- As Christmas nears in Rome, I get antsy about holiday traditions. I become achingly nostalgic about the New England Christmases of my childhood. I miss the family outing to cut down the Christmas tree, and the project of putting it up and decorating it. I miss making, baking and decorating Christmas cookies with my mother with Christmas carols blasting on the record player, and then delivering plates of them to our neighbors with bright red and green ribbons. I miss having the snow outside and sitting by the fireplace inside while sipping hot cocoa or egg-nog. I miss sledding and ice skating and coming home with red cheeks and noses and seeing the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree through the window.
Italians have different traditions at Christmastime. They make beautiful, elaborate miniature nativity scenes in their homes. These begin with the usual stable, Mary, Joseph, the cow, the donkey, shepherds, the three Wise Men and the angels but often expand to include all sorts of figures, often a full village of fish-sellers, pizza-makers, ducks, dogs and fountains. One nativity scene at a church near our home last year had a little waterful and, if you pushed a button, water would actually pour down it. Italians do not have a Santa Claus who puts gifts in stockings for children. They have “La Befana”, a good witch who leaves candy (or candy coal) in stockings for children on January 6th, a holiday known in Italy unofficially as “La Befana”, officially as Epifania.
Then there are all the food traditions. Italians eat a lovely light-weight fruit cake called Panettone at Christmas and on Christmas day one usually eats Tortellini in Broth (a post coming soon on my experience with the broth). But on Christmas Eve one must eat fish.
My American friend Jessica, who is a talented chef, ran into some difficulties with this fish tradition. Her second Christmas in Rome, she offered to prepare the Christmas Eve meal for the extended family. A few weeks before Christmas her very Catholic mother-in-law called to ask her what she was planning to serve. Jessica explained she had planned to do a mandarine-orange and taleggio cheese risotto (I’ve tried it, it’s scrumptious) followed by roast beef. She was informed that on Christmas Eve one eats fish. “Not if I am cooking it,” Jessica responded cheerfully, “I can’t cook fish.” A few days later her mother-in-law called to tell her that she was asking the local priest for a special dispensation so the family could eat meat rather than fish on Christmas Eve. “A what?” Jessica asked. “A dispensation,” she was told. A dispensation is a permission to not follow a religious law. As far as I can tell it is actually a southern Italian tradition, rather than Catholic Church law, to eat fish on the December 24th.
A few days later, Jessica’s mother-in-law called her and solemnly informed her, “The priest has granted the dispensation.” Jessica, tending to be a bit distracted, had forgotten. “The What??” There was a heavy pause before the mother-in-law added, “the permission not to cook fish on Christmas Eve.” So Jessica went ahead with her holiday plans for roast beef.
On the morning of December 23rd Jessica was in the kitchen when she heard a knock at the door. She opened it and was surprised to see her mother-in-law holding a large package. She explained that it was a gift from Jessica’s Italian husband’s 90-something grandmother. Jessica’s husband adored his grandmother and Jessica was sure he would be thrilled to get such a big gift from her.
The mother-in-law rushed off and Jessica took the heavy package into the house. It was wrapped in paper, inside a plastic bag and it had a strange smell. Jessica took it into the kitchen and carefully began to unwrap it. As she pulled back the paper, she jumped when she found a huge, glassy-eyed fish staring at her.
Jessica told me later that she suddenly remembered the scene in “The Godfather” when a man finds the bloody head of his prized racehorse in his bed and realizes that you don’t mess with the Mafia. Jessica told me it dawned on her that when it comes to food traditions in Italy, you don’t mess with an Italian mother-in-law.
Jessica, a wise American Mamma, figured out how to cook the fish and graciously served it to her husband’s family on Christmas Eve.
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