Getting to the Christmas table was a fantastic journey for the Zannino family -- all the way from Highlandtown to The Alameda in a 1964 Ford Country Squire station wagon on a route through Clifton Park.
"We didn't see a lot of trees in Highlandtown so when we drove through the park we'd start singing: 'Over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house we go ' " recalls Mimi Zannino, one of eight children packed into the wagon.
At Grandma Felicia Glorioso's, the air was fragrant with pasta and eggplant; trays of biscotti, made with love and a recipe carried from Sicily in 1909, beckoned; and holiday linen covered the tables -- one for the adults and another for the children.
"Card tables were put together for all the cousins to sit at -- it extended the dining room table and spilled into the living room," says Zannino, 38. "They also used the Formica table in the kitchen with the piano bench. Everybody wanted to sit on the bench -- the girls with their girl cousins, and the boys wanted to sit with the boys. There was a heck of a lot more laughing when we all sat together. Christmas was the magic day when you didn't get reprimanded for acting up a little bit."
Thinking back to those twinkling Christmases now 30 years gone, Zannino says: "We wanted to sit away from our parents. It was like a club."
A magical club where it didn't matter that all the chairs were different, the card table wobbled when you cut your food, and the big table was often in another room completely; nothing mattered because you were with children your own age, peers with whom you shared a heritage but didn't see that much.
And it was Christmas.
A generation removed from the charm of Grandma Felicia's house, Zannino's godson can sum up the magnificence of the children's table at the tender age of 10.
"We get to talk about kids' things without grown-ups asking a lot of questions," says Valentine Marziale, top dog of nine Zannino cousins seated together at his grandparents' Christmas Eve table. "Parents don't know what we're talking about because we're only kids."
What Valentine knows instinctively, academics have studied for years.
"So much depends on how large the extended family is and how varied the ages," says Robert Dicker, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. "If you grow up with cousins in the same age group, then adolescents tend to be very happy in this exclusive club, sneaking away from the table together. There wouldn't be a rush to get to the older table."
Of his own 1950s childhood, Dicker says: "On one side of my family, the patriarch was so strict with rituals that I wish there'd been a kids' table. If the real meaning of the holiday is carried out, it doesn't matter where one is sitting."
It's distance that matters, says Alice Sterling Honig, professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University -- a distance that cannot be measured by a length of table.
"There are families where children are given the clear feeling that the adults don't want them at the main table," says Honig. "From that distance, a child can see with their own eyes where the good Christmas is."
Which was not the case with the Rattini family of Rosedale.
"All the cousins sat at our own table when I was a kid, and we didn't care, it was fun," says Louisa Rattini-Reich, 42. "Before we could eat, a relative came around with palm fronds to shake holy water on us. We ate the same food as everybody else, spaghetti with squid and baked eel."
In those days, the local Rattinis traveled to Syracuse, N.Y., to celebrate Christ's birth with relatives. Now, the traditional feast is held at Rattini-Reich's mother's house near Golden Ring Mall, where a custom-made wooden table -- "big enough to feed an army," says Rattini-Reich -- has made a children's table unnecessary.
Children were sprinkled among the adults at the holiday table when 68-year-old Clementina Bombaci Rattini was growing up in Syracuse, and her new wooden table will make that possible again.
In the Lichtenberg family of Pikesville, where holidays meant Passover, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, not only did the children's table linger in near perpetuity, but no one ever graduated from it.
"The kids were me and my brother and sister, my two cousins and this friend of the family named Barry, who was older than us and wasn't married so they sat him with the kids," remembers Marc Lichtenberg, a 34-year-old accountant.
"There weren't any more children born until we got married and had kids so we stayed at the card table with the cloth over it in the living room until we were 25."
With families expanding and people living longer, convenience tends to supplant custom, and in many American homes, grown-up and children's tables have given way to the holiday buffet.
"Chaotic but happy," is how local publicist Dave Belz remembers the buffet Christmases of his Northwood childhood. "A big party of 40 people with turkey and ham and kids wandering between people's legs."
That was not the custom off Charles Street and Cold Spring Lane when Steve Martel was growing up, but that is what it has become.
"I was at the kids' table with eight or 10 cousins until I got into college. It wasn't until I started to listen to what the adults were talking about that I got interested in the big table," says Martel, 33, who teaches social studies at the Odyssey School in Roland Park.
"My father and my uncles would go at it over history and politics, always history and politics. Moving up to the adult table to participate in that and understand the Irish wit was important to me."
Now, it's different. Not any better or worse, just different.
"We all sit around in the living room," says Martel. "And everybody gets to talk to whoever they want."
Pub Date: 12/26/96