Tag Archives: Italian holidays

Out With the Old, In With the New

The first time I visited Milan was in early January, 1991 – it must have been right after the New Year. We arrived in the city late at night and had to walk some way to find our hotel.

As we went, I asked Enrico if Milan’s garbage collectors were on strike or something. I was startled by the amount and nature of the garbage on the sidewalks: old appliances and furniture, heaps of trash, broken dishes and glassware, all scattered untidily around as if everyone had suddenly heaved all their old junk out the windows at the same time.

Which was exactly what they had done. Enrico explained to me that it was an Italian custom at the new year to replace old, worn out housewares. Traditionally you threw the the old stuff out the window at midnight on New Year’s, to signify your readiness to welcome the new year into your home.

This was never as popular in northern Italy as in the south, and I’ve hardly noticed it in Milan since that year, but they tell me that in Napoli the custom is still going strong: you don’t want to be walking under anyone’s windows at midnight. But then, you don’t want to be much of anywhere in Napoli on New Year’s: every New Year’s Day the media trot out the statistics on the night’s deaths and injuries due to over-enthusiastic use of fireworks and even firearms. Everyone wants to make a big bang to welcome in the new year, and often they’re too careless (or drunk) to see where they’re aiming. Italy’s north-south prejudices aside, there do seem to be more fatalities in Napoli than anywhere else in the country. Too many guns in circulation.

As for house junk: I tend to get rid of it throughout the year. Even with plenty of space in our new home, I feel oppressed by too many possessions, and give short shrift to the idea that “we might as well keep it around, we might want it someday.”

This year we actually have some housewares to get rid of: the old, scratched, survivors of a set of drinking glasses I bought years ago at an outlet store in downtown Milan. They were so beautiful back then: slightly pear-shaped with heavy bottoms, delicately tinted in six different colors, and two sizes, tall and short.

After we moved to Lecco and had, for the first time in our lives, a dishwasher, I was suddenly dismayed to realize that they had lost all their color: “not dishwasher safe” was a new concept to me. Ah, well. Reflect upon the evanescence of material objects, and heave them out the window.

NB: Don’t forget your red underwear!

What are your New Year’s customs?

Holiday Treats – Italian Seasonal Goodies

Any excuse is good for eating sweets, but seasonal treats that are only available during certain holidays are the best excuse of all. (No, I’m not talking about pumpkin-flavored coffee from Starbucks.)
Italy has one or more special sweets for every holiday. For Christmas, it’s panettone (a leavened cake with canditi – candied fruit – and raisins) and pandoro (a yellow cake cooked in a tall, star-shaped mold).

At Carnevale, it’s tortelli and chiacchere. Tortelli are fried, hollow balls of pastry, sometimes filled with cream, chocolate, etc. Chiacchere (literally, “chatter”) are deep-fried crackery things, liberally dusted with powdered sugar. These very fattening items were meant to be a sweet indulgence before the privations of the Lenten season, but nowadays, for the weight-conscious, oven-baked chiacchere are widely available.

My favorite seasonal sweet is coming up soon, for Easter: the colomba, a dove-shaped cake (as the name implies), similar to panettone but, instead of canditi and raisins incorporated into the batter, it features a cracked glaze topping with sugar grains and almonds.

Easter also means chocolate easter eggs. These are commonly about a foot tall and hollow, with a “treat” of some kind rattling around inside – sometimes more chocolate, but often a trinket or toy or, in the expensive versions, a piece of jewelry. There are plenty of crass commercial eggs available, themed with the latest kids’ obsession (yes, I am trying to find “Eggolas” for my daughter). But the best eggs are generally hand-made at your local pasticceria (bakery) from good-quality chocolate. Sometimes they are elaborately decorated with hard icing, but most often they are wrapped in pretty paper and decorated with frothy ribbons, flowers, etc. The bakery eggs also have treats inside but, to me, the treat is on the outside. Break off shards of a good-quality dark chocolate egg for the perfect accompaniment to a really good colomba.