When talk of Christmas first begins in my household, it’s usually while in the kitchen preparing thanksgiving dinner side by side with my immediate family. In my house the meals define the day and Christmas is most certainly an Italian affair.
Preparations for the holiday link each moment to the next, like a connect the dot game, eventually stringing together the encompassing feel of Christmas. Lights decorate the bushes outside, old mementos line the bare spaces on cabinets and bookshelves in our home, and a floor-to-ceiling pine tree pops up in the corner of our living room about a week into the month of December. Playing the soundtrack to the movie “Elf” seems to dissolve any Grinch-like feelings amongst us during the bustle of the holiday to-dos, and once the tree is decorated with the family collection of ornaments, the season has officially arrived.
It is then that my family gathers more often in the kitchen then at the table or on the couch as we gear up for the holiday cooking routine. I have many memories being arm deep in a bowl of breadcrumbs, raw meat, and spices bearing the responsibility “meatball maker”; a feat tallying anywhere from 100 to 300 meatballs to hand-roll in a day. The lasagna, however, always seems to be the most laborious process, and is broken into two days of tasks. Whiffs of the only tomato sauce worth making float about as my Sicilian grandmother’s recipe softly bubbles. A tradition in itself, the sauce has endless duties, dressing the meatballs on the big night is one of them. Scoops from the giant bubbling pot of sauce become layers between ricotta cheese and wide lasagna sheets of pasta as my sister and father work together to create at least two pans of lasagna. Averaging five pans a holiday is a truer standard for this Italian clan, revealing another menu item reliant on grandma’s recipe. Wrapping up braciole marks the race to the finish of the menu for Christmas Eve. Defined by a slender cut of meat, these tender morsels are a favorite to taste test when the first batch emerges from the oven. Toying with tradition, this year my sister successfully used gluten free bread crumbs for her own batch that were equally as delicious as the original batch.
On Christmas Eve family from out of town arrive with their own Italian dishes in tow, made with the same yearly commitment to family and food. Defined by the holiday are other plates such as hot peppers and onions, rosemary rolls, chicken fontina, and cannoli. My family cherishes the holiday, just as thankful for the time together preparing for the celebration, as the celebration itself on Christmas Eve. My holidays are dependent on the time spent in the all-day affair that is prepping the holiday meal in the kitchen with the ones I love the most. The meaning of Christmas is not a secret, certainly not as well kept a secret as what transforms an ordinary meatball into one of my grandmother’s meatballs. Rather, it is simply the realization that little traditions with family build on each other to string together timeless moments, like the lights around our Christmas tree each year, to create a living Italian holiday tradition. Shining light on the true meaning of the Christmas Season: to spend time with those closest to your heart. For this Italian girl, that definition is a simple one: family and food.