Our Italian ancestors observed the Christmas season as early as December 13, the Feast Day of Saint Lucy.
Santa Lucia brings gifts for the children, until the arrival of “La Befana,” on the eve of the Epiphany, January 6.
Today, Italian-American families still hold to the Christmas traditions of their “Genitori e Nonni,” but when it comes to exchanging gifts, they too partake in the arrival of the jolly old man in the big red suit.
Gifting on Christmas morning, as is the American tradition, is exciting for children, and yes, for adults, too. And, why not? The practice communicates a love of one to another.
The Christmas season begins with a baking marathon of delicious Italian cakes and cookies.
The aroma of which fills the home for weeks on end. For the most part, what a family bakes depends on the taste inherited from family ancestors.
A few samples of pastries created for the season might include taralli, pizzelle, ciambelle, mostaccioli, biscotti, struffoli, panettone, crostoli, cannoli and so much more.
And of course, the simple, tasty fried dough — plain, sugared or embedded with anchovies.
“La Vigilia,” Christmas Eve, remains a significant religious and social occasion during the season.
On this Eve, many families sit down to a gourmet spread of baked, fried and sautéed aquatic delicacies, known as “The Seven Fishes.”
True, the Feast of Fishes was not celebrated throughout Italy. Having its beginnings in the Southern Italian regions, the custom became an international sensation as it was carried across world boundaries by Italian immigrants.
Somehow the count of seven fish became the common denominator, but there were other numbers, all with religious meanings. Seven fish may have represented the seven Catholic sacraments, seven deadly sins, or the seven days of creation.
The nine presumably embodied the Holy Trinity times three; eleven, the Apostles minus Judas; and thirteen fish: the Twelve Apostles, plus Jesus.
Topping the list of the Christmas Eve dinner is a roasted “capitone,” eel, and to not have one on the table would be disrespectful!
Other selections might be baked calamari stuffed with breading, made in sauce, or fried in rings.
Then, “baccalà,” smelts, “merluzzo,” cod, clams, or other white fish.
To satisfy the palate of the more Americanized members of the family, shrimp, crab or lobster, if you could afford it, are added to the menu.
“Che meraviglioso banchetto, no?” What a wonderful banquet!
In addition to the main entrees of fish, there is an antipasto mixture, fennel, sides of “spaghettini,” one with “alici,” anchovies, the other a tomato sauce, salad, and plenty of crusty Italian bread.
After dinner, expect an array of “dolci,” desserts and roasted “castagne,” chestnuts!
Of course, before and after dinner there is a variety of “bibite,” drinks, to whet the appetite and wash down the food.
And, some also opt for “na citrate digestivo,” a digestive seltzer.
As they wait for “la Santa Messa,” midnight Mass, they play a few card games, tell stories, snack on leftovers, or just converse.
Finally, as the day ends, and before they leave for Mass, the figure of the holy Christ Child will take its place in the crib of “il precepio.”
For most, Christmas Day is a day of rest, or visiting “comare e compare.”
Undeniably, religion remains the central part of the Christmas season, and we share the season with family, friends and plenty of good food.
It is the Italian way!