It all started slowly, and then innocently, and developed further as the years went by: we became Americanized. There was the Night Before Christmas and Scrooge, Santa Claus, the Snowman, and Dreamin' of A White Christmas. And Macy's, and The Miracle on 34th Street. I cannot even remember the deluge of 21st century winter holiday entertainment. The list goes on for this venerable holiday that lifts the spirits of young and old alike.
One day, about twenty years ago, my wife, Jina, suddenly asked me what Christmas was like for me when I was little, or younger? That put us in a discussion. Christmas is supposed to be all about Jesus' arrival. Unsatisfied with our adopted direction, we decided to return to our more religious traditions and customs in an America of a century ago. We begin our preparation for this celebration right after Thanksgiving, at the start of Advent.
We can't celebrate the arrival of the Christ Child without first setting up the ceppo with a presepio, the manger scene. The presepio we use has been in my family about fifty-five years, so we were very surprised to see for sale just today, at the church bazaar, a set of new figurines that exactly match our half-century-old ones. Except, our figurines are made in Italy. I'm glad we bought ours when we did! Early.
In our living room we string lights on our ceppo just as we would have on our artificial tree, topping it with an angel overlooking all. On the shelves below are more angels, and each inch of the ceppo is decorated with other appropriate ornamentations. Jina is in charge and expertly manages their placements while I do the prerequisite 'one-foot-balancing act' to place decorations exactly where she is excitedly pointing. Now that it's finished, I go outside to assemble another (and larger) manger scene on the front porch.
Since I'm a woodworker, I build a nativity display each year and place it at the front of our home where all passersby can see our message. I build an entirely new one each year, and each is larger and better than the one before. Now that it's done, I'm ready for some zuppa!
In la cucina, Jina neither measures nor weighs anything. She cooks by feel, and that includes not only physical sensing, but also emotional. For it to be right she has to feel good about it, and that makes her cooking all that more enjoyable, such as the pumpkin soup she has ready for me when I come in. Mmmm. Back out to the front to place lights under the roof eaves.
Our Christmas dinners are very special again. Actually, there are three special dinners: on Christmas Eve, on Christmas Day, and Prima Festa on the 26th. In view of the respectful tradition that no meat is to be consumed on Christmas Eve ('na vigilia di magro), we have fish!
Preparation for the first meal begins days ahead of time. Cod (baccala) has to be soaked to get rid of the salt, so Jina soaks it for three days changing the water each day. We usually prepare three fish dishes, cod being one, and then eel, and either squid or octopus, tuna, sardines, anchovies or clams. These dishes are either baked, roasted or fried, and served with lemon, herbs, and red sauce, along with various vegetable dishes like string beans, cabbage, potatoes, and salted yellow lupini beans (which have been soaking for weeks).
Mealtime on Christmas Eve begins around two or three in the afternoon and takes about three hours to finish. The time we set aside for Christmas dining is almost sacred and gives us a sense of family and cultural connection. Also, we want to finish ahead of the time we go to mass at midnight. Before mass, we usually call family by phone, if they are not with us. It is also a time for rest, to more fully prepare for a usually long mass. Background music fills our home with beautiful strains of religious-themed compositions, especially in the hours between Christmas Eve dinner and midnight mass.
After mass, we return home and place the figure of the Christ Child in the crib in the manger on the porch. Then inside to open presents that were left by Saint Nicholas while we were gone. In keeping with American custom, I notice that Santa did not eat the cookies we left for him, so I munch them gone. Now the pace picks up a bit and, after cakes and treats, a little wine and more phone calls, we call it a night and doze off.
The other two meals feature a variety of traditional dishes which may include beef, veal, and turkey, and vegetables. To top off, we have a medley of desserts such as pastry stuffed with figs, an assortment of nuts, and especially strufoli and panettone. A homemade eggnog with marsala leaves us feeling snug and happy.
Christmas continues until January 6th and the Feast of Epiphany. At this time we celebrate a second gift giving occasion with the good witch Befana who fills the childrens' shoes with candy or coals (the twelfth day of Christmas) while adults draw numbers from an urn to claim their gifts from those piled high on a festive table. Music features a tarantella, old Neapolitan standards, and a variety of Italian-American tunes playing lightly in the background. We want to be sure to give everyone a good sendoff as we all begin the dreary days of winter 'darkness' as a prelude to Lent.
Celebrations in our Italian-American homes are always about faith, family, and food, and in that order it seems. Harkening back to the old days, these three 'qualities' were always partners and often occurred coincidentally. Christmas is a time of faith first, family togetherness, and all the food you can eat. Buon Natale, e Buon Apetito!