By Rachel Bosworth
Creating your own holiday traditions is a rite of passage as you meld your own customs with those of the people you bring into your family. Whether it’s picking out the perfect tree or making wreaths and ornaments, it’s a time of year that holds something different for everyone. For Sal and Jeanne Catapano, it was a time to extend their family beyond relatives and embrace all they came into contact with. They created a type of Christmas magic befitting of storybooks, something that all who have experienced it have continued to share with following generations.
In 1989, a young Ramona Miranda arrived from Nicaragua with her family to the North Fork of Long Island. She was just two years old, and recalls being the second Latino family in Greenport. She had to learn English on her own, with few others able to speak to in her native tongue. Though a strange and new place, the family went to the Church of the Open Door in Southold where they first met the Catapanos.
“It was one of those things that they looked at us kind of weirdly at first, but they were very welcoming,” Miranda said. “My dad used to work for Timothy Coffey’s farm in Peconic, and that’s how he got connected to the Catapanos. They helped us with Sunday school, gave us things, invited us to dinner. People look at it as a charity case, we look at it as our saving grace.”
The Catapanos have been a farming family since the 1950s, with their Southold location being in business since 1986. In the greenhouse and fields, they grow plants for home and garden, heirloom tomatoes, vegetables, herbs, dairy products, and eggs. During the Christmas season, the farm, which is now operated by their son, Neal Catapano, sells Balsam and Fraser firs, homemade wreaths, and poinsettias. This is where the Miranda family first experienced an American Christmas.
“My mother loved Christmas,” Neal Catapano says. “She would buy gifts all year, and loved having another family to buy for especially when we weren’t young anymore. It helped her out almost as much as it helped [the Mirandas].”
The Miranda family was taken under the wing of the Catapanos. They helped her brothers make it to the North Fork, and even became godparents to her younger brother, Joseph. They embodied the meaning of Christmas, giving what Miranda recalls as a magical experience that she has since passed down to her own children, 10-year-old Aly and six-year-old Luca.
Going through old photos, Miranda shares what the holidays were like growing up. “They gave us our first Christmas tree and all of our presents,” she says. “They gave my brothers the first bikes they ever had. We just kept going to Catapano Farms for our tree because they are family. Even after [Sal and Jean] passed away, we still go there because that’s our way of having them here with us, especially after 28 years.”
Christmas in Nicaragua doesn’t typically include a tree, rather they celebrate El Niño Jesus where a present is left at the end of the bed. It’s a big festivity throughout the country where everything closes for days in honor of the baby Jesus. Though Miranda herself does not remember these celebrations as she immigrated to the United States at a very young age, she explains that her mother still raised her in a Nicaraguan household, marrying two very different cultures under one roof. She said it’s harder to incorporate both traditions today with her children.
“Somehow Santa comes to our house first because he knows we’re Nicaraguan,” she laughs, explaining it is a tradition to open gifts at midnight. “We want to open presents with the rest of the Nicaraguan kids. They know those presents are from us, but they open more in the morning from Santa as well.”
The Catapanos had four children. Sons Sal Jr., Neal, and Michael, who owns Catapano Dairy Farm in Peconic, and daughter Michele, who now lives in Texas with her own daughter, Dina MacDonald. MacDonald is also a Nicaraguan immigrant, a second-generation child that moved to the United States in the 1990s after her father, Pedro, married her mother. Coming to the East End was the first time she had met her entire family.
“They were the type of people that would open the doors to anyone that came into their lives,” she remembers. “It was beyond magical. Everyone was invited; co-workers, church members, neighbors, greenhouse employees, friends of friends, everyone. It was a massive gathering.”
Sal Catapano passed away on New Year’s Day in 2012. Jean Catapano passed less than four months later. MacDonald shares the holidays are still difficult without her grandparents, and gets choked up speaking about them.
“No judgment ever came from my grandparents,” she says. “They were amazing people. They just took in anyone that they wanted to be part of their family.”
It was a harmonious blend of cultures not just during the holidays, but throughout the years. Sal Catapano’s parents were Italian immigrants that came to the United States in 1919. The family often employed other immigrants and refugees from Europe, as well as those from Latin American countries. Miranda’s own grandmother worked for the Catapanos, and also babysat Neal Catapano’s daughter. He recalls coming home during lunch, and she would make him a hot meal — something that had surprised him at first. There were always different languages being spoken around his family. “We were always used to it growing up,” Neal Catapano says, adding many success stories have come out of the people his family worked with. “It has always been a part of what we’ve done.”
Today, many local families come to Catapano Farms to get their Christmas trees every year, including the Mirandas. “My mother had a theme every year for the tree,” Neal Catapano remembers. “We had a bicentennial tree, a Victorian tree, German, then all white. She really, really loved Christmas. You couldn’t tell her Santa wasn’t real.”