Lessons from Strega Nona

When my kids were growing up I would collect a new Christmas book each year. Sometimes I bought one myself, but we often received one as a gift from others. Merry Christmas, Strega Nona was one that my daughter received from her first grade teacher, and it immediately became a family favorite. 

I could relate so well to Strega Nona. Like her, I was very interested in using herbs and foods as medicine. And, like Strega Nona, I tended to be a control freak. I must admit that in Christmases past, I often became just as irritable and exacerbated as Strega Nona was because I, too, tried to make everything myself—and do it all perfectly.

This story resonates with me still and reminds me that I don’t need to drive myself crazy creating the perfect Christmas—and neither do you. In fact, my favorite childhood memories from Christmas are the simple ones. I can picture the beautifully wrapped presents under our tree. We had a bow-making tool that was a plastic spool with pegs around it. We placed a tiny, clear, plastic, spike-like thing (I don’t have any idea what it was called) into the center of the spool to start each bow. We pressed the end of the ribbon onto the spike and started wrapping the ribbon around each peg, around and around until a perfectly beautiful bow was created. 

My mother would lock her room as she sewed Christmas gifts for us. We always knew she was making clothes and pajamas, but we never knew what they would look like. She would fold them carefully, line a box (used over and over each year) with tissue paper, and place them carefully inside. The lid would be taped securely so we couldn’t peak, and then she’d hand them over to us to wrap. Finally, my mom would fill in the To: and From: on the tag, and that’s how most packages appeared under our tree. It seems that there was a new box every day, and the excitement grew with each present.

In the meantime, my mom was also busy making tons of Christmas candy and cookies both for our own enjoyment and as gifts for their friends and business associates. Her specialties were divinity, peanut brittle, Martha Washington’s, and peanut patties, but she often experimented with new recipes. Cookies included peanut butter and chocolate pinwheels, snow mounds, icebox cookies, and always something new and different. We artistically arranged these goodies on platters and wrapped them with cellophane. 

Traditionally our family opened presents on Christmas Eve, and we could hardly wait! We didn’t mind ripping open the presents we had so painstakingly wrapped (but we did save many of the bows). The next morning, we had to stay in our rooms until our parents said it was okay to come out. We would run to the tree to see what Santa had dropped off. It was almost always a new game, but sometimes a doll for me or a wood-burning kit for my brother. I still remember spending hours playing with Spirograph, Operation, Mouse Trap, Twister, Clue, and other fun games the names of which I don’t recall. Many were great for artistic and fine motor skill development (one game required you to draw and do other tasks while looking only in a mirror). Others were actually quite toxic, but we didn’t know any better. Anyone remember making Creepy Crawlers or plastic toy cars with Vac-U-Form? Yikes! 

Our stockings were brimming with goodies, which always included some type of peppermint stick, a tangerine, and mixed nuts in the shell. These were considered special treats, and we would have been very disappointed if they’d been left out. Honestly, I don’t even remember the other gifts, although I’m sure we were thrilled by the surprises inside. However, we were equally happy to find what we anticipated each year. It was a lovely balance between the expected and unexpected.

Well, getting back to Strega Nona and my own kids, we also learned a little bit about other cultures by reading her Christmas story. The little village in Calabria, Italy where the story is set looks so beautiful, even in the simple illustrations. We dreamed of going there, and although we haven’t been to that part of Italy, we have visited other parts of that amazing country. It seems that people in Europe really take time to prepare wonderful foods from scratch and enjoy long dinners filled with laughter and conversation. We could all use more of that!

We also learned about the tradition of eating baccalà for Christmas Eve dinner, which according to a friend from Portugal, is also a tradition there. One Christmas I bought the salted cod used for this dish, but I just didn’t plan on the time required to soak and cook it, so I gave it to my Portuguese friend to prepare for her family, and she was very grateful for it. I guess we’re just too American and prefer the quick and easy recipes we’re used to. That’s okay though, I still enjoy having cod for Christmas Eve or just about any night, but I make fresh cod cooked with tomatoes, onion, and garlic. See the recipe here.

What Christmas traditions or special moments do you remember from your childhood? Did you create (or are you creating) memories with your own family? Just remember to keep a balance. Don’t try to do so much that you become irritable to those around you. Your family will appreciate the simple traditions just as much as the complicated ones. There’s comfort in knowing what to expect each year, while also anticipating just a few surprises.

Copyright © by Bobbi Mullins

Merry Christmas or  Buon Natale!