My grandparents were storytellers. The stories they told all centred around the emotions related to family, to struggle, to laughter and to traditions. There is no better time for storytelling than Christmas.
Over the past two years, I’ve contributed articles to Panoram Italia, an Italian-Canadian magazine, about Italian culture and community. Panoram does fantastic Christmas-themed issues that give me the chance to reflect on Christmases past. Last year I contributed the article “What we used to get for Christmas” which chronicled the gifts that Italians gave at Christmas back in Italy. Oranges, chestnuts, sugar dolls were all recalled with fondness and I am still in awe at the smiles those memories of Christmas gave to all the older Italians I interviewed.
This year, I wrote “Remembering our First Christmases in Canada“, an article that tried to recapture what Christmas in a new land with new traditions felt like for Italian immigrants. For some it was a hardship, spending Christmas without family, for others they were reunited with sisters and brothers. And, as usual, shared food was a key part of the memories.
Here’s an excerpt from the article where I got to share a story from my maternal grandfather:
For immigrants to Canada there are many new experiences and customs that colour the start of their lives in a new country. Christmas in Canada, away from the family, rituals and comfort of home back in Italy, was one of the first notable moments they experienced. Everything was new and unexpected, from the weather to traditions.
My grandfather often told us of his first Christmas in Canada in 1952, which was memorable indeed. While working for the Canadian National Railway, the company provided all the meals for the workers, deducting the cost of the meal from the worker’s pay. He looked forward to the dinner provided by CNR on Christmas Eve, expecting a festive feast that would help celebrate the special day. But on December 24, he was greeted with a plain meal of chicken soup. Disappointed and alone, he went to a grocery store to buy all he could afford: one chocolate bar and one pound of grapes to celebrate.
However, on December 25, he experienced what came as a surprise to most Italians: that Canadians hold their Christmas celebrations on Christmas Day. The railway offered a big celebration meal to all workers and my grandfather came to learn a new tradition.
Most early Italian immigrants count Christmas Eve as one of their more distinct memories of the new life ahead of them. Maria Tuccitto, originally from Sicily, immigrated to Canada in 1953. Besides it being her first arrival to Canada, it was the first time she met her husband Antonio, who she had married by proxy. Her first Christmas in Canada, spent in Toronto, she recalls as a joyous one, full of family and good food. “My sister was already here in Canada, so I spent Christmas Eve with her, cooking a big meal,” says Maria. This included traditional foods like lolli (a short homemade pasta, much like gnocchi) in meat and in vegetable sauces, pizza piena (a type of stuffed pizza dough pie) and biscotti.
“In Italy, we barely had bread to eat on Christmas,” says Maria, so the plentiful Canadian Christmas is memorable and to this day she still makes the same traditional meal for her children and grandchildren….
Read more at Panoram Italia.
(Photo credit: Phil Notarianni and Family, Christmas Dinner (1985. George Janecek). The photo used above is from the University of Utah “Working Together” Exhibit. See more great photos here.)