Longing to be cast in one of those media-spun saccharine scenarios, I became increasingly aware of the cultural differences that set my reality apart. There were many, but allow me to begin with my family's culinary holiday customs. While there may not have been any creatures stirring in the homes of the genteel families of my envy-fraught musings, there were plenty in our kitchen — all of the aquatic type and destined to be included in the traditional Christmas Eve seven-course seafood dinner.
I remember shrieking upon seeing Dad, his shirt sleeves rolled tight above his elbows, arm-wrestling an eel (a Christmastime delicacy once oven-roasted) as it tried to escape the kitchen sink. There was nothing quaint about my typically gentle father gripping the slippery sea monster with all his might and finally smacking the life out of it.
Indeed the cultural chasm that caused my yuletide dissonance stretched further than our kitchen. Following my lovely mother as she whirled about the house, tackling a series of Christmastime to-do's, I questioned our way of doing things. "How come we don't hang mistletoe under the doorway?" I asked, while Mom gingerly lowered a teeny ceramic figurine of Baby Jesus into the wooden crèche at the base of our tinsel-strewn faux fir.
"Because we're Italian and we don't do that," she replied categorically. "Well then, can we puhleeze hang a wreath on the front door?" "There's only one place for a wreath, as far as our culture is concerned, and that's not on the front door," she said, sparing me any disturbingly morbid details. "Why can't we go caroling house to house before suppertime?" I asked. "Because it's not an Italian custom. Che figura! The neighbours will think we've lost our marbles!" she half-joked.
All I wanted for Christmas was to experience a non-Italian one, and to live out holiday scenes devoid of the ethnic references that made me feel self-conscious; different; foreign, even. As my wistfulness surged, surely surpassing that of Noël crooner Bing Crosby dreaming of a white Christmas, I entertained my own dream: I could see myself wearing a tartan taffeta frock, turning ric-rac edged felt Christmas stockings upside down, letting their delightful contents spill to the broadloom.
Meanwhile, my parents would grow merrier and merrier as they dipped crystal goblets into a punch bowl of brandy-spiked egg nog. I envisioned myself transported by anglo-saxon infused holiday glee, twirling home-strung popcorn garlands round and round a freshly cut evergreen tree, hauled home on the roof of a station-wagon, until I'd get dizzy and fall to the floor in bemused mirth.
I'd write to Santa, instead of penning my name to Christmas letters my father wrote in Italian and sent to my aunts and uncles whom I'd never met, living in a far-away country shaped like a boot. I smiled, imagining the benevolent potbellied gent, travel-lagged and mildly delirious, bursting into a jolly Ho! Ho! Ho! after helping himself to dimpled shortbread cookies instead of Mom's homemade anisflavoured biscotti.
But no matter how vivid my chimera, ethnicity still hung heavily overhead, like the prosciutto curing in our basement; and just as thick to slice.
My breaking point finally came while watching Mom trying to salvage a near-expiration-date (and obviously re-gifted) panettone, thoughtfully provided by la commara Maria, with liberal dustings of vanilla powdered sugar. "Why can't we have a yule log cake instead for dessert? Can't we just be like everybody else?" I demanded in exasperation.
"We are like everybody else," came the inevitable reality-check from my mother. "We're just like the Bernardinis, the Sistis, the Della Russos, the Ferraras..."
Faster than I could say “Buon Natale,” Mom had burst my bubble. Just like that. But it was at that moment of cultural reconciliation that I regretted wanting to be who we were not, and I embraced our traditions for what they were: uniquely Italian.