Wow. And again, wow. That’s all I can say. This is my third Christmas in Italy with my family. Maybe I’m getting older, maybe I can’t eat as much; I don’t know. All I can say is “Wow”.
Let me start at the beginning of our Christmas celebration. My family starts at 7:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Now, I’m not sure if this is traditional for all Italians or not. Nevertheless, that’s when they start. My cousin, Mauri and his wife, Daniela, live on the bottom floor of my aunt and uncle’s home with their two children, Stefano and Celeste. For two days Daniela and my aunt have been cooking and baking. Takes me back to when my precious mom would would bake for days.
Anyway, at precisely 7:00 p.m. my aunt’s family arrived. They are a wonderful troupe, down to earth, fun, always upbeat and laughing. They treat me like family. I met them during my visit to Italy when I was introduced to my extended family for the first time. Obviously, they had been told about me and wanted to meet me. I was very flattered. They have always been very accommodating and affectionate towards me which makes me feel like a king.
So 7:00 p.m. arrived and they spilled into the bottom floor of the house–Maurizio’s apartment–bundled up in coats and scarves and bearing bags of gifts. Everyone was kissing everyone. It’s the kind of kissing you see in movies with people touching or kissing each cheek, exclaiming “Auguri” (best wishes) or “Buon Natale” (Merry Christmas).
After pleasantries and chatting, we started to eat, beginning with breads and some deep-fried foods; I’m not sure what they were. But they were good. One item was a vegetable that I’ve never heard of. It was very good. Then a pasta dish, and then a fish dish. Then a salad, which is totally different in America where we usually have salad first. After that, it was desserts and sweets galore with several bottles of wine and a wine/liquor/appertif from Sicily that was excellent. It reminded me of my grandfather’s wine.
The interesting thing about meals in Italy is that oftentimes there’s a pile of plates/bowls at your seat. Each item is dished out separately and then the plate is taken away. In restaurants this can be especially pronounced with upwards of six plates stacked up. I’ve come to find out this usually happens on holidays like Easter and Christmas, not on ordinary days. But I find it to be a better way of eating as opposed to the American version of celebrating which entails placing four pounds of food on one’s plate at one time and moaning in agony in the bathroom later.
Eating took about two hours; it was very casual and very relaxed. Again, not like America where we inhale our food in no time like a bunch of Hoovers leaving one feeling bloated and constipated.
After eating we opened gifts–and this is where Christmas became magic. Aunt Rosalba’s sister–in-law, Anna, started handing out gifts to everyone. She even had one for me–a Christmas-decorated candy jar. She said she wanted me to think of them whenever I used it. Did I say they are wonderful?
Each person opened his/her gift and cooed over the item. Then the kiss/kiss, cheek touch/cheek touch again. The interesting thing here is that, when someone gives a gift, it is customary to thank each person in that family–parents and children. So everyone kisses everyone and, quite frankly, it’s a beautiful site to see.
Next, Rosalba’s other sister-in-law parceled out gifts–again, one for me–a very classy umbrella, something I desperately needed so I was jazzed. After the gifts are parceled out, again everyone was thanking everyone, doing the kiss/kiss on each cheek thing.
Then it was my turn. No one knew I had brought gifts. Earlier in the day I had brought them down surreptitiously and placed them with all the others. No one noticed because everything was so hectic.
First I distributed the gifts to the ladies. They were surprised to find out that I had a gift for each woman, including Rosalba’s one niece who couldn’t make it because she’s nine months’ pregnant and is rather immobile.
The gifts I purchased were little crystal perfume bottles, each one a different shape. Very delicate and very beautiful and they seemed to go over very well. The women were cooing and comparing. I had something different for Aunt Rosalba because she is special–a crystal wine bottle stopper. Then the kisses!
Next, it was the men’s turn. Rosalba’s other niece had attended and I had a gift for her husband, too, which totally caught him off-guard. I purchased scarves for all the men, which they thoroughly enjoyed. I tried to pair each style with each man. I also had one for the husband of the pregnant niece. Then the kisses from all the men. Men who are insecure with their sexuality would have a difficult time in Italy.
After the gifts had been distributed to the men, I approached Uncle Luciano. I had jokingly told him he didn’t get a gift. Uncle Luciano loves to joke so he just laughed. I then went out into the hallway to bring in the huge box I had carried halfway across the world. He had seen it when he picked me up at the bus station but hadn’t pay any attention to it.
The gift was wrapped tightly to absorb the shock of travel so I helped him cut the shrink-wrap and tape. He started tearing apart the carton and pulled out the gift which was covered in bubble wrap. He was busy ripping off the wrapping and not really paying attention to the gift. Finally all the wrapping was off and he turned it over. I told him I was giving him this gift because he was now the patriarch of the family. It was one of the portraits from my father’s funeral in 2012. Two had been made, each with a different photo. One had gone to my brother and one to me.
Uncle Luciano looked at it and said, “Cazzo”, which is a cross-pollination of “My God”, “Oh, shit” and “Wow” all mixed together. He ran his hands over the photo and put it against his forehead. He kissed his beloved late brother’s face. Then he started to cry and excused himself. Rosalba ran after him.
The room went silent. Everyone wanted to know what happened and I told them it was a portrait from the funeral, that there had been one for me and Tony and I felt that mine should go to Uncle Luciano, especially considering he had reconciled with Giulio right before Giulio’s death. Rosalba’s brother said, “Bravo, Bob.”
I then went in the kitchen and put my arms around Uncle Luciano.
“Buon Natale, Zio.”
After he had composed himself, he went back into the living room and picked up the portrait, held it high for everyone to see and took it around the room. It was one of the most gratifying Christmas experiences of my life.
Later in the evening the singing began. Maurizio brought out his guitar and Rosalba’s nephew joined in along with Mauri’s son. The singing lasted at least an hour. The celebrating lasted until after midnight.
Today, Christmas Day, everyone arrived at noon. I was unprepared to start eating so soon, but that’s what we did. It’s now 9:30 p.m. and I honestly can barely remember what we ate–but we ate for three and a half hours. I do remember some lasagna so wonderful that I wanted to crawl between the layers. We had the obligatory olive de Ascolana, stuffed olives, which are my favorite.
One of the desserts was magnificent and was basically a deep-fried cream. It was the kind of cream you would find in an eclair, but dollops had been dropped into hot water and fried. And, dear God were they fantastic. Afterward, aperitifs and more singing. The party broke up about 7:00 p.m.
Tomorrow everyone returns for Day 3. Stay tuned. I hope I survive.