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.