On the second day of Christmas…

26 Dec

Or as they say in Ireland – Happy Boxing Day! Or even more appropriately, as I have been reminded, Happy St. Stephen’s Day!

I grew up in an Irish/Italian Catholic household.  That means we celebrated all the holidays, fully and to completion.  St. Nicholas Day?  Shoes were out.  St. Patrick’s Day?  We were never ever to wear red or else get a lecture from my Irish grandmother, and my usually very neat mother would sprinkle glitter through the front hall to show the leprechauns had visited.  St. Joseph’s Day?  We got our cannolis and a big pot of pasta on.

Needless to say, Christmas was a big huge freaking deal.  My grandfather had Santa’s phone number (for real!) and was even in the story “T’was the Night Before Christmas” (“You know that part where he turned with a jerk?” he said, “Well, I’m the jerk!” – and we’d laugh while my mom said “Dad!”.)

But Christmas didn’t end at December 26th.  Not in our family.  The season was just in full swing.  There was New Year’s Eve – which required glasses of ginger ale –  New Year’s Day, which was another big meal preparation, my brother’s birthday, and then on January 6th, to close out the Christmas season, an Epiphany Dinner at my grandmother’s house, which was usually pasta or lasagna (not homemade – my Irish grandmother was wonderful in a thousand ways, but her lack of cooking skills was a bit legendary.  And Sara Lee makes a lovely lasagna.)  We were all about the full 12 days of Christmas.

And then, after that, we would take down the Christmas decorations, put away the Nativity set, and go back to every day life.

As a child, I didn’t realize that everyone else didn’t do this.  I thought it was normal.  Christmas didn’t end until dinner at Grandma’s.  Bit by bit I realized that not everyone celebrated St. Nicholas Day, and not everyone knew about the Epiphany.  After a while, it just seemed like something only my family did.

Then, last year, we went to Rome after Christmas, thanks to cheap flights on Ryan Air and the knowledge of renting a holiday home versus staying at a hotel (so much cheaper, and you can cook your own meals if you want.)  We got to Rome on December 30th, enjoyed New Year’s fireworks, too much gelato, hit all the major historical sites, wandered down all the side streets, got herded through the Vatican museum, visited the Epiphany markets and all the other things you do there.  Our last day there was a Sunday, the Feast of the Epiphany.

We tried going to mass at the Vatican, only to find that it was a special day where you needed a ticket.  So we found another church a block down the road from the Vatican, went to mass, then went to the café across the street for lattes and Sprites.  There we noticed people lining up and down the street.  We wondered what was going on, and having no other plans, decided to wait as well.

Turns out Rome puts on a big parade for the Epiphany, full of people in medieval garb and flag throwers.  One flag got caught in a power line, and another flag thrower was able to knock it out with his flag, with much applause from the crowd.

At the end, there were three limos – one white, one black, one pink – each containing a woman dressed like an old woman with a broom, as people passed out flags with “Viva La Befana!” – and at that moment, it hit me, and I started explaining to my family excitedly how I knew this, how she was the one filling stockings with candy or coal in Italian culture, and how my grandfather had bought my grandmother and mother “kitchen witches” to hang up – it was all La Befana!

It was a moment of recognizing my roots, a bit of my grandfather, who was raised to be an American by his Italian immigrant parents, but never forgot his own roots.  It all made sense, why we always celebrated the Epiphany, why it was always an Italian meal, why the markets in Rome were selling kitchen witches – they weren’t, they were selling La Befana figures.

It’s funny, I can still vaguely remember that day when my grandfather bringing one over for our house.  I didn’t understand then why he was excited by this ugly witch doll on a broom.  But on that bright sunny afternoon in Rome, I got it. I got all of it.

So when you come over to my house and wonder why it’s already January and my Christmas stuff is still up, this is why.  The Christmas season doesn’t end on December 26th for us.

And if you come over in February and my tree is still up, then I’m having a year.  Be nice, hand me a glass of wine, and offer to get the boxes out for me to help.  Or just say “Gee, great tree!” and leave it at that.  Either works.

La Befana

La Befana


The market in the Piazza Navona, where I discovered that a warm doughnut slathered in Nutella is truly a gift from the heavens


8 Responses to “On the second day of Christmas…”

  1. Jessica December 26, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    Who won the nerf-war?

    • phoebz4 December 26, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

      No one – we didn’t get to it – got too into watching Doctor Who, lol!

      But there’s always tonight…

      • Jessica December 26, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

        There are 5 days left of the year 🙂

  2. donofalltrades December 26, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    I was always shocked when a school pal didn’t get anything for St. Nicholas Day. I come from an Italian family too, so I’m totally jealous that you were in Italy.

    • phoebz4 December 26, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

      Italy was one of my “have to” places to go. It was on my list right after Ireland. The problem is, now I just want to see more of Italy…

  3. saracvt December 26, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    Although I grew almost as far north as you could get in the US, being only 20 miles shy of Canada, my mother was born in Selma, Alabama, and until she met and married my dad, she lived there, so I got hit with Southern culture. (She got offered a house and a set of dishes not to marry “the Yank”; to this day my father is not referred to by his name but as “Lily Mae Green’s great-granddaughter’s Yank-eeee [lilt] husband.” Honest to God.)

    Anyway, this meant that I was the only kid in the whole damn state who apparently knew that pickled peaches were NOT gross (they’re a different brine–yes, there are different brines; Southerners pickle EVERYTHING), ate them routinely with pork, and didn’t recoil at the mere idea of them.

    At New Year’s, you always had Hoppin’ John, a dish of stewed black-eyed peas, ham, onions, and various spices served over rice. The beans were thought to resemble coins and bring you wealth in the new year, and you used red pepper flakes to make your life good and spicy.

    I was probably the only Washingtonian girl who regularly broke into a Southern accent–even after all those years up north, my mama never quite lost hers, and they’re contagious. Even today, I start talking Bama after about two weeks.

    Oh well.

  4. Owls and Orchids December 26, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    Thank you Phoebe. You brought back so many memories ,smiles and laughter.
    Enjoy the rest of your Christmas celebrations. Beautiful post Susan x

  5. Maggie Longshore December 30, 2013 at 6:10 pm #

    I think this is so much a Catholic thing. I am mostly Irish and was brought up Catholic in DC. We did not get our tree up until Christmas Eve. We did not put decorations out in Advent except for the Advent Wreath and candles. We did not put the wise men in the stable until Epiphany. They would get closer throughout the 12 days of Christmas.

    I was in a large choir and our week between Christmas and New Years was full of concerts and parties.

    On Epiphany sometimes we would go to a party where there was a cake with three beans or rings baked into it. The kids who got those got to be one of the 3 kings.

    When I got older I met someone whose daughter’s birthday was December 30th and was very surprised they took their tree down before her birthday. That seemed un-Christian to me.

    In my neighborhood if your tree was not up on Epiphany you were suspect..

    I am no longer a practicing Catholic and I put my tree up during Advent. I still leave it up through Epiphany. If we don’t take it down then I will stop turning the tree lights on until I can get it put away.

    I really do not like going to company Christmas parties the first week of December and exchange and open gifts before Christmas – it just feels wrong to me, but I realize that most people have different traditions and accept that.

    Technically in our homeowner covenants our outdoor lights should not be up more than 30 days, but we’ve never had anyone complain if I keep them up until Epiphany. I know that clause is just to handle someone who wants to leave there Christmas lights on all year.

    I think I may need to try pickled peaches – we never encountered them when we lived in NC or TN.

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