Christmas season 2021 is almost here and that means getting excited for familiar and comforting traditions, great food, gifts, parties, and getting together with family. For many it is their favorite holiday, not so much for the material or financial gifts they receive but for the gifts of family, friends and togetherness they celebrate. Much like the American Thanksgiving, but on a universal level, being shared by just about every peoples across the world. Here is a link to actual Christmas traditions in Italy, but for purposes of this article I want to focus on the American descendants of the great wave of Italian immigrants. You see, many of us have "Americanized" and integrated so well into American society that there is little that distinguishes us as "Italian," other than our last names, and for some even that has been changed. Christmas is no different. Many Italian American families today celebrate it the American way: Mass or church attendance on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day, Christmas light looking, a big dinner and family get together, the story of Santa Claus, the one popularized by American writers, cartoonists and corporate advertisers like for Coca Cola, (go here and/or here for more about the history of Santa Claus), and the unwrapping of presents, usually on Christmas Day but sometimes on Christmas Eve. These are all great, fun and wonderful traditions, but fort those who want to reclaim a bit of their Italian heritage, or for non-Italians who simply want to add something different to their holiday traditions or enjoy some cultural diversity, here are some ideas on how to make your Christmas more "Italian American."
1.) Buon Natale!
If you forgot or never knew it, try learning and speaking Italian, starting with saying "Merry Christmas" in Italian, "Buon Natale!" "Happy New Year" is "Felice Anno Nuovo!" You may already have the Italian colors of red, white and green around of course!
2.) Attend Traditional Masses:
You could attend The Mass of The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is a Holy Day of Obligation for Catholics anyways, and of course, and when the Christmas season in Italy gets "into high gear" according to The Proud Italian, and a Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. I suggest attending ones that are held in Italian. Even if you're not Catholic, many parishes will do something special for Christmas. My parish, Our Lady of the Rosary, an Italian National Parish in San Diego's Little Italy, for example holds a Christmas play involving young parishioners dressed up as the Holy Family reenacting the first Christmas, then would sing Christmas carols before the final Midnight Mass.
Christmas Carols at Our Lady of the Rosary:
Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at Our Lady of the Rosary:
For the Presepi, or for Americans the traditional Manger or Nativity Scene, according to The Proud Italian, "Italians take pride in the amount of love and detail they put into all things creative. When it comes to building their own unique versions of the Nativity Scene, this is no different. They combine the traditional scene and add their own personal twists into their creation by adding Ferrari’s, football players, and a variety of other 'Italian things.' Not only are these masterpieces called presepi all individual and very personal. They are also created by their makers using all sorts of materials, including pasta and nuts, to name a few." You may want to personalize your American Nativity Scene in some way to imitate an Italian Presepi.
4.) La Befana! Italians have the story of La Befana, the Christmas Witch. According to The Proud Italian, "Christmas gifts to the children in Italy are believed to be given by the ever searching, good-hearted witch called La Befana. The legend goes that she was asked by the shepherds to accompany them on their journey to visit the baby Jesus. Apparently, she declined due to having had too many house chores to complete. It is said that she later had a change of heart and followed suit. She is believed to still be searching for this child today, and leaves gifts for the kids, wherever she goes along in her journey. To find out more about this magnificent and mysterious woman, read our La Befana Article." In addition to Santa, try telling the story of La Befana as well, it just makes the holiday that more fun and culturally diverse.
Of course, your choice of music is subjective and either way you'll have some Christmas songs playing. But try listening to Frank Sinatra, Andrea Bocelli, and Dean Martin just to name a few old Italian American favorites, or to actual Italian Christmas music in Italian.
Next to Jesus Christ and family, food is the next important thing at Christmas time to Italians of course! Many Italian American families eat traditional American Christmas dishes, but, like in Thanksgiving, add something Italian to the table, usually a pasta dish like lasagna. Desserts of course include Italian cookies, cannoli, and such. Try adding something "Italian" to your Christmas dinner and dessert!
"Typically, the family gathers around a feast of seven different seafood dishes or one or two different types of fish prepared in seven different ways.
"Despite its popularity among Americans, many Italians do not even know about the tradition — or its origin. Surprised? The answer can be found in the biodiversity of Italy: the country boasts so many differences between the north and south.
"...The ancient tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic custom of abstinence from meat and dairy products on the eve of certain holidays, including Christmas. The number seven is rooted back in ancient times and it can be connected to multiple Catholic symbols: in fact, the seven seems repeated more than 700 times in the Bible. Also, according to the Roman Catholic Church, seven are the sacraments, the days of the Creation, as well as the deadly sins. Hence seven courses!
"Flash forward to the early 1900s, when the official "Feast of the Seven Fishes" first emerged. Italian-American families rekindled the Old Country's Christmas Eve tradition by preparing a seven-course seafood meal (hence the name of the newly found tradition) that both made them feel close to their homes, while celebrating the sea, a major connection in Italy. Today, it's considered one of the oldest Italian traditions — but we give America credit for that!"
If you have the time and energy and feel adventurous, why not have a meal of seven types of different seafood dishes and celebrate The Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas?
7.) Family togetherness....crowded and loud!
The most important part of Christmas is in fact celebrating the birth of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but next to that is the gathering with family....or people we consider family. Why not make it a crowded one? Oh sure, because of covid now you might want to keep it smaller and have some social distancing, but that's not typically easy for Italians! Even if it has to be outdoors, I suggest having a big gathering of "family" and make sure, like any Italians, they talk loud and use their hands a lot! You non-Italians can watch and learn! lol
8.) Honorable Mention: Visit a Little Italy at Christmastime
Though not easy for everyone, I suggest visiting a Little Italy neighborhood at Christmastime. On the West Coast we have North Beach in San Francisco, Little Italy San Jose , Little Italy in San Diego, and now a "Little Italy" in LA (in San Pedro) and in Sacramento! Normally these neighborhoods, like any American neighborhood, would be decorated very festively for Christmas and other holidays and be bustling with holiday shopping and food, and sometimes even with events and activities like the Christmas Village and Tree Lighting in San Diego (Video of 2019) (2021 flyer).
Well, that's it, that's what I have found through some quick research and from family memories on ideas on how to make Christmas "Italian American." If there is anything I left out or if I made any mistakes, please let me know (respectfully) in the comments, and feel free to share how your own family and friends celebrate Christmas! Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo!