We do love our Christmas traditions, don't we? But sometimes mixing it up can prod us to grow clearer on what means something to us and why. And so I offer eight ideas for how to celebrate Christmas like Italians, so you can sink into la dolce vita by the firelight rather than stressing about where you stuck the wrapping paper.
1. Change your timeframe. Christmas shouldn't begin Thanksgiving weekend, and it absolutely shouldn't battle Halloween for shelf space. Let Christmas be Christmas. Don't rush it. The lights in Spello don't go up until December 8th, the day of Immaculate Conception. Start late, and end at the Epiphany in January. It's a nice concentrated amount of time to really dig into the Christmas feeling. Linger too long on the island of misfit toys and you get diminishing returns.
2. Take a break from Jingle Bell Rock. Find some Italian Christmas music. Preferably with a zampognari, bagpipe players. I'll never forget the man from Abruzzo standing outside our Spello apartment playing his bagpipe into the foggy evening. My favorite Christmas song is one that Siena sang with her fellow Spellani 5th graders in Santa Maria Maggiore. It's called "Siam Pastori e Pastorelli", and you can find it on i-tunes and Spotify (along with Italian Christmas bagpipe music).
3. Put away the butter. Don't drive yourself batty with Christmas cookies. Instead, order a high quality panettone or pandoro and enjoy with your morning espresso or an afternoon glass of prosseco. My favorite panettone is from Williams Sonoma, but I found this delicious one on Amazon as well.
4. Be with people. This seems to obvious, but Americans get so frenetic around the holidays they look like they are one red light away from total annihilation. Take a beat. Remember the fun parts. Have people over for some of that panettone you ordered. It doesn't need to be fancy, just gather around and connect. If that's not in your cards, stop and say hello to people. Look them in the eyes, smile, tell them you like their hat. It's worth being a few minutes late to have a spot of connection with your fellow humans. It reminds us to celebrate the divine in each other. How holy is that? Answer: Very.
5. Have some fish. Maybe not seven. Everyone in this country tells me "THE FEAST OF SEVEN FISHES IN NOT A THING." Okay, but everyone I knew in Spello seemed to have many fish on Christmas Eve. We ourselves have linguini and clams every year. Keith makes it while I lounge in front of the fire and eye the candy. It's just lip-smacking fantastic. Last year, we hosted a "Feast of Several Fishes" open house on Christmas Eve, as a way to connect with people (see above). You'd be surprised how many people are free on Christmas Eve!
6. Acquire a presepe. Otherwise known as a nativity scene. Notice I didn't say buy a presepe. That's a critical difference. When we wandered around Spello on Christmas Eve, looking at the presepi on display, many were homemade from boxes. Why not? Save the time you'd be making Christmas cookies and make a nativity scene. Years ago, I stumbled on the idea of having the wise men move around the room daily, getting closer and closer to the nativity scene, and keeping the baby Jesus out of the nativity scene until Christmas Eve. This seems so much more stirring than an Elf on the Shelf, reporting on the goings on in your house to Santa. Speaking of...
7. Ditch Santa. Okay, that's just mean. But if your kids are older, why not? Or at least, let him share the limelight with la Befana, the Italian Christmas witch. It's 2017. Time for women to take their place on the whimsical holiday icon altar.
8. Celebrate on Christmas Eve. If you've never tried opening presents while you are full of linguini and clams and wine and tiramisu, by firelight, as the moonlight drifts softy across your children's cheeks, well, I can't recommend it enough.
So chill out. Truly. Some gifts may be late and you might never get some ornaments out of the attic and did you forget to put out the eggnog? It's all okay! Just lean into the season and what it can mean, rather than what you see on Pinterest. Make it simple. Make it joyful. Make it Italian.