For Italian mothers, Christmas is the social event of the season—it’s their raison d’être. They clean. They cook. They bake. They orchestrate the day. In essence, Christmas is what Italian women live for. So it was that during junior year college Christmas-break I asked my latest squeeze to join my family for Christmas dinner.
I suppose I should mention that when it comes to the kind of woman that drives Italian mothers crazy, my new girlfriend was the poster-child. She didn’t clean, she didn’t cook and she didn’t bake; however, she was blonde, she dressed to the nines and had a figure that would put a ‘Barbie Doll’ to shame.
Karen and I had only been dating for about a month. She was from an upper-class ‘white bread’ neighborhood on Chicago’s North Shore. She was curious about my background growing up in an Italian household in an ethnic neighborhood on Chicago’s west side; so when I extended the invitation she unhesitatingly said, “Yes.”
It’s also important to understand that I come from an extraordinarily loving family that embraced anyone and everyone I’ve ever brought home with open arms. My parents treated my friends like royalty. However, on this occasion I wasn’t the middle child bringing home a friend; on this occasion I was the eldest single male bringing a “girlfriend” to Christmas dinner—there IS a difference.
Soon after introducing Karen to my extended family, my aunts began grilling her like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. Within minutes they ascertained Karen didn’t clean, didn’t cook and didn’t bake—funny how Italian mothers can glean those things almost instantly. Meanwhile, the men in the family were equally perceptive in assessing Karen’s many fine qualities; and their reaction was epitomized by the enduring words of my uncle Vito who exclaimed, “Holy cow, she’s built like a Barbie Doll!”
For the uninitiated, it’s important to understand that Italian mothers begin preparing for Christmas shortly after Labor Day. There are Crèches to be displayed (we had two) as well as special Christmas music boxes, Christmas tablecloths, Christmas napkins, Christmas doilies, yuletide candles & candleholders, and every form of cherub, angel, Santa, reindeer and snowman known to man; not to mention the petite gift baskets my mother made for everyone who attended the Christmas Day feast—and God bless my mother’s soul, she included Karen too.
Turkey with all the ‘fixins were featured on the Christmas dinner menu. But like many Italian families, we began the feast with antipasto, roasted peppers, black and green olives, salami, prosciutto, provolone and artichokes. This was followed by homemade ravioli, meatballs, Italian sausage and briciole (pounded and rolled flank steak seasoned with parmesan cheese, parsley and a touch of garlic,) all simmering in Mom’s spaghetti gravy, (it’s gravy, not sauce among Italians.)
Our home was a typical west-side Chicago bungalow, which meant that even with extender-leafs the dinning room table couldn’t accommodate everyone; so like many families, we used card tables for the kids. But because of my seniority (oldest male among the cousins) Karen and I made the cut and were seated with the adults—and that’s where the trouble began.
Karen made it through the antipasto without incident. But as the ravioli, meatballs, bricole and sausages were being served, Karen nudged me and asked, “Don’t ‘Eye-talians’ eat turkey or ham on Christmas?” “That comes later” I said, “…and it’s Italian, not Eye-talian.” She nodded acknowledgment. Just about that time my Uncle Bud passed the platter of ravioli to Karen who said she was looking forward to tasting all the ‘ethnic’ foods. Good for Karen I thought, she was a quick study and using the word ‘ethnic’ was certainly better than ‘Eye-talian,’ but my mother wasn’t fooled.
Trouble reared its head when my ‘other’ Uncle Bud (yes, I had two) asked Karen if she had ever tasted homemade ravioli. Desperately wanting to fit in, Karen responded, “No, but I really like Chef Boyardee”…my aunts rolled their eyes as my mother made the sign of the cross. Then, before I could save Karen from further interrogation, my Aunt Donna queried somewhat censoriously, “What does your family have on Christmas dear?” Sensing her answer would be scrutinized, Karen blurted out “Sometimes we have knockwurst.” You could have heard a pin drop.
The silence was broken when my 13-year old cousin Mikey, who was listening from the kids’ table, exclaimed “Knockers?” Suddenly I felt as if everyone at the table was staring at Karen’s bosom—which as it turns out, they were. Fortunately, the remainder of the dinner was relatively uneventful except for Karen’s occasional use of “Eye-talian.”
But Karen was saving the best for last. As we finished dessert and the men sipped anisette and espresso, every female over the age of twelve got up from the table and began clearing dishes and cleaning up the kitchen while Karen lit a cigarette.
Karen and I stopped dating soon afterwards, but what I will remember most about that Christmas were the nurturing words my Mother whispered to me as she quietly pulled me aside later that evening. “You know son; Karen seems like a very nice girl—JUST DON’T MARRY HER!”
Quote of the day: “If Christmas isn’t found in your heart, you won’t find it under a tree.”