Ask any older Italian of their young Christmases and the memories bring a smile to their face, though many were filled with poverty. “There would be torrone, nuts, chestnuts, dried figs on the table for everyone to share, but it’s not like it was rich times. At that time, we were poor,” Manduca’s 71-year-old wife Concetta confides. Gifts were few and simple.
“The first gift I remember getting is a little box, with two dried figs inside and two chestnuts,” says Marianna Paneduro, 88, who immigrated from Sicily. “For us, the most important part of Christmas were traditions like making cuccidati (Sicilian fig cookies) and sfinci (fried dough with sugar). On the Epiphany, though, my godmother would give me a doll made out of coloured sugar.”
For most, gifts were expected on the Epiphany when children left out their socks for La Befana to fill. “We would put socks on the handle of the wood stove because the Befana would come down the chimney.” says Manduca. “It would have some nuts and torrone, and if we were good, chestnuts and a little candy. There was charcoal in the socks if you were bad.”
“What we’d do is hang our socks outside our windows. Just our plain old, every days socks. Hilarious,” says Jerry Buccilli who immigrated to Canada when he was seven in 1975. “I remember vividly one time when I found a small rubber ball, a windup toy mouse, a chocolate and a small amount of chestnuts which my mother later roasted.”
Nunizo Tumino, 84, recalls receiving fruits and nuts for the holidays and rare special gifts too. “My uncle was an arch priest. He would give us a ‘colombella’ for the Epiphany, a five lira coin with a dove design on it. But we were only allowed to keep it for a few days and then we had to give it to our mother to buy something worthwhile.” His wife Maria, 82, remembers holidays in Calabria as many others do – there were neither gifts nor charcoal. The season was special because of all of the sweets they would bake and the mandarin oranges and nuts that were plentiful.
Once in Canada, Italian immigrants looked for similar treats to give during the holidays, which were affordable and kept with tradition. “In Canada, we put the same things if we could find them here, like chocolates, dried figs and torrone.” says Manduca. “When we started to make more money, when the children were 13 or 14, we could give them $10 or $15 or toys and pyjamas.”
Tumino founded a small market in Etobicoke, Ontario, and imported chestnuts as a perennial favourite. Torrone, torroncini, panettoncini, and Perugina Baci were also bought up quickly during the season.
“There is still a very high demand for panettone, torrone, Baci, dried figs, walnuts, and almonds from the older generation, although a little less from their children,” says Liana Tumino, 47, of the family business. “The older Italians still maintain a tradition of buying not only for themselves but also for the rest of their family during the holidays.” As families grew in Canada, gifts changed and traditions waned. Italian-Canadians recall their earlier Christmases not for the gifts, but for the sense of family.
“My earliest memories are family and extended families getting together for Christmas Eve and the traditional fish dinner,” says Liana Tumino. “But the big family gatherings are not being done any longer. Now it is a more private immediate family affair; before it was extended to family and friends too.”
Celebrating La Befana and the real meaning behind the holidays is missing, says Jerry Buccilli. “Also, it used to be that everyone cooked something or baked something, but more and more younger kids aren’t carrying on with those traditions. My own personal philosophy is to uphold those traditions. It’s getting harder to do that but I think there are enough of us who believe in the same principles as I do. I’m all for a revival of ‘the old ways.’”