Holiday Feature


Buon Natale! Christmas Eve Italian Style

by Kate Heyhoe


There is perhaps no better place to spend Christmas than in Italy.

My fondest recollections of Christmas in Italy lie in a tiny village known as Longa di Schiavon. About an hour's drive inland from Venice, Longa typifies the rural enclaves scattered throughout the Italian countryside: simple, family-oriented and full of rosy-cheeked children, hard-working women and ruddy-faced men.

To Longa's North, the Alpine foothills of the Dolomites stand strong, always snow-covered for Christmas. A cypress-lined road heads eastward out of town, ending at the canals of Venice. To the West, the road continues, passing through the Palladian palaces of Vicenza and ultimately on to the big-city bustle of Milano. It has been said that all roads lead to Rome, but in Italy, it is even more true that all roads lead to Longa—or to a village of its same elements somewhere in the countryside.

The village is as basic as you can get, having all the essentials but no more than that: a general store, a combination tabaccheria and food market, a simple but excellent trattoria (specializing in fish of the Veneto's shores) and, of course, a church. It has been many years since I lived there, but at that time, on every Christmas Eve, Longa's children would come caroling. We would bring them in from the snow to hear their glassine-like voices sing Adeste Fideles in its original Latin. Later, we ourselves would bundle up and walk to the tiny church in the village center. Bearing none of the glamorous or extravagant images of the Vatican, this single-spired, plaster-walled church, with its few stained-glass windows and simple wooden pews, had its own sense of reserved dignity, as did everything about the town of Longa.

At the peak of the service, the priest's special gift to the community made its entrance. A golden winged, white robed angel with shimmering tinsel halo descended slowly from the rear ceiling corner to the front of the altar, gliding down on a taughtly-pulled wire. No special effect in Hollywood could match the joy this simple trick brought to the parishioners and especially to the children, whose wide eyes would follow the angel every inch of its descent. To this day, my mind sees this same angel on Christmas Eve and hears the village choir celebrating its flight across the pews.

After mass, if it was the early service, or before if it was Midnight mass, we would serve the Christmas feast. Why is Italian food one of the most popular and satisfying of all world cuisines? Because like Longa, it consists of simplicity and the basic essentials. The Italian tradition pays homage to the integrity of the ingredients, avoiding the distractions of complicated processes or the confusion of competing flavors—which is one reason why most Italian recipes rarely have more than a handful of ingredients. But it is the perfection of nature's ingredients that make their dishes so special. You can, of course, find elaborate, time-consuming Italian concoctions that are as awe-inspiring as they are delicious, but then, culinarily speaking, you would have left the simplicity of Longa for the road to high-tech urban Milano, or gone south to the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican.

Recently, a few books have come out celebrating the traditional foods of Italy (a perennial favorite cookbook topic). "In Italy, laws are written to protect food artisans and their traditions," writes Pamela Sheldon Johns in Parmigiano! Both her book and Peggy Knickerbocker's Olive Oil, From Tree to Table envelop us with the background, history and details of these two most quintessential native Italian products. David Ruggerio's Little Italy Cookbook rejoices in that unique island of Italian-American culture, a place which he calls a state of mind and one whose recipes emerge from their own natural environment as much as those of Longa's families do.

To make an Italian Christmas Dinner, we selected a few dishes from each book for you to try, with the traditions of the Old World mingling with those of the New. Mix and match them to suit your own menu, or if you have a large family gathering, make all of the recipes here. Whether you are Italian or not, food is love, and simple dishes of the finest ingredients make a warm and loving holiday gift to share with anyone. As we say in Italia...

Buon Natale!


Buon Natale: Christmas Eve Italian Style

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Copyright © 1997, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.

This page created 1997 and modified November 2006.