The Spirit of an Italian Christmas Past


From great food to loving families, the same kind of holiday memories will soon be created across the country.

By: Tony Traficante, ISDA Contributor

I have fond memories celebrating the Christmas season with my Italian family. Besides the religious observances, the exceptional food and baked goods were an enjoyable part of it. The season started early, right after Thanksgiving, with the baking of tons of cookies and cakes. 

As cookies go, there were the tarralle, pizzella, mastachioli, which, after a while got hard as a rock but made good dipping in red wine. Then, we rolled out the thumbprints, cuscini (a fried type of cookie made with chestnuts, and/or ceci beans shaped like ravioli), followed by biscotti and a couple others which I’ve forgotten the name.

Ooh, the aroma spilling from the house and around the block was fabulous, so said the neighbors. The cookies, then, were boxed and stored for guests, or given as gifts to family and friends.

As Christmas Eve approached, moms hustled and bustled to find the types of fish for their table.

Although traditional for many families, mom didn’t prepare seven fish. Our meal generally consisted of baccalà, or merluzzo (by any other name it was all cod), which had been soaked for days, as were the dry “ceci” and “fava” beans.

Then there were calamari, smelts–another white fish, and lest we lose face with our “cumps.”

We had “l’anguilla,” aka, “capitone,” or eel. Shrimp and crab were added to satisfy the “modern” generation. Fish were fried, roasted, prepared in a sauce and as a salad.

And yes, there were anchovies, which were mixed in with the spaghetti along with garlic and olive oil.

Speaking about fish, this is an exciting occurrence I witnessed as a young tot when accompanying my mom to the local fish market one Christmas season. As we entered the busy shop, there was this long, black-like critter, looking like a snake slithering all over the sawdust covered floor.

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It was an eel! It didn’t even intimidate most of the Italian women in the store. In fact, one old lady kicked it, sending it to the other side of the room. Of course, the incident sparked words between the lady and the Fish Master. An aide came running out from behind the counter to scoop up the twisting little rogue to put it back where it belonged!

In addition to the main entrees of fish, Christmas Eve dinner included an antipasto mixture, fennel, sides of spaghettione with “alici,” anchovies, the other a tomato sauce, salad, plenty of crusty Italian bread and a little wine.

After dinner, there were cookies, “panettone,”  roasted “castagne,” chestnuts and coffee; and for the adults a “digestivo.”

After dinner it was off to midnightmass, but not before Mom laid the figure of the holy Christ Child in Its place, the crib–“il precepe.” 

After mass, a few friends returned to the house to play cards, eat more food and drink coffee with or without anisette, or a shot of something stronger. The company often stayed until 2 or 3 a.m., which worried me in that they might scare away Santa!

Christmas Day was a day for visiting and exchanging gifts with “comaree compare.” 

Undeniably, religion remained the central part of the Christmas season and sharing its blessings with family and friends.

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