March 19 is the saint feast, or name, day for St. Joseph (San Giuseppe in Italian) and it is father’s day (festa del papa) in Italy. Giuseppe, shortened to Peppino, Pino, Pina, Giusy (a modern variation) can also be a female name, as Giuseppina. Celebrating St. Joseph as Mary’s husband is marked on May 1.
Italy is a Catholic country and in Rome, within hearing distance of the Vatican, Catholicism is a part of daily life. Every day, at certain times of the day, the bells toll from all the churches, not just to mark services, but also to set their time.
It seems like there is a special pastry and/or food that one should eat for everything. For St. Joseph’s day, it’s a beignet filled with pastry cream. It is called “bigne di san giuseppe” or “zeppole.” There are many recipes online, but basically it’s a choux pastry (baked up like a white sauce to create rise instead of using a raising agent) which is then injected with pastry cream.
In pagan times, this is the day that marked the end of winter, so bonfires were set ablaze to clear away the old wheat fields. Maybe they started frying dough on these fires?
A Danish Christmas (or yule) is celebrated on December 24 in the evening (like the Peruvians). While there are many different family traditions, the evening will be something like as this…
It will be dark as the sun may have set around four in the afternoon. There may be a light layer of slush or sleet on the trees, glinting in the streetlamps. If you are lucky, there will be snow providing a soft sparkle to the night. As you make your way to the family celebration, you will walk the decorated streets, festooned with garlands of lights, candles flickering on window sills, and the smell of onions frying.
When you get to your destination, all dressed in red or green, you will be hugged and kissed by your hosts. Warmth will greet you as you enter the home. The windows and doors may be decorated with paper cut outs of Christmas elves, some of these may be less Disney and more Dickens in style and may, every year, be carefully preserved in tissue paper, to once again every year, get taped to the walls to tell their stories of tricks or goose chasing. The elves can be in sets of activities, some doing winter sports, or playing in a band, or cooking. Some are hand-made and others are bought every year and carefully cut out. The tree will be decorated with heirloom decorations (perhaps a small decorated bottle cap star that grandma made when she was but a wee thing) and tinsel. Some people even keep up the old tradition of live candles on the tree.
(The Danes, most of whom are Lutheran, may go to a Christmas church service. This, for some, is the only time of the year that they will go to church. Otherwise, the churches are used mostly for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals.) Christmas music will be playing everywhere and even the non-religious will still get into the Christmas spirit.
Perhaps you will be offered mulled wine, adding a smell of warm wine, spices, and raisins to the air. The dinner will include roast duck or pork roast with crackling (goose in old times, and in modern times, turkey). The meal includes small caramelized potatoes, chestnut colored and slightly sweet. There will be brown gravy, boiled potatoes, warm red cabbage, stuffing made of cooked apples and prunes, and there will be lots of everything. For Christmas dessert, the Danes eat rice pudding. It’s a rice, cream, and chopped almond dessert served with cooked cherry sauce (or strawberry — something to evoke the red and white colors of Denmark). The special thing about dessert is that the rice pudding is actually a game — one of the almonds is left intact and whoever finds it without chewing it, wins the “almond gift.” Many grandparents make special bowls for the grandchildren (usually for those under 15) who will then miraculously find an almond in their portion! In the old days, the prize would be a pig made out of marzipan, and indeed, it is still possible to buy or make your own marzipan pig to enjoy at Christmastime.
Another fun thing about the Danes is that they have a “practice” Christmas dinner on November 10, which is Saint Martin’s Eve, when one would eat a roast goose and thus practice making a Christmas meal. Really, it’s often just another reason to get together with friends and family and enjoy some “hygge” or coziness. In the time up to Christmas there will be many parties, including the Christmas lunch but I’ll blog about that later. Sometimes one is invited, or hosts, a Christmas decoration/craft party during which Christmas tree decorations are made, paper elves are cut, table centerpiece tableaux are made, and sometimes candles, cookies, and candy are cooked. Often mulled wine is served at these parties as well.)
After dinner which will include a few toasts (the Danes have a special ritualistic way that they toast including always make eye contact with everyone around the table when they toast. The clinking of glasses is less important). After dinner, there will be a break. Sometimes the break is to walk the dogs, air the room, or do some clearing up of the dishes. Then there will be coffee and brandy served, and people will move into position around the living room. But, first, there is singing and dancing!
Everyone holds hands and dances around the Christmas tree singing Christmas carols. Often it’s just the first two verses and in many families, the carols are chosen by the youngest person and all the way up to the oldest (everyone knows that grandpa likes a certain song, so out of deference, one does not pick that song!). Dogs are included so sometimes you will be holding a wagging tail… or the bark. Generally, the direction one dances around the Christmas tree changes with every song, and at the end, there is one particular song, “Now it’s Christmas Again” which is sung with such gusto that someone will peel away from the tree and lead everyone in a conga line around the house until ending up back at the sofas, where the coffee, brandy, and cigarettes (in the old days), are waiting.
Then it’s gift time! But, there is no mad ransacking of the gifts in a Danish Christmas. Usually, someone (with able knees — so that they can crawl under the tree) will put on an elf hat and be the designated Santa Claus helper. The person will find a gift for the youngest person, read the gift label (“To Uncle Jens, Merry Christmas, you are wished a wonderful new year, with dearest love, your nephew Michael” or some such thing), and hand the gift to the person. Everyone will watch, cameras poised, for the look of delight when the gift is opened, someone will have the trash bag at the ready, another will have scissors or a pocket knife in hand ready to assist with a troublesome ribbon or dastardly piece of tape. Then, the person will look ever so pleased and say, “we agree to do the thank yous after all the gifts are opened?” And so on. This will go on until everyone is sitting with a neat pile of gifts, perhaps with wrapping bows stuck to their sweaters or hair, and looking happy. As the gifts thin out under the tree, the santa helper will make sure to hold back one gift for each person for the final round. After all the gifts are unwrapped, everyone gets up to say thank you and hug.
The next day, and certainly within a week, thank you cards will have been sent out. (Another thing about Danes: after a gathering, the next time you see someone, it’s important to say, “tak for sidst” or “thank you for the last time.”) Everyone goes to bed waiting to see what’s in their stocking in the morning.
Idealistic, right? That’s how it should be. Tis the season.