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  • 10 Tips for Surviving an Italian Christmas
    Italian families can bring on the stress, especially during the holidays, but you can still have fun. Find out how
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Italian families are very close. Italians feel so comfortable with their loved ones – even extended family members, such as cousins or old family friends who pose as aunts and uncles – that they say and do whatever is on their mind regardless of who they might offend. In fact, I've often noted that my own Italian family has made an art form of arguing. And we can argue over anything. You name it, we've argued about it.

    "You took Nonna's blanket from the Old World."
    "I did not."
    "Yes, you did. I can see it in your drawer."
    "Pazzo! You don't know what you see."

    "Your wine is not better than mine. You use chemicals. Mine is pure."
    "I do not. You take that back."
    "I will not. Vino veritas!"

    "You made your share of the tomatoes and bread bigger and better than mine. Give me yours."
    "I did not. You can't have mine." (Followed by taking a large bite of it to render the sandwich exclusively hers.)

    I think you get the idea. These outbursts (by the adults, mind you) make for a colorful – yet stressful – holiday. It's enough to blow your mind. To keep the fireworks at a minimum, here are 10 ways to keep the famiglia contenta:

    10. Have enough food on hand to feed an army. Most Italian families, if not the size of an army themselves, can eat as much as an army. The more they eat, the less they talk. If they like the food, all the better. Then, they will be stuffed, satisfied, and are more likely to discuss the divine cooking and what was in each recipe after the meal is complete. Any talk that chews up time – time that could be spent arguing – is a good thing. Plus, have you ever met a hungry Italian? He or she will rip your head off and serve it on the finest of platters.

    9. Let the vino flow. Most Italians are happy drunks, and they can tolerate their alcohol. Give them an aperitif, wine with dinner, and an after-dinner drink, such as limoncello. A final shot of Sambuca in their espresso, and you should have yourself a merry little Christmas. Of course, be responsible. Take everyone's keys. And make sure Zia Rosa, who hasn't ever even smelled wine, drives everyone else home. She might pretend to start a little argument about always having to be the responsible one, but she will forgive you all in no time because she secretly likes the job title of martyr.

    8. Keep them distracted and entertained. When the food is finished, have them play Italian cards or Tombola. Remember that you have to be very careful. Sure, these games can be fun, but they can also bring out the competitive nature of your relatives. My Nonno Giovanni constantly threw cards under the table, even when he was playing with us kids. Adults who played with him would erupt with accusations of cheating that he would deny even when presented with the evidence. Suddenly, there would be one more person with whom he wasn't speaking (at least for that day). If you're playing Tombola and Bisnonno Franco, who is around 900 years old, starts shouting diciasette even though you shouted venti, go with it. Change it to diciasette. Let the man win. You'll be grateful later.

    7. Know who to keep off the guest list. Let's face it. Every Italian family has that one zia who knows everyone's business and starts fights with everyone sooner or later. She claims to be a peaceful person, but she is really the troublemaker. Whenever she comes around, there is some sort of wild scene. People are humiliated with some sort of scandal she has uncovered or some sort of wrongdoing she has hoisted upon them. All the onlookers will be wearing red underwear to the next event to ward off the malocchio or evil eye, in hopes that they won't be her next victim. Instead of putting your other guests through that, just keep the malocchio out of the party from the start. Wear red underwear all the same. Better safe than sorry. After all, you never know who in the family is looking to replace that zia.

    6. Offer parting gifts. Italians love their swag. A good bomboniere – something pretty they can display in their china closet, something they can eat, or something useful they can use in the kitchen – puts a smile on their face. The best part about the bomboniere is that you usually give it to them as they are walking out the door, so it encourages everyone to leave. Be sure to wrap it up nicely, so they see it and can't wait to find out what's inside. Then, they'll really leave fast.

    5. Never allow two guests to bring the same dish to the party. I once had all my cousins bring a homemade apple pie to a fall get together. My uncles ended up being taste testers and judging which was best. Needless to say, one of the pies ended up on the floor, and there were many accusations of the contest being fixed. Someone even suggested that Zio Tonino was bribed. As a result, I now ask everyone to tell me what dish they will bring, and they will bring something because you can't possibly make everything as good as they can. Bet you didn't know that. No two guests can bring the same dish. It's a rule I live by now for my safety and the safety of others, not to mention the safety of pies everywhere.

    4. Have them sing Italy's No. 1 Christmas carol, "Tu Scendi dalle Stelle." You can't sing and argue at the same time. Believe me, my family has tried.

    3. Discuss politics. I know this one sounds crazy. But most Italians get really passionate and intellectual when politics come up. Mention Silvio Berlusconi and everyone has an opinion. They don't take politics personally like most Americans do. Rather than fighting, your guests will debate and avoid more personal topics, such as whose garden is more verdant or why Zio Francesco married the butcher's daughter, who turned out to be having an affair with your cousin. Anything is better than those subjects. Trust me.

    2. Prepare the outsiders. Perhaps, you have invited a friend, or your spouse is still new to the family. You must warn these people about what they are about to witness. Help them get along with the family. Share your secrets. Someone outside the family, for example, might not know that asking Nonno Nunzio why he left Italy will set him off on an hour-long tirade against Benito Mussolini. They might be unaware of the dangers of allowing little Renato too much pasta e fagioli. Bring them into the light to save the party, even if they may no longer want to come.

    1. Never ever bring up Italian property. Nothing starts a family feud better than a discussion about property in Italy. Every Italian family I know from the beginning of time has some sort of property in Italy. Granted, this property might be an abandoned shack with no plumbing and wild dogs living inside it. No matter. If it once belonged to your great great great great grandmother's third cousin and you now have some right over it - even if you share this right with 10 of your other relatives, a family cat, and the local government – you will have an argument about it. Don't bring it up. Forget all about it. It will just bring you heartache and tears. If you want a merry Christmas, then let crazy Zio Guido move into the shack with the dogs if that's what he wants. And you stay out of it. Buone feste!

    Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012), which is available on, and you can follow her life and work at the Two Worlds Web site.

    Article Published 11/19/2012


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