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Italian Christmas Memories

It’s time to say Buon Natale, or Merry Christmas, again. Every family has their traditions for the holidays, but mine were all Italian style. My grandpa was an immigrant from Italy and my grandma was a first generation American, so their traditions were pretty darn authentic to the experience one may have if they celebrated Christmas in Italy, with maybe a dash of American flair to make it a true Italian-American experience. I feel lucky to this day that they taught me the beautiful aspects of an Italian Christmas.

So what did that include? Well, I’m glad you asked (um, I mean that you are still reading this post). I am breaking the traditions into food, food, and more food. Just kidding, but really there was a lot of food. Okay, let’s say the memories include time at home, food, music, and religion.

Christmas Eve was just as large and important as Christmas Day in my house. It was always celebrated at my grandparents’ house and Christmas Day was celebrated at my house (that’s just a D’Angelo thing and not specifically an Italian thing, to clarify). My grandparents had the standard pepperoni and provolone cheese appetizer, with plenty of crackers. Sometimes figs from Grandpa’s tree were also set out. Always a variety of nuts as well; a random but delicious and light mix for apps. After all, we had to save room for what was to come.

The music played softly but just loud enough to draw attention to it, from the room next to the kitchen. Crooners like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra were only a few of the many voices I heard as a child. I also loved when the children’s Christmas songs came on the radio, like Dominick the Donkey (google it and it won’t get out of your head the rest of the day; it’s the best!).

Before I get to the dinner, let me tell you about the wine. Everyone had a small glass of red wine, even me as a kid (gasp!). It’s normal in an Italian household to allow older kids and young teens to have a small glass of wine. This way, it is savored and you learn to appreciate it, not to abuse it or seek it secretly. Genius, huh?

The dinner we ate was just plain huge, especially for a kid. Grandma’s special soup was always on the stove the entire time we were there and finally we were able to eat it as a first course. The soup had rib meat, celery, carrots, garlic, onion, and pasta of course. I have the recipe but could never make it like her. Another part of the first course was the fish baccala, which only my grandpa liked, but was a must. Traditionally, Italians have the feast of the seven fishes, but we didn’t have that kind of money! So, really it was just that one fish. The final first course was prepping for the main course by the adults eating hot peppers. These spicy to the max peppers were ones my grandpa grew in his yard. I’ll always remember all of the adults crying while they ate them, saying through their tears, “uh, these are good;” sniff, blow nose, eat more. It was strange to me, but now I get it and eat them often.

The main course was always aioli. This simple but flavorful linguini dish had garlic and olive oil with a sprinkle parsley and plenty of grated parmesan cheese on top (aglio= garlic, e =and, and olio = oil, hence, aglio e olio or aioli). Don’t forget the homemade bread. While Grandma’s soup simmered, Grandpa made loaves of bread. His crusty white bread couldn’t be beat. The other part of the main course was salad, eaten after the meal. The European way is to eat it after so I did that nightly, and still do. The dressing was only one; Grandma’s mix of olive oil, vinegar, oregano, salt, and pepper.

Dessert was always a mix of homemade Italian cookies, including pignolis and pizzelles. If you haven’t had these, you have to try to find them this holiday. Pignolis are pine nut cookies and pizzelles are snowflake looking, thin almond flavored, traditional Italian Christmas cookies that have confectionary sugar on top. They take hours to make, but are worth it! Is your mouth watering by now? Mine is.

So, after all of this, we didn’t lay on the couch; we went to midnight mass! As a kid, I slept until 11 PM, stayed awake until we got to church, slept more, and then was awoken at midnight by loud singing and church bells signifying Christmas Day was upon us. It was a groggy time, but also exciting because, my gosh, Santa was coming!

Waking up on Christmas Day was pretty standard. We opened gifts and blah blah blah. But later, Grandpa and Grandma came and the real celebration began. It didn’t feel like Christmas until they arrived and the family was complete.

The appetizers were set out to munch on, including a few of the same from the night before, but also one special pre-dinner treat came with dinner. As we sat at the table, my mom would sometimes have shrimp cocktail ready for us at our setting. Then, the soup of Christmas, pasta fazool (okay, it’s really called pasta e fagioli; pasta and beans). My mom was taught by my grandma to make it our special way, which isn’t the way you would see it in restaurants. Ours had long spaghetti broken up instead of small pasta. The beans were usually northern cannellini in type. The tomato sauce base was pretty standard though. And, of course garlic, garlic, garlic. That was it; simple and tasty.

The main course was usually stuffed shells or lasagna. The sauce (not gravy! This is an Italian-American battle of names.) was homemade to perfection. Almost softball sized meatballs also, of course. The homemade bread was there again, thank God. Salad came last once again (eating it last allows the meal to stay hot and you save room and don’t overeat because you know you have salad left. Another brilliant Italian idea for sure.)

Dessert was again pizzelles but also could be something special like cannolis or cheesecake. Now I’m even more hungry!

So, on to music. My dad played accordion and keyboard so the radio wasn’t on after dinner, my dad was “on.” He belted out Italian classics and all of us watched and sang with him. Music is a large part of the Italian culture. There is always music being played on the radio/records/tapes/cds or being played live. Singing with the music was normal and breaking out in dance was almost a certainty. My grandma danced around with me, while we tried to get Grandpa to dance; he was more of a watcher. But the holiday always ended on this high note, pun intended.

And then, the day was over. Grandma always left the decorations up until Little Christmas, which is on January 6. It’s a national Italian holiday, actually, but not as known in the US. So, once those came down, the holiday season was definitely over. But, memories remain and are always cherished. I’m grateful to have them and to have the traditions ingrained in me.

If you enjoyed this story of my Christmas memories, you may enjoy my debut women’s fiction novel The Difference, which is overflowing with many aspects of the Italian culture. It will be published in 2020. Please feel free to follow visit my website for more information about me and my work. You will also find the social media links there. Thanks for going down memory lane with me. I hope to hear from you soon!

- C. D’Angelo