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 an 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 an holyday. Although according to the Catholic Church, Christmas Day is a Holy Day of Obligation, the actual Christmas celebration for me just isn’t 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 fish, The Feast of the Seven Fishes. Last year, as part of this blog, I had written about the importance of The Feast of the Seven Fishes. I also noted as part of my previous post, it wasn’t that back in those days; at least we didn’t use the phrase. The use of that particular term was something I encountered much later in life. When I was a kid, we simply referred to it as the fish, as in; are you going to make the fish for Christmas Eve? This other terminology seems to have come into vogue only in recent years. None of my childhood friends remember calling it The feast of the Seven Fishes in the old days.

What is important about the Christmas Eve feast, however, was not the meal itself. It wasn’t 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. When dessert came, 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. As I have written in the past, 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 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 that fish. The important thing is that the family is together; 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, well aware that it all could be taken away in a moment. I hope that he will continue to be merciful. I hope that my children can fulfill their dreams, to reach the goals to which they aspire. 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 post 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. This is an Italian Christmas being integrated into the past, present, and future of gli Italiani del mundo.

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

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