While this is not exactly a spontaneous blog, I have to admit, I was really delighted to be asked to share what is like to be Italian at Christmas. Mainly because I really hope I'll be able to bring a smile in your day. We can be so picturesque and absolute genuine comedy at times... Everybody should know what we do.
First of all let me remind you of one little but very important detail. Italy is actually big and very diverse. Each region has different traditions, dialects and, surely enough, food traditions too. Remember this because this is the key to unlock the meaning behind certain choices we make. I believe the best approach to this is by using the 5W questions, and I hope you don't mind I'll change a bit the order. I promise there is logic behind this insanity. Bare with me a few paragraphs and you will understand.
WHEN: Despite having the feeling that Christmas is starting in July for commercial reasons (sometimes even earlier), for most Italians there is no Jolly atmosphere until the 8th December. In this sense, religion still plays a great part and this is the day of the Immaculate Conception. Most markets will start then or that weekend. Rarely there will be any office party before said date. It is still considered very much of a Christian festivity, therefore most things are related to that. This said, for some undefined reasons, in my family we would put up the tree on the 13th December, St. Lucy's day. This may be because of the fact that St. Lucy is the Saint patron of my own town, or maybe because my mum couldn't be bothered with having the tree up for many days and fight the cat trying to take it down at every occasion. I guess I will never know.
WHO: Well this is a difficult one. Who do you spend your Christmas days with? I guess each family has their own plan. I remember when I was a child we used to have a system that was keeping all the grannies happy. Nonnas are absolute goddesses in Italian families, and for the love of god, do not piss off nonna and the hand that feeds you until you explode. You just don't, right? So our routine was: on Christmas Eve it was just the 3 of us, movies, hot chocolate and sweet dreams. Christmas day was with my mum's mum. And the uncles and aunties, and cousins... Total head count, roughly 12, not too bad. The real treat was Boxing day. You see, the 26th December happens to be St. Stephen... well, my nonno's name was Stephen (well, alright, Stefano). My dad's mum had a lot of brothers and sisters, and while I don't want to bore you with numbers, I admit I usually lost count around the 40 mark. Said nonna used to cook for everyone. By herself. An absolute legend! But you'll have to wait until the "WHAT" kicks in to find out what little nonna chef used to make.
WHERE: this is quite a short one. Home is the answer. I think only 1% of Italians goes out on Christmas day. 1% elopes and the rest is home. It's just just the way we are. And brings us to...
WHY: good question, really. It's like when at a funeral everyone just talks about how wonderful the person that died was. No mention of the naughty stuff. Christmas is the same. I actually remember a TV ad where a Santa was saying: "during Christmas we are all nicer". And we aren't really, but the truth is that most family feuds are set aside. After all when you are stuffing your face for hours who even remembers why they stopped talking with cousin Luigi. Lesson number 2 of this blog: "family feuds are a big thing in Italy. Like worth killing half the family in some regions". Not where I am from. Just to be clear.
WHAT: yes, finally!!! Of course the Italian kiddos all wait for the big man in red. One of my nonnas sometimes confused him with baby Jesus but you know, her sight wasn't that great. I can't tell who it was anyway. I always fell asleep before the presents appeared under the tree. It's a mystery I want to keep that way.
Anyway, for the adults it is all about food. But we do not have one typical Christmas dish, that would be too easy. For sure there is no turkey and trimmings in sight. It's more about what's the poshest pain in the neck dish your region has and that's what you have to cook for the Christmas meal. From lasagne to tortellini, casatiello, cous cous. In my region we make "Capponmagro" (From Wikipedia: Cappon magro is an elaborate Genoese salad of seafood and vegetables over hardtack arranged into a decorative pyramid and dressed with a rich sauce). I know... you may think this all sounds delicious but, things get complicated when the family grows. What happens when husband and wife are from 2 different regions? Well the culinary war starts! All the dishes get put on the table. For example my mum's mum is from Piemonte, so it was all about veggie tarts and micro meatballs cooked in beef stock (it was the thing I hated the most, also because the hecking meatballs where hand rolled by the kids ... and it was only me for a long time) and her late husband was from Genoa, so, there with go with pesto and seafood of all sorts. My dad's mum is also from Liguria, but the mountains, so she was making tagliatelle, rabbit and olives, ravioli of wild herbs and omg whatever variation of fresh pasta you can think of. So, if you marry outside your region there is an average of 4 to 5 dishes extra that land on the table. It is all about food. That's why, I suggest, never ever to marry an Italian :)
Because we can never make up our minds on what's the absolute Christmas dish and we keep family battles going, even when it comes to the "Christmas pudding" we don't have just one. Is it panettone or pandoro? I guess you will have to try both to make up your mind...