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Every Day is a Holiday

Valerie Schneider

It is officially The Holiday Season. We’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving, the day when my fellow Americans gather over a nationwide banquet, when expats lament the lack of canned pumpkin and cranberries, and when friends and family inevitably, innocently ask us, “What do Italians do for Thanksgiving?”

The answer is, nothing. Thanksgiving is not a holiday here. Our Italian friends, upon hearing the words “festa del ringraziamento,” immediately respond with, “Ah, si. Tacchino!” They’ve all seen enough film and TV images of enormous birds roasted to perfection and carved tableside to know our national penchant for turkey. They are always happy to find out first-hand that it is, indeed, our official holiday food. Then they usually shrivel their noses and say, “Mah! Wouldn’t it be better to have a nice porchetta, or something with flavor?” They don’t generally think of turkey as being very tasty, but that, I tell them, is because they’ve never had the pleasure of a succulently roasted bird. Finding a whole turkey in Italy is about as hard as finding a decent caffé in America.

I had decided on our first Thanksgiving here that I wouldn’t even bother with the bird because, even if I had been able to track one down, it certainly would not have fit into my miniscule oven. I would have also had to purchase a roasting pan to contain the bird, and a casserole dish to hold the dressing, because we prefer it cooked outside rather than stuffed into the turkey. None of the above would then fit into the aforementioned miniscule oven. I also would have had to plan ahead by purchasing, cooking, and mashing the pumpkin before turning it into a pie, which just seemed like too much effort to me, so we rationalized that we now live in a foreign country where this holiday doesn’t exist, and besides, we don’t need a prescribed day on which to be thankful and count our blessings.

We opted to “go local” and go out for lunch instead. But what providence! We sat in the restaurant listening closely to the waiter as he recited the daily menu choices and were astonished to hear him say “filetto di tacchino…” Huh? What’s that…turkey?! Naturally, seeing the signs in the menu we ordered the breast of turkey, which was sautéed in a delicate white wine sauce along with artichoke quarters and a side dish of roasted potatoes, and then toasted our compatriots at home with a slightly frizzante house white wine. We explained to the waiter that nearly every inhabitant of America would be dining on turkey that day and he was rather amused at the irony of it being on offer in their restaurant. We ended up having an American Thanksgiving after all, with an Italian flavor.

Last Thanksgiving, my brother and his daughter were here for a visit. We were in Rome on the holiday and had been invited to our friends’ house for dinner. Giorgio, being a brilliant chef as well as attentive to the calendar, announced he would make his own version of a Thanksgiving meal in our honor. He churned out a very scrumptious dish of turkey legs cooked in wine and rosemary, which we all devoured despite the fact that none of us ordinarily liked dark meat. Giorgio, his wife, and their sons enjoyed our tradition of going around the table to announce what we’re thankful for, each of them giving it serious thought and grinning after their speeches.

This year, figuring we’d probably not happen into such luck a third year in a row, and now being in possession of a slightly larger oven, I decided to go ahead and make a Thanksgiving meal at home. I filled some thickly-sliced turkey cutlets, fixed up a heaping helping of bread stuffing for Bryan, who considers that to be the most important element of the meal, mashed the dickens out of some potatoes and called it a day. Apple-cinnamon crostata from a local pasticceria stood in for pie, and we topped it off with some dreamily creamy fior di latte gelato.

We debated about inviting friends, but since it’s not a holiday for them we’d have had to throw the party on the weekend, and for us it just doesn’t feel right to not celebrate it on the correct calendar day. I mean, part of the fun is in knowing that the entire nation is celebrating together. Besides, none of our friends were inordinately interested when we broached the topic anyway.

Thanksgiving may not be celebrated here, but that also means that there is no Black Friday, that insane phenomenon that gets played out annually in America whereby seriously demented people rise at 4:00 am to storm the malls and discount stores, trample their fellow citizens, punch and claw their way to an item for their children and call it a bargain. Every year I marvel at it, shake my head and wonder why the media must always cover the mayhem with such obvious glee while giving glory to these wack-jobs. Roba da matti, as they say here.

So no, Italians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving Day, but don’t feel too bad; Italy is certainly not lacking in holidays. In fact, according to their national calendar they have twelve public holidays compared to our eight in America. Throw in a few local festas and a couple more saints’ days, and you can garner yourself even more days away from the office. Italians also receive an average of 33 vacation days, compared to our dismal national average of 13.

And that is before they start building bridges. It is common to fare un ponte by tacking on a day or two before or after a holiday to “bridge” it to the weekend and thus turn an ordinary one-day celebration into a three or four day affair. Many of our friends take advantage of the opportunity to pass a long weekend in a neighboring region while also crossing off a few extra days from their work calendar. Clever, actually.

Regional travel companies have seized on this penchant and have started designing package bus tours revolving around these ponte weekends, so here in Ascoli Piceno, for example, we frequently see the piazzas teeming with travelers from Emilia Romagna, Toscana or Puglia during the “bridged” holidays.

The holiday season, as we know it in America, is also much shorter. “The Holidays” as we define it generally encompasses the celebrations of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. Here in Italy, it’s just a tad longer with a few more days thrown in.

We get to kick it all off on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, which is also the day that officially opens the Christmas shopping season and is when many people start decorating their homes and decking their halls. Various holiday parties ensue, but those are superfluous enjoyable evenings, not actual holidays.

That leads us to La Vigilia, Natale, Santo Stefano, San Silvestro, Capodanno, and then, finally, Epiphany. Phew. Between the Immacolata and Epifania there are so many holidays involving celebrations with church bells peeling, people gathering, and food to be enjoyed, that you begin to lose count. It is nigh a month before the festivities give way to business as usual, by which time you’re relieved to go back to a normal routine and diet again. For nearly a month, it really starts to feel that every day is a holiday in Italy.

So you see, while we don’t have a Thanksgiving Day here, we still have plenty of holidays to make up for it. We love the foods, the festive atmosphere, and the simple pleasures of gathering with friends. We especially enjoy that we are invited to participate, that we are welcomed and wanted; that our friends desire to share their traditions and hearts with us. Being foreigners yet being accepted and embraced and wrapped into local customs is a wonderful experience…and something that we are very thankful for indeed.

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Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2008

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