An Italian American Christmas

Several years back, an evangelical Christian co-worker was complaining about the secularization of Christmas. “Jesus is the reason for the season,” he declared, literally raising his arm, pointing to the heavens above. “What does Christmas mean to you? Is it a holiday or a holyday?” he asked, almost daring me to answer incorrectly, or at least what he thought was incorrect. “Neither.” I said, totally confusing him. “I’m Italian. Christmas means more to me than either of those.”

Christmas is neither a holiday or a holyday. Although, according to the Catholic Church, Christmas Day is a Holy Day of Obligation, the actual Christmas celebration for me just is not all that spiritual. At the same time, Christmas transcends spirituality, making it more than a mere holiday. As I said to my co-worker, Christmas means more to me. It is during the Christmas season that I feel the most connected to my Italian heritage. Christmas is, for me, an intermingling of family, Italian traditions and hope for the future. I guess in a way it is like Dickens’ Christmas ghosts.

The Ghost of Christmas Past I feel the most as Christmas approaches. As I anticipate the upcoming celebration, I think of Christmas Eve dinner when I was a boy. In my mind’s eye, I look down on this feast from above, a disembodied spirit. My father sits at the head of the dining room table, holding court. I am seated to his left, my place since the time I was able to sit up. My mother sat to his right where she had easy access to the kitchen. My brothers, sisters, uncle, and grandmother were all in their assigned seats as well. We each had our spot no matter what the occasion, year after year.

Of course, like every Italian family, we celebrated Christmas Eve with The Feast of the Seven Fishes. Last year, as part of my blog, I had written about the importance of this feast. I noted in that post that, back in those days, we did not use the phrase “Feast of the Seven Fishes.” The use of that term was something I encountered much later in life. When I was a kid, we simply referred to it as the fish.

What is important about the Christmas Eve feast, however, was not the meal itself. It was not even the custom of eating nothing but fish on Christmas Eve. The importance of this meal was our annual dinner guest, the Ghost of Christmas Past. It was at this meal that I learned about my family’s history, the family lore. As my mother cut the pies and my sister served the coffee, my father, leaning back in his chair, would start to tell the family stories. What his father was like, the mischief he would get into as a kid, when he first saw my mother. My mother would add commentary, at times telling stories of her own. Eventually, my siblings would start to reminisce about when they were kids. There it was. The entire family history was laid out each year on that night. It is these stories that tie me to my heritage, the memories of my Italian immigrant forbears.

Today, the Ghost of Christmas Present is welcome in our home. We have our own particular, and at times peculiar, Christmas traditions. Some of these are not specifically Italian. Like most Americans, we put up our Christmas tree, hang our stockings, decorate our house with Christmas lights, and watch Christmas movies while we drink hot chocolate. We also have the custom of watching all the “Lord of the Rings” movies, director’s cut. Again, some of our traditions are a bit out of the norm.

Despite our Americanization, on Christmas Eve we revert to our Italian roots. Every year we make the fish. Although we do not usually make the seven different types of fish, we always begin with spaghetti aglio e olio, as my mother did. What is Italian about this meal, however, is not the fish. The important thing is that the family is together, if not in body at least in spirit. Both my parents and my wife’s parents have passed, but they are with us. They are there in the stories we tell and in the traditions we follow. This leads us to our third and final ghost.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is in the hopes and dreams I have as well as those of my family members. I hope that in years to come God will continue to bless us as he has in the past. I hope that he will continue to be merciful. I hope that my children can fulfill their dreams. I dream of a time when the things that divide our country and our world will be healed. I dream of a future when I am a better man than I am today, a future in which the world, while not perfect, will be a better world than it is today.

So how is this an Italian Christmas? Did I con you into reading this piece by sticking the word Italian into the title? After all, you started reading this article expecting cannoli, The Feast of the Seven Fishes, and paesans happily dancing the tarantella around the Christmas tree. How the heck is this Italian? You see, this is exactly what Italian Christmas is. An Italian Christmas is when we pass to our children what it means to be Italian – all the traditions, stories and values of our people. It is taking our past, handing it to our children in the present so that they can carry it forward into the future. 

So, to all my wonderful Italian friends and family, Buon Natale!