Community Perspective: The Christmas Eel

A contributed perspectives piece by Anna Rose Geary

I doubt that my grandmother, Nonna Teresa, ever heard the adage “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” but if she did, she would not have believed it. God and a clean house had nothing to do with each other.  Grandmother had more important things on her mind than cleaning her apartment!  She ran a small clothing factory with over a dozen Italian women employees and also owned a sort of antique/used clothing and second-hand furniture store.  She knew all the families in the neighborhood and was the confidant of the wives, mothers and lovers.  Her store was hardly without visitors, and those who came were usually worried or crying about something.  Nonna “held court” in the store for hours, very generously dispensing advice. The cleaning was left to my mother, her daughter Nenzi, who hardly ever did it since she was too busy either cooking or living her own life. 

Grandmother carried to Italian East Harlem from Naples the centerpiece of the traditional seven dishes of fish offered at table on Christmas Eve, called “La Vigilia,” the Vigil.  The day was spent in cooking and in fasting and abstinence of red meat in preparation for the Nativity.  By night, a few hours before Midnight Mass, the fast was broken and the special dishes of food were presented with great fanfare and eaten with gusto.  Nonna said that back in Naples even the poorest families tried to obtain an eel, many times pawning a bed to get the money to buy it! So a fresh, live eel had to be served on grandmother’s table for the holiday.

One Christmas Eve in the 1930’s, Grandmother Teresa had relegated the purchase of the eel to Nenzi, who was told to get to the fish market before 12 noon, when it closed for the holiday.  Early in the morning, the fish mongers would take care of the eel so that the buyer didn’t have to do the unpleasant job of killing it.   

Unfortunately, Nenzi forgot about the eel until a few minutes before closing time.  Out of breath, she arrived at the market, hoping there was an eel left.  She knew the heavens would come down if she came home empty-handed! The weeping, the wailing, the shouting and the hand-wringing would have been intolerable!  No Neapolitan could imagine the Christmas Vigil without the eel!  Luckily, there was one eel left in the market.  The fish monger sold it to her, but said she would have to take it home live.   Its final doom was up to her.

The author and her family

 When Nenzi arrived at the apartment, she didn’t quite know what to do with the wiggly, three-foot eel, trapped in the cloth sack.  She figured her mother would know and would take care of it when she returned from the store later in the day.  Nenzi filled up the washtub, which was next to the sink, opened the sack and let the “monster” slither out of the bag and into the water.  Then she put a lid on the washtub and went about cleaning an apartment which probably hadn’t been thoroughly scoured since the previous Christmas Vigil.

While working, Nenzi heard a rattling noise in the kitchen and went in to check what was causing the commotion.  There was the washtub lid on the floor, the head of the eel popping up over the top of the tub, its beady little eyes staring at her!  O! Dio mio!  ( Oh my G-d!)  Nenzi grabbed a pot, hit the eel over the head, and as it collapsed dazed into the washtub, slammed the lid back on the tub, supposedly fastening the lid tighter and figuring that was the end of that!

There were four rooms in the apartment, railroad style, with one room following after the other.  Since Nonna Teresa owned the second hand furniture store, she had many pieces piled up in the front room which was the living room.  Nenzi was dusting the furniture when she felt a swish go by her legs.  She looked down and saw a rapidly moving tail disappear under a big upholstered chair! Realizing that the eel must have gotten loose, she grabbed a broom and waited for it to make another appearance.  And there it was again!  Nenzi went after it with the broom, but it got away, slithering up some piled up tables and high onto a wardrobe.  This was now going to be a fight until the finish, with either the eel or Nenzi as the winner!  The eel hid behind the wardrobe, and as soon as the piece was moved, out it squeezed.  The next two rooms were bedrooms, and the eel dived under the beds with Nenzi in pursuit.  As it came out the other end, the eel was three times its size because it was covered with a year’s worth of dust kittens!  Nenzi was slamming the broom down but always missing the eel as it glided rapidly into the kitchen.

The author and her family

In the meantime, Nonna Teresa’s five young grandchildren were clambering up four flights of stairs to visit before Christmas Eve dinner.  As they opened the kitchen door to the apartment, they saw their aunt Nenzi running with a broom after something.  Looking down on the floor and spotting the huge, fuzzy eel, they joined the chase just as the creature streaked out the door. Nenzi and the screaming kids ran after it, four flights down to the bottom!  When the eel and its pursuers hit the open front tenement door, the eel must have sized up the situation quickly because it went into the street gutter and saw an opening into the sewer. Poof!  It disappeared somewhere, swimming into the sewer waters of New York City!   And so, that was the long remembered “Vigilia,” spoken about for years, when nobody shared the Neapolitan delicacy of “l’anguilla,” the eel!

Anna Rose Geary is a retired teacher of social studies and a reading specialist for Staunton City Schools.  She has lived in Harrisonburg since 1971, but is originally from Brooklyn, NY. 

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