The Ferri’s Xmas Eve ala Italiana
As the holidays approach, I am thinking about one of my favorite traditions and it’s the way my family celebrates the Italian Xmas Eve.
I grew up in New England and my entire family, biological, adoptive, by blood and choice and spirit still lives there. And yes, all of us are a little bit Italian. In our family, even though there’s Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Portuguese, Swedish, French, German and other nationalities in the mix, the one that always prevails and dominates, especially around the holidays, is Italian. If you were lucky enough to marry into the family, you automatically become “Italian-like” through osmosis. It is vital for your survival to adapt, right?
We show you and surely tell you the way it will all go down. How we cook, what we cook, how we drink, what we drink, what we do and how we do it. You don’t want to miss it. Everyone just schedules all other Christmas plans around this night.
My earliest Christmas Eve was hosted at my grandparent’s home in Barrington, RI by my Italian grandfather John, the town’s mailman who everyone knew and my Portuguese grandmother Gilda, the elementary school crossing guard. We called them Pop Pop and MamaGeeGee….and how they earned those monikers is a separate and interesting story. My grandfather and his parents began the Italian Xmas Eve tradition in America after arriving in Ellis Island in 1917 with my great grandfather Arduino and great grandmother Francesca!
My mom made sure we were always dressed up in Christmas colors, Christmas sweaters and wearing Santa hats. We lived about a ¼ mile from the beach and my grandparents only lived 5 houses away from us. They were just up the hill, only a 3 minute walk, but it was almost always a white Christmas. Between the snow, the ice, the freezing temps and all the stuff we brought over, we actually had to drive up the hill!
Their house had the tiniest kitchen and everyone would be in it. It was like organized chaos. The cooks would overtake the kitchen and rest of us would be in the living room – and the décor was straight out of the 70’s with white pleather couches and royal blue shag carpet. How could I forget?
The tree was always in the right hand corner because my grandfather’s organ was in the left corner. Pop Pop would play the keyboard after dinner and we would sing Christmas carols, led by “MamaGeeGee” who was always front and center. It was all timed so everyone would be in the same room for the late night doorbell and the surprise visitor…
After the passing of my grandparents, the next generation took over. Christmas Eve took place at my parents when I was growing up and now it’s my Aunt’s house. Italians are not kindred to time. After all they invented the passatempo, foods like popcorn, sunflower seeds, things we eat in order “not” to think, were created just to pass time. Everything stretches beyond the clock’s hand and reach, therefore we start early and we end late. Rules for Xmas Eve — it must be loud, it’s fun, it’s storytelling, it’s lots of reminiscing, plus it’s definitely fattening and always memorable. The stories and laughs are non-stop and it truly is the highlight of the year, and a great reason for all of us to be in the same place for one special night.
But before that, comes the patriarch of the family. Pop Pop! My grandfather was so meticulous about the order of things. Preparing the “The Feast of the 7 Fishes” – The Italian American tradition that takes place on Xmas Eve, signifying the 7 Catholic Sacraments (Baptism, First Communion, Penance, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders and Last Rites). The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence. It originated in Southern Italy and “The Ferri’s” are from a small town 135 miles south of Rome, called Cipriano, in the province of Salerno.
It had to be done right.
Here’s the menu: Food and virtue! (of course, it is the Italian Version, everything goes with food!)
Sardines (Disgusting lol)
Bacala (salt cod)
Spaghetti Aglio with Anchovies – (Ewwww!)
Spaghetti with Clams & Clam Cakes
For some reason, the Spaghetti Aglio was very important and whoever was overseeing the garlic preparation better not screw it up. You had to stare at it while it’s on the stove or else! It was either my Uncle Bruce or my mother who were knighted the Guardians of the Garlic! A high honor if you are Italian!
I don’t know a kid in the house that liked sardines or smelts or anchovies but we would watch my grandfather eat them, and specifically the anchovies right out of the tin. Even though the menu was mostly seafood with light sauce, we always had the homemade marinara option for the pasta…thanks to the emphatic nature of Italian mothers.
Arriving at the house was the best because the cooking and all that goes with it, started early! Just imagine walking into the kitchen of a little Italian restaurant with all that food being cooked at the same time. Every aroma imaginable, a glass of wine immediately placed in hand and the loud chaotic story telling of every relative you hadn’t seen in months, all talking in the same time. Italians are acquired multi-taskers… we learn to compartmentalize from early on. It’s like having an extra ear, otherwise, we would never be able to have a meaningful conversation.
After we eat, then we clean. The kitchen is put back in order and then the deserts are displayed with the coffee and Sambuca shots with 3 beans for health, wealth and happiness — And for many of my relatives, it was just Sambuca minus the coffee… I guess we were short on coffee? But after an anchovy, the last thing you want is beans, lol And this is why the wine (and beer) never stops!
Then of course Santa Claus arrives! (It used to be Uncle Bruce and now it’s my cousin Brian) and both of them truly could be stand up comedians. The played their part well and the place would go nuts, complete with crying toddlers who were afraid of Santa or the disbelief from the older kids that Santa had the perfect gift with their name on it. I always got jewelry (shocker) – a necklace with the letter G on it, a ring, a bracelet. See, it’s not my fault. My love for jewelry was reinforced by Santa every year! Because I was a good girl. Not because of vanity. That is simply a myth, created by the naughty! Ask any other woman, Italian or not 🙂
The amount of pictures and camera flashing was endless. That started with my grandmother “Gilda”. Wherever there was camera she was in front of it and she would talk to the camera like it was a rolling video. So funny. 🙂 Every picture of her, she is in mid-sentence because she was always talking so I can attest that the picture of her with me and my sister is authentic!
Now why do suppose tradition matters? Why do we repeat it every year? What are we teaching? What are we hoping for? Why do ALL of us who are related come together without a single hesitation? Why do we insist that we demonstrate what we experienced as children for our own kids? Is it part of our legacy? Do you want to be remembered like I remember “MamaGeeGee and Pop Pop? Do you want to share stories that make you feel happy?
My kids never had the privilege of meeting either of them, but they know they are responsible for creating the Italian Xmas Eve. They are their great grandparents, who were immigrants and brought their culture to America and it’s been repeated every year for generations to come.
Here’s why it matters to me.
This tradition reminds me that I am a part of history that defines my past and shapes who I am today. It gives me comfort and reminds me of a time I celebrated something that really matters with those I love. It reinforces my values of friendship, family, love and having a sense of belonging. It also makes me pause and reflect on the meaningful memories that have stayed with me my entire life. I want that for my children and their children. Tradition is family, community, memory, history and love. Always love!
Merry Christmas! Hope you have a tradition to share! Send to firstname.lastname@example.org and lets share that Christmas spirit around!