New year’s Eve Old Sicilian Ritual
Growing up in a poor neighborhood in the Great White North 60 years ago, reminded me of a ritual my Mom used when it came to tough times like we had this past year. I don’t want to embellish the situation my family was in, but I just wanted to recount what was important to my Mom at the time.
You see we were immigrants from Sicily and were lucky enough to have a roof over our heads and something to eat every day. Even though we ate the same thing day in and day out (how many ways can you eat spaghetti), except for the occasional Sundays (when if we were lucky we had some kind of meat).
I had friends in the neighborhood that were in the same position as my family and when I think back, most of their families were struggling too.
I couldn’t complain, we played outside in freezing temperatures, sometimes below zero Fahrenheit. Using half-broken hockey sticks and old wooden shin pads, road hockey was the top game. Occasionally if we could borrow some old skates or if someone’s Dad got a little extra for Christmas, one of the kids showed up with a new second-hand set of skates. In our neighborhood, they usually handed down the skates from brother to brother to family to neighbors. It was like dealing cards every year, someone would grow out of them and someone needed a bigger size. The circle of life!
Toboggans made of wood with pieces missing and discarded garbage can lids made sliding down the road, bridge embankment a thrill. After getting dressed in two pairs of pants and a t-shirt, then a regular shirt, vest, and pullover, not to mention a hand-me-down jacket, made the sleigh hard to maneuver. The gloves always seemed to have holes in them.
Sorry, easy to get off on another memory. Back to my Mom. It was a particularly tough Christmas that year, and New Year’s eve found my Mom and Dad watching, Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians on an old black and white t.v. We only had three channels, and one was French. The t.v. had a pencil holding the dial in place, and a set of rabbit ears someone had donated to us, to get better reception. It didn’t work. It still was a snowy and grainy screen (could hardly make out the picture, but the sound was okay). That particular year, my parents let me stay up until midnight if I could stay awake.
Being so young I kept looking at the clock to try to make it to midnight and I slowly was losing the battle. This is where it starts!
I did catch my second breath, you see when it got close within 5 minutes of the New Year, my Dad got up and went into the kitchen and reached into the cupboard over the fridge. I was forbidden to go into that cupboard, not that I could, it was over the fridge. He took down a wine bottle, it looked like a wine bottle but it wasn’t. The liquid was clear. My Dad called for my Mom to come into the kitchen and he poured two small shot glasses. Then he put the bottle back into the cupboard.
My Mom came in and asked him what he wanted. Dad asked her to toast the New Year with him and hope for better days in the coming year. Leaning in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, I could hear the countdown from Guy Lombardo on the t.v. Mom and Dad took the glasses and downed the drink in one gulp. I thought it was strange. You see up to this point in my young life, I had never seen my parents drink alcohol, much less have a shot. By the time they set their glasses down, midnight had arrived, and they gave each other a kiss. That was something else that I never seen before. My Mom giving my Dad a kiss without him leaving town. Now here comes the surprise!
Without notice, my Mom went to the cupboard and pulled out two small cracked plates that we were still using at the time, put them in her apron, and then rushed off to get our broom. On her way out of the kitchen, she grabbed the salt, and off she went down the hall, dropping salt all the way to the front door. Mom was started mumbling in a sing-song voice and repeating a type of cantation over and over.
She then flung open the front door, (our house had a front door that was two steps away from the sidewalk), and swept the salt she spread out the door, increasing her tempo of this scary cantation. At first, I thought the drink my father gave her was making her mad!
Then without closing the door, she came down the hall sweeping the salt like a sweeper at the curling club and headed again for the kitchen. I stepped aside as she rushed past and wondered what she was going to do next.
It didn’t take long. The crazy part is my mom, even though we were poor, always kept a clean and tidy house. To leave the front door open to the freezing elements was akin to committing a cardinal sin! Then when I heard her opening up the back door, again wide open to the elements, I thought she completely lost it. Now I was sure there was something wrong with her.
Mom then propped the door open and began sweeping out the salt that she spread in the kitchen while repeating her sing-song. My Dad at this time was sitting in the living room not saying a damn thing. I know that this was something he normally would not tolerate. I was wondering if he was going to do anything! Besides, I was starting to feel the temperature drop in the house. I thought the family was going crazy and I was in the middle of it! Was I dreaming? No, I was freezing!
Now the cantation my mother was repeating, built up to a crescendo, and to my surprise, she stepped outside without boots or a coat! Total madness! I ran to the back door and see my mother crouching down and facing the exterior wall of the house, again muttering something under her breath. What was going on?
Well, she reached into her apron that she always wore and pulled out the two cracked dishes. To my surprise, she threw them at the bottom of the house where it sits on the pavement. Needless to say that they broke into a thousand pieces and she left them there all broken shining off the streetlights reflecting the frozen snow. What was going on! Incredibly as fast as she started, she stopped all the singing, went back into the house, and closed the back door. Then she made her way to the front door and closed that too. I was so happy that she did that because I started to see my own breath in the freezing house!
When things settled down, it didn’t take long for her to tell me to go right up to bed. I did. I was wide awake, but I was too tired to understand what had happened. After all, I was pretty young. I don’t think it took five minutes after my head hit the pillow to fall asleep.
The next morning, I woke up to Mom (she was always up early) making breakfast. My breakfast was the same every day. Toast and warm milk, with a touch of coffee for coloring. I looked at my Mom and she smiled at me and went about her day. Back to normal.
I waited for my Dad to come downstairs and then asked him what was Mom all mad about last night at midnight.
He told me she wasn’t mad but invoked an old wives tale that she learned when she was a little girl in Sicily.
He explained,” She takes the salt and spreads it in the house to help ward off the evil spirits and malcontents that we might have attracted in the past year. Then she opens the doors of the house, front and back to sweep the bad spirits out.” “But what about the dishes”, I asked. “How many dishes did she break?” he asked. “Two I think, at least that was what I saw”. Dad said, “Well it must have been a tough year she usually breaks one. Mom broke the dishes as an offering to the evil spirits to get out, leave the house”. “Wow!” “Does it work?” I asked him.
“We’ll see,” he said. “Only time will tell.”
In closing as I reflect on this memory, because of the year we just had. I am now heading for the cupboard looking for a couple of cracked dishes (my mother would call it a sin to break good dishes) and yelling to my wife “where the heck is the broom!” ”what do you need the broom for?” she yelled back. “We need to get the bad juju out of our house. I don’t want to go through another year like the past year!”