This is a reprint of a commentary I wrote years ago in the Vail Daily, and every word is true!
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; but she was blonde, she smoked and wore sheath dresses that looked more like body stockings.
Karen and I had 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 ethnic neighborhood on Chicago’s west side, so when I extended the invitation she unhesitatingly said, “Yes.” It’s important to understand that I come from an extraordinarily loving family. My family embraced with open arms everyone I ever brought home and treated my friends like royalty. However, on this occasion I wasn’t just a family member with a friend; rather 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 wasn’t necessarily the domestic sort—funny how Italian women are able to glean those things. Meanwhile, the men in the family were also interested in Karen, and their combined reaction to her were epitomized by the enduring words of my uncle Vito, who exclaimed, “Butch, she looks 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 bless my mother’s soul, she included Karen too.
Turkey with all the ‘fixins were featured on the Christmas dinner menu. But like most Italian families, we began 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.)
We lived in a modest West Side bungalow, which meant that even with extender-leafs the dinning room table couldn’t accommodate everyone; so like many families, we joined two card tables and designated it the kids’ table. But because of my seniority (oldest male among the cousins) Karen and I made the cut and were seated at the ‘adult table’—and that’s when the trouble began.
Karen made it through the antipasto without incident. But as the meat dishes were being served, Karen nudged me and asked, “Don’t ‘Eye-talians’ eat turkey or ham on Christmas?” “That comes later” I replied, “…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, while 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—they were. Fortunately, the remainder of the dinner was uneventful except for Karen’s occasional use of “Eye-talian.” But Karen saved the best for last. As we finished dessert and the men sipped anisette & espresso, every female over the age of twelve rose from the table and began clearing dishes—Karen lit a cigarette.
Karen and I stopped dating shortly 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.”—Unknown