When it comes to Christmas in an Italian American household, there is one word you need to keep in mind: Food! Everything revolves around what to eat! Now usually American families would think about what to prepare maybe a few days before or they directly made reservations at a nice restaurant. Now in an Italian American family, that is unthinkable.
The Christmas menu starts to be discussed around the same time the Thanksgiving menu is discussed so that means around the middle of September, actually the exact questions would be: Socco amu accucinari pi crismisi? which means “What are we cooking for Christmas?’”… and that is where it all begins!
They start asking all the kids what do you want to eat? Nobody knows in mid-September what they want to eat on the 25th of December.
Usually an Italian American family Christmas involves at least 20 people, and that is just counting the immediate family. So, it’s very important that everything is studied to detail for the special day. For starters it’s important to count the chairs, because not only will you have to have the right amount of chairs, you also need some extra ones. “Why?” you may ask. Because you never know who might stop by! Always be prepared.
Let’s get back to the food… the preparing usually starts the day before, usually around 7 in the morning, and the children in the house know this because they get a scent of garlic rising in their rooms. Now doesn’t everyone want to wake up to that?
The kitchen is full of pans, pots, homemade sauce (of course) and the one thing that can’t never miss in an Italian American home: fresh homemade pasta. Everyone wakes up knowing they will probably be sent to the supermarket because something was forgotten during the Christmas shopping. The smarter ones try to hide or get busy doing something else, so they won’t be the ones to have to go. Also, the house has to be spotless, and that is why it has been cleaned, dusted and washed inside out every single day for the past two weeks. Even the glasses inside the famous “china closets” were taken out washed, dried and put back in, not because the will be used, just because “what will people say if they see even just a little bit of dust on them?”.
Everyone that comes over usually brings the salads, maybe a homemade cake, about five packages of “Panettone” and of course the famous cookies that have been coming out of the oven since the beginning of December. There is wine, lots of it and let’s not forget the boxes of food sent from relatives living in Italy. That is not all, there is meat and fish, so you have options. And hope that no one refuses a plate because the house will go silent and usually “Nonna”, which is Italian for grandmother, will look at you with a facial expression which is a mix between offended and worried and say: “che c’è? Un ti piace?” (what? You don’t like it?). For your sake and everyone else always nod and say you love it and you will eat it! Then just give it to Vito, he’ll eat! There is always a Vito, a Joe or a Sal at the table. Probably even more than one. That is why when someone asks “Hey Vito pass me the water” at least 5 people turn around because basically everyone has the same name, which matches the grandparent’s names.
Rule number 1 in an Italian American home: you have a kid, you name it after your mother or your father. This is no joke! The hunger games “can go down” if you don’t respect this rule.
The family usually starts eating around 7 pm of Christmas eve and they stand up again from that same table around 9 pm the next day: so basically, it’s 24 hours of eating; you are allowed to stand up to go to the bathroom, if the doorbell rings or to start taking pictures when Santa makes his way in. Usually “Santa” is the uncle with the biggest stomach, so they don’t need to stick pillows under the costume.
Then comes the time to play cards and Italian Americans play for money… we have briscola, scopa, scala quaranta, which are the equivalent of trump game, broom game and rummy. Good luck!
Jokes aside, Christmas is really important for Italian Americans, because it helps them keep their traditions alive. In the past families that immigrated from Italy to the USA hoped to build a better life, and food was not something everyone had easily back then, and that is why it’s considered very precious.
The holidays are a time where everyone comes together, laughs, fights, eats and enjoys each other’s company. And if you think of it, that is what Christmas is all about.
So, from my crazy Italian American family to all your families whoever you are and wherever you are from… I wish you all very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.