BUON NATALE! A Northern Italian Christmas

by Eileen Pedersen, Trail, BC

The 1930s
My sister Anita, 93, was born in 1927 and came to Canada in 1938 ….she’s old enough to be my mother, I know, but I set her straight on that a couple decades ago!! Anita is truly a family treasure–the holder of our familial and cultural memories, and, a creative and detailed story-teller, who gardens with an artistic flair. During the summer months she can still be found on her hands and knees on her front lawn with her ridiculously ancient pair of scissors, excavating dandelions. Thus far, we have not been able to talk her out of this practise.
Anita recently shared her Christmas memories with me.
Back then, the window shutters facing the street were opened on Christmas Eve and stayed open all night. “I remember us kids putting a wooden shoe on the window sill and finding gifts in the morning from il usilut dal bosc (the little birdie from the woods): a mandarin orange, a chocolate or two, and a piece of torrone, which is nougat candy with nuts. That’s if we were good, which I always was. Or else you got a potato. That happened to my husband.“
“I used to get a palancha (a large copper-coloured coin with a value of about 10 cents) to go to the religious carnivals on the streets.….. one was close by in one of the neighbourhoods. I remember going alone or sometimes with a neighbour friend a couple years older than me. I’d get a few candies and eat a couple, then I’d bring most of them home for the others. I had black leather shoes with a strap across the instep.”
“In San Martin, (Anita’s home town), the main church, and all the smaller ones in the local neighbourhoods, set up the Presepio (the Nativity scene) and a Christmas tree on December 8.” Christmas in Italy lasts until January 6, the day of the Epiphany, a Christian feast day celebrating the day the baby Jesus was revealed to the world. “People from the community took turns representing the people in the Nativity scene throughout Christmas. The animals, which provided warmth, were little statues.”
“The church bells rang a lot…at 6 a.m. every day, and then at night again for the last prayers of the day. Festive bells rang a long time around Christmas. You could hear them all over San Martin”.
“The women made crostoli (deep fried flat rectangular cookies sprinkled with sugar) at Christmas and Easter. Everybody was given a share of cookies. When you were finished yours, you went hunting for the other ones. The other sweet treat was fuiassa, a round high-rising bread with some fruit known as Panettone.
“You appreciated them all because these treats were only made for the festive days because the ingredients cost too much to have them often.”

Crostui (Crostoli)–my mom’s recipe.
5 eggs
2 cups sugar
½ cup butter
1/2 cup milk
½ tsp baking soda
zest of one lemon, plus its juice
1/2 tsp salt
½ glass of “Wuischi” (whiskey)

No Directions provided!
Basically…make and knead the dough not too long, roll it out in thin strips 6” x18” on a floured board, cut rectangles with a fluted rolling utensil, and fry in hot oil. Remove when they float; place on newspaper or towels, and sprinkle with sugar. MMM.

La Befana
Anita: “On January 6, we received more gifts, this time from La Befana”
La Befana is an old Italian Christmas tradition dating back to the 13th century. La Befana refers to an old woman, commonly called a witch, who lives in the mountains, and flies from house to house on her broom to deliver gifts to children. Legend has it that the day the Magi left to bring gifts to the newborn baby Jesus, La Befana was too busy cooking and cleaning. She regretted staying home, tried to follow, but couldn’t catch up. She then became Italy’s traditional gift giver. She wears long skirts and woolen shawls, and is portrayed as an unattractive woman with a proverbial wart on her nose.

1970s onwards in San Martino al Tagliamento
Five sibling cousins still live in or near San Martin. The eldest, Anna, celebrates la Befana with her entire family, sometimes with as many as 41 participating. As soon as La Befana is over for the year Anna starts working on the next one. She has knitted stockings for gifts for every family member, once. Any new additions to the family are provided one. Anna begins gathering nuts, chocolates, peanuts, maybe knitting a pair of socks for some of the adults. And she starts preparing her costume. She cooks the entire meal herself and prepares a paper menu for each to have as a souvenir.
People start arriving around noon. Upon entering the large room on the ground floor, constructed purposely for these gatherings, the guests must eat a mandarin orange which has been blessed. They then pick up a copy of the menu, take their place around the huge table and are served, usually with the help of Anna’s daughter, who also has a Christmas tree farm. Primi is the name for the first round of foods and includes antipasto—prosciutto, salame, other cold meats, and cheeses; “zoof”–squash soup made with milk and cornmeal; and topelini (little mice moulded with soft cheese). Next came i Secondi: the main dish: a huge roast of ground veal, “polpettone”, sliced, and served with mashed potatoes. There was no end to how many slices you could have. Finishing off the meal was a gigantic bowl of fruit salad—apples, oranges, bananas, grapes.
At this point, Anna leaves the room, dresses in her La Befana costume, and brings her sack of stuffed stockings into the dining room. After the gift opening, children set off firecrackers outside, all celebrating their connection as family. Everyone looks forward to this festive celebration!
Anna just turned 79. No La Befana this year due to Covid-19. All will be celebrating Christmas and La Befana at home with immediate families. Just as well………..I don’t know how she musters up what’s needed to pull this off every year.

Christmas traditions
Traditions like gift-giving were carried over from pre-Christian times. When missionaries were spreading Christianity around Europe, they talked to various groups and became fascinated by the variety of religious systems and beliefs that they encountered. Lumping them all under the umbrella of “pagan”, they incorporated some of these traditions and beliefs into Christian celebrations.

Pagan is derived from the Late Latin paganus, which was used at the end of the Roman Empire to name those who practiced a religion other than Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Early Christians often used the term to refer to non-Christians who worshiped multiple deities. In Latin, paganus originally meant “country dweller” or “civilian;” it is believed that the word’s religious meanings developed either from the enduring non-Christian religious practices of those who lived far from the Roman cities where Christianity was more quickly adopted, or from the fact that early Christians referred to themselves as “soldiers of Christ,” making nonbelievers “civilians.”
In the Northern Hemisphere, many groups’ celebrated Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, marking the end of the harvest and a time to rest, keep warm and enjoy family even though times were scarce. Forms of entertainment were practised; some became associated with Christmas, such as gift giving, some sort of bearded old man who flew through the skies depositing little gifts in childrens’ boots, door to door singing (wassailing) to ward off evil spirits and wish good health, mistletoe shenanigans, holly wreaths, and tree decorations with metal ornaments depicting their gods/goddesses or fruit and candles.

Winter Activities
In San Martin, during the winter days, the men would do any repairs needed to their farm equipment. We had a horse and our mother’s family had a donkey. But they had carts to be pulled and flat decks that they collected the dry hay on in the fall. They also did repairs in the barn where the cows were kept. It was the warmest place on the property as the animals generated heat. In the evenings the men would meet there, play cards, and talk about their grapes and grains harvests….and they’d be making the wine at this time too.
The women gathered in the barn as well and were always busy knitting items for the kids. They embroidered and crocheted, made drapes for their bedrooms and cutwork pieces, which took forever. They visited and did their needlework. This occurred over the winter as during the growing season they were busy tending to meals, the children, bringing food to the men in the fields and even helping there.
Anita recalls the snow: “There was always snow on the mountains in winter…the Dolomites. One year it had snowed a lot in town, which was unusual, and we’d be out playing in the snow. Our uncle Plinio, who was a sculptor and painter, made snow sculptures out of snow in the plaza in front of the bar and people came to see. They were quite something. They were mostly of animals. Too bad no one thought of taking photos.”

Christmas in Canada
In Canada of course, there’s no shortage of snow unless you live along the west coast. Christmas just isn’t Christmas without snow. We didn’t celebrate La Befana in Trail, but our Christmas preparations and celebrations were etched in stone. The cleaning. The search for the tree. The arguments about the tree. Fixing the tree. And finally decorating it, The oblong lights backed with mirrored stars, some lights housed in plastic domed Mickey Mouse characters, the plastic Santa Claus around the middle of the tree, the fragile glass bulbs, the plastic deer with feet that clipped onto the branches, and the crinkly wrinkled tinsel that had been stored since the last tree was decorated.
Over the years the Trail family grew to about 18. My job was to set the table and run up and down the stairs to do my mother’s bidding. That’s where the wine was. We still talk about how she could cook such spectacular involved meals with a postage-stamp sized counter space to prepare everything on. Always there was chicken broth soup with tiny noodles to start us off. Then at least two main dishes. If we were lucky, “osoletti” (flattened squares of veal stuffed with veal and pork, rolled, pierced with a toothpick and fried and stewed). OMG. The turkey was served twice: the breast was sliced, breaded, and fried as turkey cutlets and served with lemon slices. If the meal was at Anita’s this dish was served with her famous lemon potatoes—mashed, thickened with some flour and baking powder, and flavoured with lemon, formed into small patties and fried in hot oil. Cream corn was a must. My mother’s turkey dressing was always made with ground meat. Sometimes she ground chestnuts to use instead of bread crumbs. Then that was served with the legs, wings, and the rest. Various vegetable dishes graced the table. The common one everyone loved was an apple and sweet potato casserole. Always homemade buns and radicchio stored in the root cellar from the garden. All the Italian cookies of course, made by my mother, and not always carefully hidden. Maybe a dessert, then coffee. And finally, a bowl of fruit and a bowl of nuts with a nutcracker and picks (to get at every last bit of nut meat.)

Gifts were practical once I became an adolescent—a winter jacket, pieces of silverware from a set I had chosen, (that was fun. Not.) And my dolls disappeared, except for Joyce, the cloth one with the rubber hands and feet and plastic head; very pretty face. It reappeared on my bed dressed in a bridal dress and veil Ma had made for it. I was about 16 or 17. I interpreted that gift as her wanting to get rid of me!!
And here we are, Christmas 2020. What’s to say? It’s different. And that’s ok.

Buon Natale to all and Buon Principio!!!

Eileen Truant Pedersen is an adult educator, writer, and retired school teacher who loves kids, music, dancing, and photography. She is the author of “Set in Stone~A History of Trail’s Rock Walls”, about the 100s of rock walls and their builders, mostly Italian stone masons. Her son and grandsons are based in the Northwest Territories. She returned to her home town of Trail BC 20 years ago.

Posted in