Once upon a Christmas
By Madeleine Johnson
y childhood Christmases were of the straight-up, Anglo Saxon-Midwest kind. But with a few Italian touches.
There was the panettone we ate every year, sent by a colleague of my father's from Bergamo. Despite the yards of twine and metal and wax seals that gave it a papal look, the blue and white Motta box arrived battered after its sea voyage. Along with the misshapen Italian Christmas cake came bars of what appeared to be candy, encased in a substance that was neither food nor paper. I now know that this tooth-shattering concoction of egg white, hazelnuts and honey was torrone, and the strange substance is what communion wafers are made from. My mother loved torrone. But it never convinced me, no matter how much its colorful packages made me want to try it.
The panettone usually arrived around Easter. This didn't matter to us since we were still busy eating the panettone from the year before. My mother kept it in the freezer and doled it out for dessert on Sundays. Italians tend to hide the fact that most panettone is actually produced in August when business is slow for commercial bakeries. They needn't worry. If archeologists had found panettone along with honey in Egypt's pyramids, I'm sure it would have been perfectly good.
Capitol Records brought the other bit of Italianità to our house, via the "Christmas in Italy," part of the "Christmas in…" record series. It was the holiday answer to Bing Crosby and Bob Hope's "Road to…" movies. We also owned "Christmas in Germany" with a hot pink cover showing a jazzy gingerbread house, and "Christmas in England," which featured girls in kilts and knee socks and a plum pudding. Among the songs was a poignant 1945 recording of British church-bells ringing for the first time since 1939.
The cover of "Christmas in Italy" featured a family — watched over by nonna — at a laden Christmas table with a panettone the size of a garbage can. The record had Italian versions of "White Christmas" and "Silent Night," as well as an instrumental medley of Neapolitan songs and a lisping child wishing Buon natale a tutti!
Unlike the muscular joy of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" or the happy kitsch of Rudolph, the Italian Christmas music was melancholy and the preferred instrument was bagpipes. In the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon traditions, Christmas is a ray of light and hope in deep winter. In southern Europe, where Easter is the happier and more important Christian holiday, Christmas is heavily infused with portents about Christ's suffering. Today, northern traditions overshadow this important Mediterranean side of Christmas. It's easy to forget that Jesus was from the Middle East and St. Nicholas was from Bari.
When I came to Rome in the 1980s, I became better acquainted with the Mediterranean side of Christmas. I arrived right after Christmas Day, which in the United States is a letdown day that even the forced gaiety of New Year's Eve does little to revive. In Rome, the "Twelve Days of Christmas" were more than a song and the festivities lasted until January 6th, Twelfth Night.
I loved the Roman churches close to Christmas' Mediterranean roots. San Clemente is built on a Roman temple, a reminder that Christianity co-opted Roman buildings just like it co-opted Roman holidays, such as Christmas' precursor, the winter festival of Saturnalia. In the gold mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore or Santa Maria in Trastevere, Christmas is a Byzantine festival celebrated among date palms.
I eventually moved to Milan, where the city's time under Austrian rule obscures the Mediterranean side of Christmas. In Milan, the Christmas season — and its equally important opera season at La Scala — officially starts on Dec. 7, the day of the city's patron St. Ambrose. Ambrose, who was born around 340 A.D, was a Roman Christian and bishop of Milan, who converted and baptized the great theologian St. Augustine.
A few days into my first Christmas season in Milan, I experienced a moment of déjà vu and disorientation when I heard a familiar melody outside my window. It was a group of sheepskin-clad men with the bagpipes playing a song from "Christmas in Italy." These itinerant Sardinian shepherds were once an Italian Christmas tradition — alas now lost.
Christmas returned to eerie familiarity when my children started school. Whether Milan or the Midwest, the school Christmas program is universal — the Three Kings' improvised turbans and robes, the smell of an overheated classroom full of nervous children and adults, the desks pulled together under a red paper tablecloth and paper plates of food.
Of course the crucifix over the teacher's desk would surprise many outside Catholic Italy. Conscientious American parents would disapprove of the Coke within reach of pour-happy preschoolers. They'd get over it. Especially since alcohol — prosecco — is also served at Italian school events.
There might be a few other typically Italian delicacies at the school party — a pyramid of tangerines, dishes of colorfully wrapped torrone and, as ever, a panettone the size of a garbage can.
I'm grown up now and my mother no longer controls my panettone consumption. I can eat as much as I want. I do and I'm still not tired of it.
As for torrone, I'm still not convinced.
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