This week, I thought I’d take a break from dating and write about the traditions surrounding the Christmas season.
Every family has their own rites and rituals, whether they are long standing traditions, “inside jokes,” or newly established practices.
My family has had a very long-standing tradition. As southern Italians, we celebrate Christmas Eve to a much greater extent than the day after. First, my grandmother would start preparations the day after Thanksgiving. Many of the pastries and deserts needed time to “season.” She would start with Struffoli. It is a small cluster of fried cookie dough that is smothered in honey. She would stack them into the shape of a Christmas tree and hide them somewhere—it’s still a mystery as to where—for a month.
Next came the other cookies: frosted bonbons, biscotti, which we called anise biscuits, Cencis and sesame seed cookies. The good news is that it all came from the same dough, a basic cookie dough similar to a shortbread. From there, each cookie was completely different, but all were delicious.
As it got closer to Christmas Eve, Grandma would make additional dishes that would round out the meal: bread (from scratch), dried cod, sardines and hors d’oeuvres. All went into the freezer to “mature,” as she put it.
But the real star of the dinner table was prepared a few days before, frozen, then cooked on Christmas Eve. It was the calamari in tomato sauce with spaghetti. Her calamari pasta was famous—the envy of every other Italian in our town. First, she would make the pasta (from scratch) and buy the squid. Before Christmas Eve, she would prepare the calamari: remove the tentacles, slice the body into a thin slab, stuff it with bread crumbs and cheese, and wrap it like at tortilla, sealed with a toothpick.
On the day of our feast, she would make the tomato sauce and throw the tentacles in to cook along with it. Later on, she would put the stuffed calamari in the oven to bake. The final step was the pasta, which she boiled just a few minutes before we’d sit down to eat. It should only be eaten piping hot. She’d also quickly make a broccoli rabe, salad, and garlic bread. Then she’d put out the appetizer: olives (home grown), fresh bread (homemade), dried salami and homemade red wine. Our first course was tortellini en brodo, the most delicious soup ever. By the time we’d sit down for the soup, around 4-5pm, we were all a little warm, loosened up and very happy from the red wine.
Eating on Christmas Eve was truly the highlight of the year. I cannot even describe the heavenly aroma and the flavor. There was also fun and light conversation, plenty of wine and laughter, tons of food and happiness. We’d all eat heartily and to our hearts’—and stomachs’—content. We’d finish around 6 or so, and linger at the table, full of crumbs and red wine stains. At some point, the dishes would be cleared and my grandmother would set out all the cookies. There were enough cookies to last us ’til well into the New Year.
After dinner, we’d have the TV on, digesting while watching It’s a Wonderful Life and pointing out the scenes that were filmed in a neighboring town. At about 7 we’d sit down for coffee and cookies.
Afterwards, we exchanged gifts with cousins. By 8pm, we prepared ourselves to go to our aunt’s house, who lived nearby. She’d usually have a few pastries, even though everyone was full from dinner and cookies. She’d put on Christmas music and we exchanged more gifts.
We would hang out there until about 11, and then make our way to midnight Mass. The next morning, we had a brunch of cinnamon buns, eggs and potatoes, mimosas and fruit. We’d open gifts, hang out, and then have Christmas dinner at about 2pm. After that, we’d each go to respective friends’ houses to open more presents or have more festive feasts.
That was a long time ago, and our present holiday does not resemble the old days at all. Still, it was a nice way to grow up. I have the fondest memories of our southern Italian Christmas Eve.
If you’re interested, here are some recipes of the foods I mentioned:
On this Christmas Eve and during this week, reflect on your families’ traditions and give thanks for them. Be grateful for all you have during the holidays. These times are precious. Merry Christmas!