Crunchy tradition


Today's the 20th, which means Christmas is just around the corner. Even though we put up our tree earlier this month, I haven't really had a sense of the holiday approaching. I'm so caught up in the tangle of deadlines around me that I haven't paid a whole lot of attention to what's going on in the outside world.

(Which is basically how I go through life in general.)

Last night, though, I had to do a little Christmas-related task that brought home the thought that the Yuletide is nearly upon us. For the past few years, we haven't been able to spend Christmas with Giorgio and Marisa, because her uncle comes over. He is a very picky eater, and not particularly good company, and so we've got into the habit of going over to their place on Santo Stefano (Boxing Day) instead.

But, you know, it's not the same thing. It seems a minor point, but it's one of those visceral differences, like families who open their gifts on Christmas Eve and those who do it Christmas morning. I know it would feel very, very wrong to me to start in on the celebrating the night before, and I'm sure it would be the same for someone with the opposite tradition forced to wait. So having our family Christmas the day after the fact has always felt like... eating leftovers, or something. Yeah, it's irrational. These are holiday traditions, not international treaties. It's all about what feels right.

It hasn't helped that Christmas has not exactly been the most exciting time in recent years. This will be the second year in a row that we're skipping gifts altogether, and the year before that we just bought ourselves a joint gift of a wok. (I really love that wok, though.) It's not just the gifts, either--sure, I love getting presents like everyone else, but at the risk of sounding like a big sap, the holiday spirit really transcends the materialistic aspects. One of my best Christmas memories is of the first year we spent in this apartment. Because of the expense of moving, we'd decided to forgo presents, but I did lots of holiday baking and we were so pleased to finally live in a decent place that did not force us to sleep on a sofa-bed in the living room or my office, but actually had a separate bedroom! Plus a spare bedroom! To top it off, Dario surprised me on Christmas morning by showing me the two presents he'd placed under the tree. He'd bought frames for a pair of caricatures we'd had done a few years before, on a day trip to Venice that we both still remember as one of our favorites, a freezing cold but brightly sunny day in February just before Carnevale. We hung them on either side of our bed (bed! in an actual bedroom! It took us months to get past the thrill of that novelty.).

He probably spent about $40, tops, and yet it was a wonderful, cozy Christmas. We knew the belt-tightening was just temporary, that we were poised on the edge of a better future. It was a season of hope and joy, cue blaring trumpets and harp arpeggios.

Now we're poised on the edge again, but of a different kind, a scarier kind. Not that I expect this to be a terrible Christmas, we're actually both in a pretty cheery mood, it just doesn't have that same glossy coating of optimism that was there almost a decade ago when I sat under the tree unwrapping charcoal drawings of our smiling faces.

So this year it felt important to me to be able to celebrate the holiday together, all in the family. I convinced Marisa to reverse tradition, and as it turned out her uncle had already planned to be elsewhere on Christmas (he has a girlfriend at the nursing home, you see), so it worked out well. But I didn't want to do the usual heavy meal; I think I've absorbed my mother's philosophy that cooking on Christmas is Wrong.

Instead, I came up with a cunning plan: I decided to play the American card. It's quite effective. All I have to do is suggest something out of the ordinary, label it American, and it acquires an exotic mystique. If it has a foreign and hard-to-pronounce name (and for my in-laws, anything that doesn't sound at least somewhat Bolognese is hard to pronounce), so much the better.

Brunch. It was a stroke of genius, if I do say so myself.

I have to say, Giorgio and Marisa are amazingly good sports. Most of the other Italians I know, especially of their generation (but plenty our age and younger as well), turn up their nose at unfamiliar food, secure in their conviction that the local traditions are the best of all. My in-laws don't share that prejudice, they love trying new things, and rarely dislike them. Leaves me plenty free to experiment when I feel the urge.

So this year we're having a Christmas brunch, hosted at our humble abode. Nothing too exciting or labor-intensive, because it's just not that kind of year, but it should be fun. Last night I mapped out the menu, which isn't really a menu, just a bunch of food that I'll arrange buffet-style. Want to know what I came up with? Of course you do.

Broccoli and cheese quiche (they've never had quiche, so that will be exciting for them)
Welsh quarter sandwiches (which probably aren't Welsh at all, but they are red, white and green)
Carrot cake (Dario's all-time favorite)
Apple-nut-cranberry muffins (taking advantage of the dried cranberries my sister sent home with me)
Fruit kebabs (to pretend we're eating healthily) with a warm ginger sauce for dipping
Virgin mimosas (essentially just sparkling orange juice, but this way sounds better)
Eggnog (just a small batch, because I doubt anyone but me will actually drink it)

The best part is, I can make almost everything the day before, and so don't have to worry about getting up early on Christmas day, rushing around to get everything done in time.

The Christmas brunch. I think I'll call it a Crunch, for short. We may have started a brand-new family tradition.