Holiday tradition, looking back and forward

Posted on December 5, 2015
Holiday decorations in Rome. Photo by Sara White,

The Christmas lights have been going up all around Rome. I first spotted a lone tinsel-draped tree standing defiantly in a shop window in mid-November and thought, huh, that’s oddly early this year, and then the decorations started gaining momentum and spreading steadily through the city until one day it was undeniable. The holidays had arrived.

So here we are: December.

On the first day of the month, embracing one of the few holiday traditions that I actually look forward to, I headed to one of my favourite bakeries and bought a loaf of panettone – a sweet, cake-like bread that appears in grocery stores and bakeries in mountains at the end of November, then disappears completely in early January. It was the first in what will undoubtedly become a series that will supply us with a year’s worth of sugar and butter crammed into a month-long timeframe. It’s excessive – and possibly unhealthy – but it’s my tradition.

I spent years sliding through the holiday season with only the barest nods to tradition. For four years in Victoria, directly out of university and new to the experience of living on my own, and then for the first two years in Rome, I didn’t put up a tree, didn’t decorate, didn’t bake up batch after batch of Christmas cookies the way my mom always did when my sister and I were living at home.

I realize that this sounds… depressing? Miserly? But, somehow, letting the season move by quietly felt liberating rather than sad. Without a tree to put up, there was also no tree to take down. Christmas day itself could be spent with family or friends, or, really, any place that felt remotely festive. Returning home to my blissfully un-seasonal apartment, I could neatly sidestep that gloomy period that tends to descend, unwanted, after the last string of lights has come down in January and the sparkle has worn off of winter.

For the first Christmas that Alessandro and I spent together (my second in Rome), I was very much still in my holiday-skirting, minimalist state of mind. Italy has a myriad of time-honored traditions, some of which align with their North American counterparts, like the lights and trees and gift-giving, and some of which veer quickly into foreign territory. There’s the Cenone della Vigilia, an often massive fish-centred dinner on the 24th, there are the very specific games played after dinner on the 25th and then the lunch, also very specific*, of the 26th. There is the importance of lentils and a particularly repulsive type of sausage on New Year’s Eve, and then, when it finally seems like the holidays have wrapped up, there’s an entirely new holiday – Epifania – on January 6th, involving stockings and candy and coal but also, oddly, a wizened-up old witch flying around on a broomstick.

It felt too daunting to dive into all of these new traditions head first, so I bought a bunch of panettone, stuck a few winter-berry-encrusted decorative branches into a vase and considered my work done.

The next year, as Christmas day crept closer and closer and again, my main acknowledgement of the season was the parade of panettoni and a couple of gift-wrapped boxes semi-hidden in the spare bedroom. Alessandro – placing far more weight on the importance of tradition than I would have imagined – was insistent. We would have a tree. We would prepare the traditional dinners together. We would make the season feel real, even inside the apartment.

It sounded romantic, almost overwhelmingly, sappily so. But as much as I hadn’t embraced holiday traditions over the past several years, I also hadn’t actively pushed them away. We rounded up a tree (borrowed from a friend who was leaving for Christmas, because it is not easy to buy a not-terrible and also not terribly expensive tree so far into December), bought a few boxes of lights and glass baubles from the somewhat eclectic home decor store around the corner from the apartment, and spent an evening bending wiry branches into shape and trying not to swear too much while wrapping lights around the whole thing. It was  enjoyable. It launched me, at least somewhat, into the holiday spirit and propelled me through the cycle of grocery shopping, cooking and eating that forms the backbone of the holidays.

Taking the tree down in early January felt relieving, as it was nice to reclaim a corner of the living room and to stop worrying about tripping over the shoddily-connected, extension-cord-heavy tangle of lights we had constructed. It was also nice, to be honest, to feel those new-to-me traditions receding into the past as life returned to its normal rhythm, a rhythm which didn’t require specific meals made from odd ingredients – an old hen, for example, or a suspicious-looking seasonal sausage that comes pre-cooked, surrounded by a gelatinous substance, in a little plastic bag.

Now, as Christmas inches its way back towards us, I’m navigating the season with a bit more intention. The panettone, obviously, is already on the table. In a few days, we’ll pull the tree and the lights down from the attic (hoping the lights haven’t tangled themselves into unmanageable masses) and, shortly after that, I’ll call the pescheria and the macelleria to reserve the requisite fish and meats (and that loathsome sausage) for the various dinners. I still do not understand, even vaguely, the rules of the Christmas evening games, but at least I am aware of the fact that they exist. Slowly, Italy’s holiday traditions are becoming my holiday traditions.

* Alessandro has informed me that it’s possible that some of these traditions, particularly the food-related ones, are more Roman than generically Italian. He’s not sure. After all, he’s Roman.

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