It’s time to say Buon Natale, or Merry Christmas, again. I’ve been thinking about all the wonderful traditions I had as child in an Italian American family and I want to share them with you. Every family has their traditions for the holidays, but mine when I was a child were all Italian style, so I’m curious to hear how they are similar or different to yours.
My grandpa was an immigrant from Italy and my grandma was a first generation American, so their traditions were pretty darn authentic to the experience one may have if they celebrated Christmas in Italy, with maybe a dash of American flair to make it a true Italian American experience. I feel lucky to this day that they taught me the beautiful aspects of an Italian Christmas.
What did the traditions include? Well, I’m glad you asked (um, I mean that you are still reading this post). I am breaking the traditions into food, food, and more food. Just kidding, but really there was a lot of food. Okay, let’s say the memories include time at home, food, music, and religion.
Christmas Eve was just as large and important as Christmas Day in my house. It was always celebrated at my grandparents’ house and Christmas Day was celebrated at my house (that’s just a D’Angelo thing and not specifically an Italian thing, to clarify). My grandparents had the standard pepperoni and provolone cheese appetizer, with plenty of crackers. Sometimes figs from grandpa’s tree were also set out. Always a variety of nuts as well. A random but delicious and light mix for apps.
The music played softly but just loud enough to draw attention to it, from the room next to the kitchen. Crooners like Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra were only a few of the many voices I heard as a child. I also loved when the children’s Christmas songs came on the radio, like Dominick the Donkey (google it and it won’t get out of your head the rest of the day; it’s the best!).
Before I get to the dinner, let me tell you about the wine. Everyone had a small glass of red wine, even me as a kid (gasp!). It’s normal in an Italian household to allow older kids and young teens to have a small glass of wine. This way, it is savored and you learn to appreciate it, not to abuse it or seek it secretly.
The dinner we ate was huge, especially for a kid. Grandma’s special soup was always on the stove the entire time we were there and finally we were able to eat it as a first course. The soup had rib meat, celery, carrots, garlic, onion, and pasta of course. I have the recipe but could never make it like her. Another part of the first course was the fish baccala, which only my grandpa liked. Traditionally, Italians do the feast of the seven fishes, but we didn’t have that kind of money! The final first course was prepping for the main course by the adults eating hot peppers. These spicy to the max peppers were ones my grandpa grew in his yard. I’ll always remember all of the adults crying while they ate them, saying through their tears, “uh, these are good;” sniff, blow nose, eat more. It was strange to me, but now I get it.
The main course was always aioli. This simple but flavorful linguini dish had garlic and olive oil with a sprinkle parsley and plenty of grated parmesan cheese (aglio= garlic, e =and, and olio = oil, hence, aglio e olio or aioli). Don’t forget the homemade bread. While grandma’s soup simmered, grandpa made loaves of bread. His crusty white bread couldn’t be beat. The other part of the main course was salad, eaten after the meal. The European way is to eat it after so I did that nightly, and still do. The dressing was only one; grandma’s mix of olive oil, vinegar, oregano, salt, and pepper.
Dessert was always a mix of homemade Italian cookies, including pignolis and pizzelles. If you haven’t had these, you have to try to find them this holiday. Pignolis are pine nut cookies and pizzelles are snowflake looking, thin almond flavored, traditional Italian Christmas cookies that have confectionary sugar on top. Is your mouth watering by now? Mine is.
So, after all of this, we didn’t lay on the couch; we went to midnight mass! As a kid, I slept until 11 PM, stay awake until we got to church, slept more, and then was awoken at midnight by loud singing and church bells signifying Christmas Day was upon us. It was a groggy time, but also exciting because, my gosh, Santa was coming!
Waking up on Christmas Day was pretty standard. We opened gifts and blah blah blah. But later, grandpa and grandma came and the real celebration began.
The appetizers were set out to munch on, including a few of the same from the night before, but also one special one came with dinner. As we sat at the table, my mom would sometimes have shrimp cocktail ready for us at our setting. Then, the soup of Christmas, pasta fazool (okay, it’s really called pasta e fagioli; pasta and beans). My mom was taught by my grandma to make it our special way, which isn’t the way you would see it in restaurants. Ours had long spaghetti broken up instead of small pasta. The beans were usually northern cannellini in type. The tomato sauce base was pretty standard though.
The main course was usually stuffed shells or lasagna. The sauce (not gravy! This is an Italian American battle of names) was homemade to perfection. Meatballs also, of course. The homemade bread was there again also. Salad came last once again.
Dessert was again pizzelles but also could be something special like cannolis or cheesecake. Now I’m even more hungry!
So, on to music. My dad played accordion and keyboard so the radio wasn’t on after dinner, my dad was “on.” He belted our Italian classics and all of us watched and sang with him. Music is a large part of the Italian culture. There is always music being played on the radio/records/tapes/CDs, being played live, singing with the music was normal, and breaking out in dance was almost a certainty. My grandma danced around with me, while we tried to get grandpa to dance. He was more of a watcher. But the holiday ended on this high note, pun intended.
It was so much fun to re-live these memories through sharing them with you. Please tell me about your experiences. Most of all, enjoy the moments as you partake in the traditions you engage in today. These are the special times we will hold into the future.
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11 thoughts on “Christmas as an Italian American”
Oh, I love that you have different traditions than I do. I love Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin myself. I tend to always have them in my playlist during Christmas. I love that you drink wine because I’ve let my kids have small amounts of wine and champagne during the holiday season. That thing about the hot peppers sounds rather entertaining to watch, as an outsider. Ha! What fun. I love pignoli’s. Yum! I have Italian ancestors and that is a favorite cookie of mine. Midnight mass was a usual for us too. I can remember getting nudged while falling asleep during mass plenty of times. Ha. Thanks for sharing. I hope you have an enjoyable Christmas this year.
Oh wow, I’m so glad you related to so many of the traditions. I loved hearing about your experiences. 🙂
Of course, lovely post.
A delightful post. I loved reading this! ❤️
Thanks so much, Ivy! It means so much to me that you took the time to read it and even commented. So sweet!
I love reading about your Christmas traditions. I wish more people would share Christmas and other holidays traditions as well. My family is Irish and Greek. On the Greek side Easter was the big holiday that I remember. My grandfather made leg of lamb with mint jelly and Orzo. I could eat so much Orzo. We watched Jason and the Argonauts on TV. He played Never on a Sunday on his record player and we danced around. Easter morning there were pastries with brightly hard boiled eggs embedded int heir thick ropes called tsoureki. I hated eggs but I ate the pasry right up to them. Thanks for sharing your traditions and making a space for others to share theirs.
Catherine, your traditions were beautiful as well. Greek and Italians are similar because we also have that bread for Easter and eat lots of orzo! It is one of my comfort foods. 😀 I’m so glad to know more about other cultures though, and also about you.
I just love reading your blog posts I learn so much.
That’s so great to know! I love to learn from others so it makes me happy I can do that for you.