Today is the feast of Epifania, which is known in Italy simply as “Befana.” In fact, many people in Italy will greet each other on the street today with the words, “Buon Befana.” This salutation refers to La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch. She is still searching for Baby Jesus, whom she learned about from the Three Kings. Throughout her journey every Jan. 6, she offers gifts to other Italian children in the hopes she will one day find Gesu. Or at least that is how one of our story books tells the story. There are a few theories about how she came into this job.
Befana – From Whence She Came
Indeed, she made a stop at our house this morning. When my son awakes, he will be surprised. He went to bed early with visions of the Italian Christmas witch in his mind. Now, Befana is no Santa. She is a poor old lady. Before this gig, Befana was best known for sweeping inside and outside her home everyday. She mostly kept to herself. So, she offers up one or two small gifts to each child. When my father was a kid in Italy in the 1950s, he received tangerines, walnuts, a piece of chocolate, and pencils for school in his socks from Befana. Back then, she was the only gift giver of the season. Times have changed.
Even though Santa has since grown more popular than Befana even in Italy, she still makes her rounds on Jan. 6. This, in fact, marks the end of the holiday season and work and school breaks, which is different from the United States. Many families will gather again today for one more special meal. Children will recite poems for pennies — err euro. And Befana will leave a little something for them. Sometimes, adults even give each other little tokens of their love on Befana’s day. The Epiphany, after all, is about the arrival of the three kings, also known as three wise men. They had brought little gifts to baby Jesus and his family in Bethlehem.
One Last Hurrah
Throughout the holiday season, we keep a Befana doll hanging over our window. Some of our American friends think we’ve forgotten her there since Halloween. But Italians know better. You can read more about Befana in my previous stories:
Italian Christmas cookies are a favorite of mine. Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of Italian pastries and desserts. I can give or take a “lobster” tail. Italian American cannoli are simply not for me. And the cakes soaked in alcohol taste like someone wet them with a water pistol. I understand wanting moist cake, but wet cake is yucky. Maybe it’s just me. The entire country of Italy seems to disagree with me.
But I can always get behind a cookie. Italian pastry shops offer loads of them this time of year. Rather than rely on the pastry shop (and pay such a high bill), I decided to try my hand at making these babies. In fact, I’m gifting boxes of my sweet delights on Christmas Eve. Learn how to do the same:
Italian Sandwich Cookies
This was my first attempt at Italian sandwich cookies. I learned how to use my cookie press/decorating kit for this one. You use the star tip to form the cookies for the sandwich. It tries your patience. After the dough oozes out the top and the bottom falls off for the millionth time, you start to lose your cool. Just as you’re about to throw the whole thing against the wall, a miracle happens. It starts to work, and you find your rhythm.
Suddenly, you’re popping out cookie form after cookie form. I was a little trigger happy. That’s why my cookies are huge (err, yyyyuuugggeee). I’ll do better next time. I promise to make them slimmer. Use the Food Network’s recipe for Italian sandwich sandwiches. Instead of raspberry jam, I used strawberry preserves in between cookie layers. (My husband hates raspberry.) And I also nixed the oil. I just melted milk chocolate chips in the microwave for dipping the sandwich.
I’ve become famous for these pignoli cookies. When my grandfather Rocco visited me for the last Christmas before he passed away, he ate two of these cookies. He wasn’t eating much of anything in those days and he rarely ate sweets anyway, so it was a big deal. My grandmother and cousins love ’em, so I make them every year. When I whipped up a bath for my sister’s birthday a few years back, her American friends in Florida were blown away.
The good news is this recipe is the easiest to make, especially if you have a food processor. I use the Food Network recipe for this one, too. I actually follow it word for word. But I have swapped a mandarin or clementine for an orange whenever that’s what I have on hand. I only make these once or twice a year because the price of pine nuts keeps going up. It’s super expensive. But it would not be Christmas without them now.
In the past, I may have made these one or two other times. But this Christmas I felt a pull. I had to have them. It might have been because my husband and I both bought giant tubs of ricotta, which have been mocking us in the fridge. In any event, when the Betty Crocker recipe for them landed in my emailbox, I could not resist.
What I love about this cookie is how easy it is to make. This is perfect for gift giving because you can make many without breaking much of a sweat. They also happen to be delicious. Indeed, I will be needing my fat pants far sooner than anticipated unless I give these away soon. Use the Betty Crocker Italian Christmas Cookies recipe for best results.
Italian Rainbow Cookies
Readers of this site know of my family’s love for Italian rainbow cookies, also known as tri-color cookies. Already I have detailed how to make this cake. You can get access to the recipe right here on this site, and see how we presented it as a robot for my son’s birthday. For Christmas, I added a “string of lights.” But I was also thinking of piping on a snowflake or just some festive holiday-colored sprinkles. The beauty of this cake is that you can use the top as a canvas, so it fits into any theme.
Now, I recommend cutting the cake into squares, brownie-style. You can also cut it up ahead of time and divide the cookies among the trays or boxes. People go crazy for these cookies, so be prepared to get asked to make them over and over again.
Making a Christmas cookie tree like the one in the photo above is not as hard as it seems. I always begin by making my favorite from-scratch cookie dough. But you could buy already made cookie dough and go to town with the decorating.I also make the icing with powdered sugar, water, and a touch of lemon extract or lemon juice, but you can purchase that as well. My point is that this project is only as hard as you want it to be.
How to Construct the Christmas Cookie Tree
Cookie dough from the fridge, ready to roll out
Graduating cookie cutters (in a star or snowflake form)
Optional decorations (sprinkles, sugar, candies)
Dish or cardboard baking circle
Instructions for Baking:
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.
Grab your dough from the fridge. Place it on a floured surface and sprinkle some more flour on top of the dough. Roll the dough to an inch or quarter half-inch thick, depending on how tall you want each cookie to be.
Then, take your cookie cutters to cut out the necessary shapes. Make sure that you cut out three to four of each size star or snowflake. The more you make of each size, the taller your tree will be. This year I opted to make mini trees. But I’ve done giant ones in the past.
Place a piece of parchment paper on each baking sheet. Next, place the cookie shapes on the parchment paper. Bake in the oven. The cookies are different sizes, so they are bound to require different cooking times. I check mine every 5 minutes at first and then every 2 minutes as time wears on. I remove the smaller ones as they finish baking. Obviously, the largest ones end up staying in the sheet the longest. I make sure the edges are brown. You don’t want soft-center cookies because you want the tree to remain intact after construction.
Instructions for Construction of the Tree:
Let the cookies cool. I place mine on a wire rack 3 to 5 minutes after removing them from the oven. Once cool, the fun begins.
Create an assembly line of cookies in size order with the largest ones at the front and the smallest ones at the back. You might want to try stacking the cookies before icing them to make sure you will achieve the look you want. Then, put icing on the bottom of the largest cookie to adhere it to the dish. Next ice the top of the cookie and place another large cookie on top, so that the star or snowflake edges form the look of leaves. I added green sugar crystals on the tips of the stars to make it look like an evergreen. I did this as I iced each cookie to ensure they would stick to the icing.
Make sure that the cookies get smaller as you move toward the top of your tree with the smallest ones at the very top. You can add a cinnamon candy, M&M, sugar star or sugar holly to the top of the tree. I dressed the bottom of the dish with mini candy-canes and the sprinkles that naturally fell as I decorated the tree.
You can place these on ceramic holiday dishes you plan to give as a gift and then wrap the entire thing in cellophane. Or you can not put the tree on a dish and place it in a cellophane bag. You could also put a little tree on each family member’s place setting for Christmas dinner. It could also be a centerpiece. Now, I have mine under a transparent cover on a serving dish at the center of my dining table.
Today is #NationalCookieDay. As I honor this day, I sit beside trays and trays of holiday cookies that my family made for our annual get together, which happened yesterday. We wore ugly Christmas sweaters, told bad jokes, and laughed so hard we cried. We also indulged in the homemade cookies we made. We took many photos, and ate until our pants snapped.
Nine times out of 10 (and more recently 10 times out of 10), I’m the organizer of these kinds of events. Over the weekend, I was feeling exhausted. I stayed up until 2 a.m. baking and decorating and cleaning. I thought, “Why am I doing this?” My back ached, and my feet were swollen.
La Dolce Vita
Then, with the head of one of those gingerbread in my mouth, I saw my cousin hugging my brother and my father jeering the Giants with his nephew. The work was worth it. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But in this moment we all had each other. We all had a hand to hold, a security blanket, pure joy. Frankly, that’s priceless.
So, I say get out and celebrate #NationalCookie Day. Shout, “I love you,” to family and friends. Deck the halls. Or at least smile and choose happiness for the day. Meet a friend for a cup of tea and a pignoli cookie. What’s most important is using this day as an excuse to slow down and smell the poinsettia. Keep the hustle and bustle of the holidays from distracting you from its real purpose: expressing your love, experiencing joy, and appreciating what you have.
My Italian family did not set a Thanksgiving table until 1960, when they first discovered America. My father, who was an immigrant in an American elementary school, came home and said all the other kids were talking about eating turkey on Thursday. So, his parents picked up one at the supermarket. When my zia put it in the oven to cook, she did not realize the gizzards were in a plastic bag in the cavity of the turkey. It wasn’t exactly the kind of stuffing you would want to eat. Needless to say, they ditched that first turkey for lasagna. Nowadays, we put both on the Thanksgiving table.
I’m thankful we’ve gotten much better at the celebration since then. Truly, Thanksgiving is the kind of holiday all Italians can get behind. Everyone gathers around the table to break bread, drink wine, laugh, and enjoy. That’s our thing. To distinguish the day from Nonna’s house on any given Sunday, I always set a special table. Discover some of my favorite ideas:
Always have a printed menu.
Mine have included the one above featuring a vintage postcard image I found online. I’ve also written the menu on a large chalkboard that served as background for the buffet table. You could also frame one 8×10 menu and put it near the food or on the table.
Create a beautiful centerpiece.
Usually, I create floral arrangements inside cornucopias, which I have from our wedding day in 2008. (We had a vow renewal in the United States Thanksgiving weekend, one month after our wedding in Italy.) In addition, I’ve made floral arrangements in a basket shaped like a turkey and a bowl in the form of a pumpkin. I try to get the kids involved in making centerpieces now. One year I had them paint acorns in bright glitter paint colors; then, I put electric votive candles inside a clear vase and surrounded the “candle” with the acorns. They are painting pinecones that we’re going to turn into woodland creatures for this year’s table. My hope is to make a little diorama-type scene atop a crystal cake stand.
Let the food be the showstopper.
There are few things in life Italians appreciate as much as food. Because Thanksgiving is all about the food, you should let the dishes shine. Cook up your best recipes. Of course, serve them in beautiful dishes and on your best plates. I recently began using my grandmother’s china, which my grandfather carried all the way back from Italy. I also have a few serving pieces – a copper-colored dish shaped like a maple leaf and individual gravy boats in the shape of a turkey – that often make an appearance.
In addition, you can use the food as decoration or centerpiece. Add artichokes, apples, or pears to a cornucopia, bowl, or floral arrangement. Use breadsticks standing in a glass goblet or antipasto platters featuring salumi to catch the eye at the center of your table.
Put out handmade place cards.
This is good practice whenever you are celebrating with extended family. Place cards can be an exquisite touch. But they also keep Mario from sitting next to his arch enemy cousin Guido. In the photo above, you’ll notice that I made edible place cards. That one is a gingerbread cookie in the shape of a turkey. I featured names on the belly by using cookie stamps. I have the complete alphabet of stamps. You can also attach name tags to a pear, apple, or gourd using a decorate push pin. Using food markers on those items works, too. Or you can be a traditionalist and make place cards out of paper. Personalizing each menu is another option.
Use fabric napkins.
Paper is can be beautiful, too. Don’t get me wrong. But fabric napkins indicate this is a special day. Also, you can more easily fold fabric napkins elaborately or wrap them with a napkin ring. The ambitious among us may try to fold each napkin into a turkey. Now, that’s a Pinterest goal.
Making this Italian onesie was a sort of sweet torture. I had envisioned this onesie from the moment I heard an Italian friend of mine was pregnant. With my Cricut machine on hand, I simply couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. And I wish I had the ability to make it back when my baby was itsy-bitsy. Now, of course, the stars have aligned and I have a swell of work, which was cresting around the weekend of the baby shower. But I could not be stopped. Nothing would get in my way. Waking up at 6 a.m. on the day of the party proved fruitful.
The good news is this project is super easy. I could have slept longer. I kind of wish I had realized this sooner. Also, you don’t have to have a Cricut machine to make it (although that made it much easier). Italians are not the only ones who can make such a onesie. I have also made one for a Greek friend that featured the Greek flag in blue glitter iron-on, which read, “It’s Greek to Me.” I put that flag and saying on the lower backside of the onesie, so it would appear on the baby’s bottom. The point is to use your imagination, and don’t feel limited to this example. Baby will make the onesie adorable.
How to Make the Italian Onesie
What You Need:
A white cotton onesie (I used on in size 0 to 3 months)
Iron on paper in red glitter, green glitter, and black (I used the kind for the Cricut machine but you can also use printable iron-on paper for your computer printer if you don’t have a Cricut)
Cricut machine or scissors (if you are using a printable iron-on paper)
Iron and ironing board
Light cloth or handkerchief
What to Do:
Design the image you want to appear on the onesie. I used Cricut’s Design Space. But you could also use Word and print it on a printable iron-on sheet. Before printing, make sure you are creating a mirror image because it will turn out correctly when you iron it on. If you are working with a Cricut or a printer, you will need to cut out the image with scissors. Be careful to leave significant edges.
Begin to pull away the excess iron-on paper, so you’re left with the image you wish to feature on the onesie and a sticky, transparent backing. Remove the excess iron-on paper, such as the triangle or circle at the center of a block letter. Make sure when you put the image sticky side down on the onesie that you see what you envisioned. Follow the directions that typically come with the the iron-on paper.
I place a light handkerchief over the iron-on transfer and begin to iron. Make sure the iron is not emitting steam and that the steam option is shut off. I usually hold the iron in place over the image and handkerchief for the first 30 seconds or so. Then, I gently move the iron back and forth. Don’t do it in quick motions because you could stretch the image.
Take Your Time
Once you feel the image is completely stuck to the shirt, you should put it aside to cool down for a few moments. Refrain from trying to tear away at the transparent film immediately. If you start pulling too quickly, you risk pulling up the iron-on image, too. And you’ll have to start over. Once it’s cooled down, you can gently pull away the film from the corner and on the diagonal. Be careful not to tear at the image at all.
Halloween is a favorite holiday around here. My family has always celebrated this day with verve, even though it did not exist in Italy. In fact, Italians in Italy have only recently discovered Halloween. But we embraced all American traditions upon arrival. As landscapers (at least many of the original family members in the United States call that their profession) decorating with pumpkins and cabbages and mums became par for the course. In addition, we look for any excuse to gather round a table, eat, drink, and be merry.
Once my cousins began having kids, I began hosting Halloween blowouts. We had disco balls, costumes, and mummy games. We wrecked the house with toilet paper and battled it out with apple pie contests. Somebody’s pie ended up on the floor and there were accusations of cheating. Needless to say, we never did that again. But we always made up and dug into Nonno’s pasta.
When my son and niece and nephew were born, the festivities took on new meaning for me. Now, this was tradition. We had to make them apart of the celebration. Today, we all take pictures in front of our house in the elaborate Halloween display my landscaper father creates each year. There are giant pumpkins, hay chairs for the photo subjects, and scarecrows, ghosts, and goblins hanging around. The neighborhood kids also jump into the scene while trick or treating. Parents proudly snap photos.
These moments are fleeting. Our children are young for but a minute. Then, it’s over. I’m choosing to savor every second. I miss it already.
Halloween party ideas are my responsibility in this family. Ever since I returned home from four years at college in Washington, D.C., I have been hosting a Halloween party for the kids in the family. First, it was for my cousin’s babies. Now, we all gather for my son, niece, and nephew.
What’s beautiful about this tradition is the older kids still participate. In fact, one of them is studying abroad, and he waxed nostalgic in text messages after viewing images from the 2017 shindig he had to miss. Sometimes, I come up with an entire theme. Once it was a Halloween disco, replete with bright lights. Another time it was “Happy Owl-O-Ween.” We’ve painted pumpkins in our worst clothes. And we’ve dressed up in our Halloween finest (all sorts of costumes). Every year is a little different.
Once in a while, I’m at a loss for time. Still, I do my best to make things special and memorable. To be honest, 2017 was one of those busy years. But I still think I pulled off a pretty great fete. You still have time to do the same. So, discover my easy ideas for celebrating Halloween in a pinch:
Spider Web Cake
This party was also a chance for the family to celebrate my son’s birthday. He had already had a Spider-Man themed party with his friends. I used many of the decorations and ideas twice. I made this rainbow cookie cake from scratch, but you could buy a plain chocolate frosted cake from the grocery store or bakery. Then, you get a pre-packaged pastry bag of icing in white. Draw a tiny circle at the center. Then, draw a larger circle around it. Keep drawing circles until you reach close to the edge of the cake. Finally, take a skewer or one tine of a fork and drag it from the edge of the most inner circle to the edge of the most outer. Repeat that step six to eight times to achieve the look of a web. You can add plastic spiders and sprinkles like I did if you so desire.
Normally, I would suggest making a cake from scratch. It’s generally healthier and tastes better. But when time is of the essence, I find no shame in turning to boxed cake mixes. For these cupcakes, I actually divided the batter in half. I added yellow food coloring to one half, and yellow and red food coloring to the other half (to make orange). Then I layered the two batters for a candy corn effect. After the cupcakes baked and cooled, I topped them with homemade white vanilla icing. Finally I stuck into the top plastic skeletons from the dollar store, which I had washed with soap and water and dried beforehand.
Ice Cream Station
One of the reasons all my cousins keep coming to my Halloween party is the homemade ice cream. I make pumpkin ice cream only for this party, and the folks love it. I usually make one other flavor. In 2017, I opted for Halloween Oreos cookies and cream. Both were delicious if I do say so myself. But before I even get to serving the ice cream, I make a station for the relevant goodies. I picked up sugar cones and used my Cricut Explore Air to cut out sleeves for them in black-and-white printed paper. I also include Halloween sprinkles from craft supply stores, such as Michael’s. Sometimes, you can even find them at the grocery store. Little cups, ice cream spoons, and other assorted toppings all make for a nice touch. Don’t forget the ice cream scoops.
Spider Punch Bowl
My punch bowl is constantly getting dressed up. It has been a turkey for Thanksgiving, a Toy Story alien replete with green punch, and a jack-o-lantern. Because my son loves all things Spider-Man, I went for a spider this time around. I took black pipe cleaners, bent them into shape, and taped them to the side of the bowl with a clear packaging tape. Then, I used that same tape to adhere the big google eyes that I always use in these circumstances. Finally, I cut out (free hand) a smiley face from the same black-and-white paper I used for the ice cream cones. When the party is over, I carefully pull the items off and discard the tape. I reuse everything except the paper mouths and beaks. For the drink to give it that dark color, I used strongly brewed iced tea. Really, anything goes.
In the past, I’ve used orange balloons and used a black marker to make jack-o-lantern faces. In 2017, I used white balloons to make ghosts. You can’t see them in the photo, but some were traditional with three dark ovals for two eyes and a “boo” mouth. My son wanted me to get creative, so some of these have lady eyelashes and other details. As always, you are limited only by your imagination. I had balloon holders and sticks (purchased at Oriental Trading’s site). So, I made a bouquet, put it in a clear vase filled with candy corn, and added a scarecrow pick and some spider-web bows.
On this site, I’ve often discussed the Mummy Game, where you split up in teams and use toilet paper to wrap one person like a mummy. Then, the team that completes the task the fastest wins. In our family, no one really ever wins. But we do get lots of awesome photos. At the end, one cousin always starts toilet papering the house and people start jumping in toilet paper as if we’re in our own ticket-tape parade. Another cousin, of course, gripes that we’re wasting perfectly good toilet paper. He has a point that is why I buy the cheap stuff for this game.
In the past, we’ve also broken into teams for a different kind of costume contest. My mom would put together a bag for each team filled with everyday items, such as a mop head or a garbage bag and a wand or headpiece. Then, the team has 20 minutes to dress up one person using only those items and whatever they have on. This game also never really had winners, but made for fantastic photos and greater memories.
For the first time in 2017, I decided to get web-slinging into the game lineup. It served two purposes – my son’s devotion to Spider-Man and the spider web theme of the Halloween party. So, I bought cans of silly string at the dollar store and let the kids web-sling on each other in our backyard. The teenagers were just as involved in this game as the little ones. My son stayed dressed as Spider-Man the entire time.
ITALIAN MEMES – POSTCARDS FROM ITALY / LE FESTE – HOLIDAYS AND CELEBRATIONS
The Italian holiday Ferragosto couldn’t be celebrated anywhere but Italy. In fact, it’s the only country I know that marks Aug. 15 as still having significance. The festivities date back to 18 BC and the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus for whom the whole month is named. He declared August to be for revelry. The high point in those days was Aug. 13 when women made offerings to the goddess Diana in hopes of having safe labor and delivery.
Italian Holiday Ferragosto – Sun, Sex, and Rock n’ Roll
In general, the celebrations were all about excesses – gorging, orgies, and imbibing. I’ve written about this before for ItaliansRus. Christianity comes around and makes Aug. 15 about the assumption of the Virgin Mary in an attempt to change the rituals. But we’re talking about Italians here. Do you really think you could take away their wine and sex and delicious food and still call it a holiday? C’mon now.
Obviously, the Church needs a reality check. Indeed, my friends and family will be indulging in food and wine and whatever else today. Some of them will say a little prayer or even head to church, too. Right at this moment, most of them are sleeping off the celebrations that began last night as they ushered in Aug. 15.
To be fair, here on the island of Ischia, most of my people were not getting to enjoy the holiday. They were making the holiday for the guests at hotels, bars, and restaurants throughout the island. And they’ll continue to do that today. Making sure others have a good time, after all, is their livelihood.
What will they be doing exactly? Well, carving watermelons into gorgeous flowers is one task. Another is setting tables for multi-course meals full of Italian hallmarks, such as fresh mozzarella, la parmigiana, shellfish fresh from the sea, and pounds of pasta. Chefs will be cooking all that. Someone will be on hand to make sure the wine is ever flowing, never an empty glass. Someone else will cue the music at the discoteca.
Glistening cabana boys will help beachgoers open their umbrellas and snag a drinks on the beach. Of course, there will be natives flirting with the tourists in the hopes of a little something something on Ferragosto. Wink. Wink. I guess you can say Ischia, with its slogan “where you eat, drink, and ‘whistle,'” tries to meet all your needs. Buon Ferragosto to all!
May 1, known as Primo Maggio, is a holiday in Italy and many other parts of the world. This public holiday, which literally translates to May 1, is recognized as Labor Day. Some refer to this day as International Worker’s Day, but Americans continue to celebrate workers on the first Monday in September.
How to Celebrate May 1
In any event, in Italy, Primo Maggio is considered a great excuse for a three-day weekend. Where my family is from in Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples in Italy, many tourists head to the beach. And the natives celebrate by continuing to work because these long weekends are money makers for them. Others in Italy flee to the mountains. Whether at the beach or the mountains, they picnic like it’s 1999. Cookouts and barbecues are common. I have eaten some sausage from the grill myself on Primo Maggio.
Not everyone feels the need to get away. Staycations or quiet time spent at home are highly popular, too. The kids are off from school. The parents are home from work. The family gets to be together without all the responsibility of the other days. Sometimes, that’s enough of a celebration.
A Holiday to Get Behind
The few times I’ve been in Italy for Primo Maggio I have been working for American outlets that don’t recognize the day as a holiday. Just another work day for we Americans. But I observed my Italian friends and family celebrating. The feast reminded me of a combination of America’s Memorial Day and Labor Day. It is like Memorial Day because it’s an unofficial launch to summer. Being in southern Italy, where it is a warmer climate, I am not surprised that summer starts sooner over there. It is like our Labor Day because, well, it’s a celebration of laborers. What is clear is that working people are the ones keeping the world moving, so we should celebrate them every day. If grilling meats or lying in the sun is a way to honor them, then count me in.