Christmas Ramblings

I want a simpler Christmas.

Like the ones of my childhood in Italy.  A period of festivities and serenity, quiet joy, great food, few gifts.

I grew up in a financially comfortable middle class environment, both my parents being educators.  We lacked nothing, but the ‘unnecessary’ amenities were quite limited.

My father was very focused on saving money, and, I know now, the majority of my parents’ paychecks ended up in the bank, leaving only what was absolutely needed for daily requirements.  This meant that we did have a serious vacation somewhere every single summer, but if I mentioned that I would love that new stylish coat that was all the rage among my friends, my father would automatically say no.  Upon inspection of my wardrobe, he would firmly state, “Non ne hai bisogno, il tuo cappotto è quasi nuovo e ti va benissimo.” You don’t need another coat, yours is nearly new and it fits fine.

Thrifty, I guess.  Very.

Yes, of course I was disappointed and resentful, calling him tirchio (stingy) under my breath, and whining to my mother, who, as a woman, was more sympathetic, and often would help me sneak in the object of my desire.  It took me many years to comprehend his motivation, his determination to keep us all safe and comfortable, and to provide for everyone’s future.  Which he did.

Naturally, that attitude left us kids with a meager loot on Christmas morning.

But we were ecstatically happy with our gifts from Babbo Natale.  A little case containing a pretty golden-haired doll, brush and comb, and a few outfits (including pajamas!) caused my heart to beat rapidly, as I spent the entire day organizing and admiring my treasure.  And so did my siblings, both enthralled with a newborn doll in a crib, and a bright red remote-control car.  One toy each, and a pair of cozy cloth slippers, often not even wrapped, just there, under the small artificial Christmas tree.

My mother would spend Christmas Eve setting up a fairly large presepe (creche), building the holy grotto with special thick paper, on top of a dresser, and we would eagerly position the figurines in the appropriate spots, and I remember still the flawless beauty of the Madonna, dressed in a pink gown and a blue veil; of course baby Jesus would not be placed in the manger until after midnight, when my mother would quietly deliver him upon his official birth.  Also on the Eve, mamma was stuffing and shaping tortellini, which we would enjoy in a rich chicken broth for our Christmas pranzo.  They were the best thing ever, and never enough. She made just enough for one abundant serving each, always leaving us with a slight yearning for more.  But that made them even more alluring.  Of course, we had a second course, often a delectable cotechino, a special, thick pork sausage, only prepared during the holiday period, hearty winter food, served with her perfect, creamy mashed potatoes, and assorted vegetables.  A golden ring of honey-coated Struffoli would be our much awaited dessert, plus an exquisite Cassata, an incredibly beautiful cake made of layers of Pan di Spagna and ricotta cream, flavored with white rum, and dotted with delicious candied orange and citron peel, and chopped bittersweet chocolate. There were also other traditional Neapolitan sweets, like Mostaccioli, spice cookies covered in a chocolate glaze, and pastel-hued pasta reale, tiny almond paste pastries that melted in your mouth. All the sweets were kindly provided by the nuns of a local convent-school, who had been my parents’ friends for years.  I now make most of these magnificent desserts for my American family, but, somehow, they are never as perfect as the ones of my memories.

My family was small, only five of us at the table most of the time, as my parents preferred to celebrate only with immediate family, and not with hordes of relatives with whom they might or might not get along.  It was a tranquil Christmas, Mass after the opening of the presents and before lunch, the day usually ending with a game of cards or tombola, and a slice of Panettone, always present on every Italian’s table during the holiday period.

We would go to sleep content and excited, looking forward to playing again with our new toys the following day, no school, those special sweets for breakfast with our hot milk, and possibly a few hours spent walking around downtown Naples, admiring the beautiful Christmas lights, that stretched overhead from one side of the street to the other, in glorious glittering rows, and the classic, detailed presepi – the famous Neapolitan nativity scenes – proudly displayed almost everywhere.

I realize that I’m remembering my childhood Christmas as indeed a child, not through my parents’ eyes, with their unspoken responsibilities, especially my mother, who was not a happy camper spending endless hours making dough, rolling it out on the huge wooden board, and tediously cutting, stuffing and shaping each individual tortellino.

But even those adult responsibilities were not nearly as intense as the ones I experience these days, as a grown woman and mother, feeling absolutely overwhelmed by the mad rush of the season, by the chores at hand which are often self-imposed, as I feel compelled to make everything perfectly festive even if it kills me.

A simpler Christmas, ecco.  Sitting on the floor looking up at the twinkling lights of the tree.  Going to the church’s Christmas carols concert, and just listen, without my brain twirling in my head.

Too stressed to live.

The most wonderful time of the year.

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