Today Pamela Schoenewaldt, author of the upcoming historical fiction debut When We Were Strangers, stops by Book Club Girl's Holiday Open House! When We Were Strangers is set in Italy and America, and Pamela shares some of her favorite holiday traditions below, like panettone in Italy and her international Christmas dinner in Knoxville, TN. Read on!
Three Kinds of Christmas
I was five and on probation for the honor of passing our grand tray of Christmas breads and cookies. I was to speak when spoken to, not drop anything, no sampling or touching the sweets and serve the oldest woman first. That Christmas featured my aunt’s mother and aunt, both equally ancient, hunched and tiny, one actually named Minnie. I reached the living room and froze. How to gauge relative decrepitude? “Who’s oldest?” I whispered in panic to my father. All chatter ceased. “Pick the closest,” he mouthed. But I was in dead center of a staring circle, helpless until my mother leaned in and bumped me towards Great Aunt Minnie. Christmas can be an anxious time.
Like most parents, mine expressed unbounded joy for my gifts: potholders, decorated rocks, a gaudy cent candy dish, a construction paper book of badly spelled verse titled “My Pomes.” When I married and moved to Italy, Maurizio’s father was unfailingly generous at Christmas, but detested reciprocity: “I don’t need another sweater!” he’d declare. Accustomed to the drill, Maurizio was unfazed, but for years I struggled to impress, only to have my carefully considered whatevers swept off the table, literally: “Who needs this? You wasted your money. ” Until one year I had an illumination. “You won’t throw this on the floor,” I announced. Poised for tossing, Cesare unwrapped two liters of high grade motor oil. “Finally,” he crowed, “my American daughter-in-law gives me something useful.”
Like fruit cake here, panettone, the golden raisin-studded sweet bread, is given at Christmas in Italy. While far better than fruitcake, the quantities bought, eaten, gifted and regifted are truly industrial. Kitchens swell with panettone boxes, each as big as your head. Bring one when you go calling, gorge together, but as you leave someone pushes two in your arms “for later.” By Epiphany, there’s some diminution in the panettone exchange . . . until they go on Buy One, Take Two (or three) sale and the gifting cycles rev again. Because Maurizio loves torrone and his mother’s friend Luisa adored him, each Christmas she brought over a veritable boulder of torrone, white and hard as marble, embedded with pistachios and 10-carat chocolate chunks. Every meal was fabulous at my mother-in-law’s house: tender homemade pasta, roast lamb, stuffed calamari, fish poached in wine, golden rice balls, and garlic-stuffed artichokes. After salad, cheeses, panettone (of course) and nuts came the eternal torrone to be smashed at the table with hammer and chisel, spraying shards of sweet across the kitchen.
One year we went to a mountain village in Le Marche (central Italy) to see a “living presepe” (Nativity Scene). Townspeople sported a stylish blend of Renaissance and ersatz biblical costumes. A chatty leper ringing a bell took tickets. There was a sandal maker, shepherds, costumed children playing tag, faux Roman centurions, a tax collector (lots of jokes there), baker, torrone merchant (of course), silversmith, innkeeper, weaver and carpenter. We stood in line for La Sacra Famiglia and finally filed past weary Mary and Joseph trying to pacify the Christ child on duty, a toddler gnawing a turkey drumstick and banging the manger with a toy train he adamantly refused to relinquish. The centurion shrugged. “There weren’t a lot of babies this year. We took what we could get.”
Now that we live in Knoxville and have (go figure) the most international circle of friends we’ve ever enjoyed, we’re making our own tradition: an annual “Think Globally, Celebrate Locally Christmas Pot-luck.” It’s often on Christmas Day afternoon, when surprising numbers of people have nothing to do. Guests bring food from their “culture, country or county of origin.” With representation from Germany, Italy, England, Rumania, Russia, Sweden, Spain, Belgium, Burundi, China, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, India and various regions of the USA, the table is spectacular. Assorted children squiggle around and by evening a few souls fortify themselves with spirits for a dash through the cold to our hot tub. As one says here in this country of Tennessee, ya’ll come visit.
Pamela Schoenewaldt's When We Were Strangers goes on sale 1/25. Find out more about Pamela on her website, and be sure to check out her blog.