GriefSPEAK: Tradition offers us safety, warmth, a sense of place – Mari Nardolillo Dias

By: Mari Nardolillo Dias 

“The Italian word for Christmas comes from the Latin for “day of birth” 

It’s that special time of year! Christmas Eve has always held a great deal of excitement for our family. As children, we always celebrated at Nanny and Papa’s, which was upstairs in the funeral home.

Nanny was Irish but learned to cook like an Italian to please her husband from Prata, Italy. She made the best stuffed squid imaginable. She rolled the squid around the stuffing, added a toothpick, and baked until they were golden brown.

It was also Nanny’s birthday, so the 9 grandchildren sang and blew out the candles for her. When we were a bit older, but still believed in Santa, we explored the private “basement”, Papa’s area that contained his tool bench where he made grandfather clocks. Imagine our shock when we snuck into the basement and saw a room full of toys, games, and bicycles for nine children! The discovery was bittersweet, a treasure trove, and a disappointment.

It was true. We heard it from our classmate that there was no Santa Claus. But we knew there was a Saint Nick. Christmas is always a religious holiday. As a child I thought Christmas time in our small New England town of Cranston was unique, given the presence of police directing traffic at the fish market! (and the liquor store), much like the Pats playing a home game at Foxboro. Everyone we knew had the same tradition. Each home had a Nativity set, one more elaborate than another. The youngest child of the family places the baby Jesus in his manger at midnight. As an adult I know we are special, although there are pockets of us throughout the country. Us being Italians…

The traffic at the fish store stems from our Vigilia, the feast of the seven fishes. Italians line up in droves to pick up their orders of smelts, eel, Baccala, calamari, and squid. We always add a pasta with clams, and baked, stuffed shrimp to meet the required 7.  I have decades of memories of this 7-course meal, always accompanied by homemade wine, grappa, and limoncello. Auntie Pina’s Wandies are a staple as well, with the little ones covered in powdered sugar from head to foot. At this point most unbutton their pants as they could no longer accommodate full bellies. The last step before opening the gifts is espresso with a side of biscotti and a tray of every conceivable kind of Italian homemade cookies.  

As I write this, I can still see Nanny standing over the open oven. She would slyly pass a box or two of Ferrara Torrones to each of us. We would all rush off to the living room to avoid our parents’ eyes and then compare how many boxes Nanny had given us. We made up games with the boxes and built towers. In my mind’s eye it was the food and family that was far more important than the gifts. (Although I did love to use the fireplace hearth as a stage and demand everyone’s attention as I performed).  

I have passed down these traditions to my children who, as adults, do the same. There is a sense of place, safety, and warmth in traditions. Saturday evening, we will celebrate with Vigilia, my youngest will place Baby Jesus in the manger at midnight, and the lights will remain on overnight and throughout Christmas Day.

I leave you now to stand in line at the fish market. Buon Natale!