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  • Christmas in Italy
    Italians might not go all out with the decorations, but the holiday spirit is alive and well in the Motherland
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    I cried for days the first time I went to Italy for Christmas. I was 11, and we had to convince my little sister Rosaria that Santa Claus would be able to find us in Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples. There were no lights on the houses, and we were the only ones on the block with a Christmas tree. It all seemed so tragic.

    My cousins in Ischia wanted so badly to give us a traditional American Christmas that they found a professional chef to cook us a full turkey with all the fixings on Christmas Day. Do you know how hard it is to find a whole turkey on an island in Italy? It's like finding pigs that fly or a cold day in hell. But they did it - and I still wasn't happy. I missed my Christmas in New Jersey with the glitz, the glam, the gifts. But years later I would return to Ischia for the holiday season only to realize that even if Italian Christmas isn't nearly as shiny as its American counterpart, it is humble, subdued, spiritual and downright uplifting.

    You probably already understood that the Italian feste or holidays do not have as much bling as we Americans have come to expect. Few houses put out lawn displays or light shows. And not everyone has a Christmas tree. Instead, Catholic families construct a nativity scene or presepio. Some of these presepio are fairly elaborate and depict not only baby Jesus' manger but entire towns filled with statues, houses and sometimes even plant life. My father, a landscaper, builds one annually that takes up an entire room in our house and features music, lights, real trees and flowers, and a waterfall. Many Italians, especially in the South, do the same. They're like giant, interactive pieces of art. During the holidays, many people go from town to town and house to house to see the various nativity scenes. You might also stumble upon a live nativity scene - with real people - in one of the country's many piazza.

    On every street corner, you'll likely hear “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle”. It's THE classic Italian carol. That will put you in the mood for a celebration, where food is the centerpiece. And Christmas Eve is the tastiest day of the year - at least for me and anyone who is a lover of fish.

    Italians fast or eat only a very small portion of fish at lunch and feast in the evening. But meat is not served on the Vigilia or Eve. Many southern Italians serve seven fish dishes that symbolize either the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church or the seven days of creation, depending on who you are talking to. Some of the fish you're likely to find on the table are baccalà, eel, clams and other shellfish, shrimp, calamari, scungilli (conch), and octopus. Fried calamari, octopus bathed in lemon, oil and parsley, and linguini with clam sauce are my Christmas Eve favorites.

    In Italy, you are likely to eat pastries that are typical of the region for dessert. My people in the Neapolitan zone will serve strufoli or honey balls covered in rainbow sprinkles. They make for a nice centerpiece on the table, too! All sorts of other desserts - from an assortment of biscotti to panetone or sweet breads also make appearances and are a nice compliment to the evergreen espresso and sambuca.

    After you've stuffed yourself like an American turkey at Thanksgiving, you must wait for the clock to strike midnight, when you'll either go to the nearby church for Mass or watch the pope on TV. While waiting, little children often recite poems they learned in school as gifts for their parents and other relatives. And the adults then play tombola or bingo. Tombola Napoletana is the most popular - at least among my family and friends. It's just like bingo but every number has a corresponding image, which can be naughty or nice. Thirteen, for instance, corresponds to Sant' Antonio while 28 corresponds to a private part of the woman's anatomy. You'll get a kick out of playing this kind of bingo with your nonni. And afterward, you'll head to midnight Mass. How's that for irony?

    In recent years, Santa Claus or Babbo Natale has been visiting the homes of good Italian boys and girls, too. But January 6, or the epiphany, is the real day for giving gifts to children in Italy, who wait for the arrival of goodies from La Befana or the Christmas Witch. Christmas Day is characterized by more eating and perhaps another Mass. Overall, the holidays in Italy are more religious and spiritual. No one is allowed to forget the real reason we are all celebrating: the arrival of our savior Jesus Christ. Amen!

    For more information on Di Meglio, visit www.francescadimeglio.com.

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