Sugared dates smeared with butter, dried figs stuffed with walnuts, trays of hazelnuts, almonds, pecans and dark Brazilian nuts. Bread crumbs, cracked nutshells, bits of leftovers, empty espresso cups and wine glasses, and curled up mandarin orange peel scattered on a bright red embroidered tablecloth.
That’s the image that comes to mind when I think of Christmas Eve dinner at my mother’s house. The annual battleground after the seafood-based feast known as Il Cenone della Vigilia.
Earlier in the day the kitchen vibrates with joyful activity. We cook, drink, laugh a lot and throw food at each other, authorized to make a mess. We do it all together. We prepare the Christmas Eve dinner together, we eat it together and together we express our love for each other exchanging little thoughtful presents after midnight Mass. When my son finally falls asleep, we tiptoe into the house's many hiding places and bring out Santa's booty. We eat the snack left out for him, leaving evident crumbs and soot footsteps coming out of the chimney. And we smile in his same adorable anticipation. And that's when it truly feels like Christmas.
I kept wondering why I was having such a hard time getting into the Christmas mood this year. I tried everything: decorating the tree, building the presepe, putting up ornaments and lights all over the house, playing carols, baking cookies, constructing a gingerbread house... I included my son in all these usually infectious holiday activities because, after all, that's who I was doing it all for. But it wasn't really working. Something was missing.
And then I figured it out. I understood that there wasn't anything missing, there was actually an excess instead. There is too much of everything. Excessive frantic driving through traffic for last minute shopping. Too much constant mad rushing to conquer ground (and parking space) in horrible hysteria-mode stores and malls. Had the holiday season been reduced to racing brawl-prone folks laden with gift-wrapped boxes to the best deal? That's not Christmas! Christmas suddenly had turned into a commercial operation, and I somehow had forgotten its real meaning. To me Natale was a moment of excitement, of preparation, of joy. A traditional festive family occasion.
This shouldn't sound like a sermon, but very few things are sacred for me and Christmas is one of them. Nowadays Christmas in Italy is all about getting the perfect gift, leaving for the ultimate exotic vacation (and then bragging about it), accumulating rather than un-cluttering. Il Santo Natale–the holiness of Christmas–has been transformed into a display of money, image and opulence rather than a domestic celebration. It's a little sad, isn't it?
Thankfully the one element of Italian Natale that will never change is getting the family around a table and eating like crazy. So tomorrow evening, the dining room will be alive with chatter and laughter. After the gargantuan meal, the venue will convert – like every year – into casino royale for the Italian ritual Christmas gambling and tombola (bingo) tradition. The crumbs and nutshells get swept off la tavola with one tipsy motion and the games will begin. Usually one cousin – appropriately nicknamed 'the taxman' – always wins every game, pocketing all our invested coins, so after a few rounds everyone gets up disgruntled, belching and unzipping constricting garments. Someone always volunteers to do the monumental pile of dishes, and politics are rarely ever overlooked in the conversation. We have been known to fight occasionally on Christmas Eve for that reason. But we also stick to tradition, and play, laugh and eat ourselves into a stupor.
Like every year, my mother will be Grand Supervisor of the Christmas Eve banquet, which will traditionally include fish in its multi-course menu and copious amounts of wine, bubbly and happiness. We all help out and contribute our share cooking with her.
Needless to say, pre-preparation has already started. I am in fact posting this in a break during busy kitchen work.
This year we will be serving our Christmas Eve Dinner guests (old friends, immediate family and additional boyfriends, girlfriends, ex-spouses and the like) the following menu:
- Smoked salmon hors d'oeuvres
- Lasagna with Taleggio, mushrooms and shaved white truffles
- Steamed European Sea bass with homemade mayonnaise (12 eggs)
- Broccoli raab rustic pie
- Artichokes "alla Romana" (added at the last minute)
- Panettone, Pandoro and mixed nuts, dried fruits
- Champagne Veuve-Cliquot Rosé
- Rosso di Montalcino
- Greco di Tufo
But Natale here in Italy is a two-day celebration, so...
The Christmas Day Lunch (for seating capacity reasons, always held at my mom's house) menu will feature:
- Tortellini in Broth made with 3 kinds of meat/bones
- Crown Lamb Roast and oven-baked russet potatoes
- Guinea-Fowl breasts stuffed with chestnuts and truffles
- Radicchio, Pears and Gorgonzola salad
- Panettone and Pandoro
- Seasonal fruit platter
- Chianti Classico
- Passito di Pantelleria
I have the oven blasting at 350° and the smell in the house is delicious. My apron is spattered and Mr. E is wearing a Santa hat with flashing red lights. He's helping me mix ingredients. Rosemary Clooney is singing her carols for us in the background and the tree lights twinkle. Something inside is tingling. I may have just found my Christmas spirit...