Americans can attest, relatives back in the homeland are not only some of the most hospitable, but also the most possessive. The family network in and around Cosenza sometimes became offended if you stayed with another relative.

After that fall visit I was pretty sure I would not use my open-ended ticket back to Chicago for Christmas. While my parents missed me, they were happy I was with family and experiencing something new. I was sure there would be many more Christmases in River Forest in the future.

My cousins were spread out through the metro area of Cosenza, a modernized town of about 70,000. Cousins who lived there and the neighboring suburbs seemed taken aback that I chose to go about 30 miles away to spend Christmas with family in the ancient mountain town of San Giovanni in Fiore. “E’ vero?” was their reaction. The family sometimes downplayed their origins in San Giovanni, clinging to backward ways, winding narrow one-way streets and primitive architecture.

But I thought, if I was going to experience a traditional Christmas, it was more likely to occur in the hills and far away. San Giovanni was the place.

I took along my friend Dave, whom I’d discovered hanging out at the near-deserted dormitory a few days prior.

“What are you doing for Christmas?” I asked.

“Well, nothing. I’m Jewish.”

“Well, you’re doing something now.”

After a couple of days in Cosenza with other cousins, we drove with my Zia Maria and cousin Biagio to San Giovanni on Dec. 23. Biagio expertly negotiated the mountain roads in rain, sleet and snow.

There was no heat in their three flat, save for a fireplace on the main floor where the kitchen, dining and family rooms were joined. Seven blankets and what heat escaped to the upper floors kept us warm at night.

The town was alive and bustling on Christmas Eve. As Dave and I walked the streets we saw an abundance of fresh fish for sale for the traditional holiday spread. After an amazing fish dinner at another cousin’s home, Biagio drove us around San Giovanni and explained the multiple bonfires in action, and that Christmas Eve was celebrated with not only fire but also fireworks.

Zia Maria asked if we wanted to attend midnight mass. I agreed and we walked down Via XXV di Aprile to the La Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie. The church was packed and an overflow crowd assembled outside the open main entrance into the piazza. A few ragazzi congregated, waving sparklers. Zia Maria found a seat with some friends, and I stood near the door as the mass got underway.

At the altar three newborns and their families awaited a special Christmas baptism. I was jarred out of this sacred moment by a series of firecrackers exploding in the piazza. I could hear various elders shout “Silencio!” from outside, but bangs and pops continued. The priest scarcely paused, as if to acknowledge this was normal, and proceeded with the baptisms. The ragazzi became emboldened now with bottle rockets.

While most of the projectiles stayed in the piazza, a few errant ones fell at the church entrance. I don’t think I imagined that Christmas in Italy might be like a military zone. But, nonetheless, here I was fending off fireworks and happy to move towards the altar for the Eucharist. Zia Maria and I walked home arm-in-arm on that cold, blessed evening, and she laughed off my incredulity at the pyrotechnics. It was all in a Christmas Eve in Italy. So much for something traditional, I thought.

Back in Rome a few days later, I called home and my dad answered. It appeared to be just another routine holiday back in River Forest.

“So how was your Christmas?” he asked.

“Well, let me tell you Dad … it was a blast!”

Anthony Gargiulo Jr., 48, is a lifelong resident of Oak Park and River Forest (currently Oak Park) save for the two years he spent in Italy.

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