An Italian-American living la dolce vita in the Deep South

An Italian-American living la dolce vita in the Deep South

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Don't Forget the Ranch Dressing

Dear Santa,

I thought you might be tired of cookies, so I made you a Nutella sandwich. I also thought you would like some lemonade instead of milk. The carrots are for the reindeer, and this year I added some Ranch dressing because I heard on the history channel that reindeer like Ranch dressing.

Merry Christmas!


P.S. Thank you for sending me an elf this year. He had a lot of fun, as you can see.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Ixnay on Hamburger Helper

Once upon a time, when my husband and I were newlyweds and I was still learning my way around a kitchen, I fixed Hamburger Helper for dinner.

That was in 1990.

Tonight, 24 years later, something came over me and I fixed two boxes of Hamburger Helper for dinner.

Everyone hated it.

They hated the smell, the taste, the consistency. They thought it tasted fake.

Do people really eat this stuff? they asked.

Then the boys sang my praises. They were grateful for grilled panini, homemade tortellini, tuna spaghetti, minestrone ... the list went on.

And as I basked in the glow of their compliments, I was thinking that I should have fixed Hamburger Helper for them a long time ago.

Walking in Torre Annunziata outside of Naples, Italy
Summer 2010

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Finding God in Target

Yesterday morning I dropped my husband off at the airport. I then had a small errand to do at a store that didn't open until 10, and since it didn't make sense to go all the way home only to come back out later, I had some time to kill. I thought about going to morning Mass, but again, it was too early. But hey! What do you know? Target was open.

Thirty minutes later an elderly black woman was ringing me up at the register.

"Wait!" she said as I pulled out my credit card. "I have a $5 dollar coupon which will give you some extra savings.

"Oh my," I replied. "Thank you! My husband will love you."

She laughed.

"Love is what it's all about," she said as she handed me my bag. "You know ... I get a Bible verse sent to my phone every day."

"What was today's verse?" I asked.

She hadn't checked yet. There was no one behind me in line, so I put down my bag and she pulled out her purse. We huddled over her phone.

Truthfully, I don't remember the specific verse, but somehow I felt we were living it.

Someone came up to the line, so I picked up my bag to leave.

"Merry Christmas and God bless," we said in unison and on cue, which had us both smiling.

As I walked out of the store I glanced at my watch. If I hurried, I would make it to morning Mass ... it seemed like the perfect thing to do.

Cortona, Italy

Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas Inflatables ... Art or Not?

I am a romantic at heart, so for me Christmas is ...

a snowy mountain cabin nestled in the forest,
the shop windows in mid-town Manhatten,
midnight Mass in a small chapel nestled in the Alps,
and window wreaths and candle lights.

I'm all about this ...

(our house Christmas 2008 ... and yes, Virginia, it does occasionally snow in Georgia)

and not so much this.

Imagine my surprise when several years ago the boys asked why we couldn't get a giant Santa for our front yard. And not just any Santa ... a GIANT Santa ... with moving parts! And a Santa in a snow globe would be even better!

After I stopped hyperventilating I resorted to stall tactics. We'll see and Let me think about it held them off for several years.

Then one December, older and wiser, they brought up the subject again and would not let it go. They begged, they pleaded, they pointed out all the OTHER houses which had fun holiday inflatables. They were making me feel like the Grinch.

In exasperation I finally laid it on the line, No inflatables ... they're tacky!

Unfortunately I made this pronouncement in the presence of my entire family, which resulted in a great deal of teasing. I basically ignored them.

On Christmas Day everyone gathered at our house for lunch. There was a lot of commotion. In hindsight I now realize there seemed to be some sneaking around and that some people were grinning like idiots (most notably my brother-in-law), but at the time I had no idea that anything was going down. So, when I was called outside to the front yard to come and see something, I went.

And THIS was in my FRONT yard.

Everyone was laughing so hard that neighbors poked their heads out to see what was going on.

Okay, okay. The joke was on me. The festive Christmas penguins on a bright blue sled didn't exactly go with my window wreaths, but I had to agree they were pretty darn cute.

Now, I'm sure you're dying to know if the Christmas penguins have graced our yard in the years since.

Look. I'm not a total Grinch. OF COURSE we put up our inflatable penguins ...

only they're in the backyard.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Advent Wreath 2011 (in 7 easy steps)

One of my personal traditions this time of year is to come up with a unique Advent wreath. This year I was inspired by two things: a piece of driftwood I found on the beach in Hilton Head over Thanksgiving, and the desire to incorporate some artwork into the wreath. And just so you know, not all my creations are wreath-shaped and I rarely use purple and pink candles.


~a piece of wood or driftwood

~4 pillar candles and a decorative angel, or cross, or even a 5th candle (I used an angel)

~4 lengths of ribbon (three purple, one pink)

~length of burlap garland

~assorted greenery

~old Christmas cards

~inexpensive frames


~1~ Wrap a length of ribbon around each of the pillar candles so you have three purple and one pink.

~2~ Place candles down the length of the wood, with the decorative angel in the middle.

~3~ Add greenery

~4~ Weave burlap ribbon around the greenery and candles.

~5~ Cut out scenes of Advent from old Christmas cards (I used scenes depicting the Wise Men, the Shepherds, Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem, the Angels singing Gloria and, most importantly, the Nativity).

~6~ Place Advent scenes in small frames (I purchased mine from a craft store).

~7~ Stand the frames in front of each pillar, with the framed nativity scene in front of the angel.



evergreens = everlasting life
holly = crown of thorns
pine cones/nuts/pods = life and resurrection
four candles = four weeks of Advent
color purple = prayer, penance, preparatory sacrifices, royalty
color pink = rejoicing
circle (from a wreath; I used a length of wood instead) = eternity of God; God's never ending love
wood = the manger; the cross
Progressive lighting of candles = expection and hope surrounding Christ's birth

P.S. You can see some of my past Advent wreaths here and here.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Can I bottle his innocence?

Last week our little guy was getting his flu shot when Plop! his tooth fell out. I'm not sure if the two were related, but there you have it.

The next morning he came downstairs and showed me what the Tooth Fairy left under his pillow.

"Wow! A two dollar bill!" I said. "The Tooth Fairy is very generous!"

(I ALWAYS compliment the Tooth Fairy ... and the Easter Bunny ... AND Santa.)

"Tell me, though," I continued. "Did you hear anything during the night?"

(For some reason, I always want to know these things.)

"No, I didn't see anything," he admitted. "But I did hear wings flapping!"

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Simplifying Christmas

Last Christmas, around mid-December, I got sick.

For the first time in my life I was having stomach/digestive problems, and the symptoms became so bothersome that, on the day after Christmas, I went to my doctor. A week later I returned for blood tests, an abdomen scan and a referral to a gastroenterologist, but nothing definitive was discovered.

"Maria," said my doctor finally. "I just think your body is out of whack."

I remember sitting there and just letting her words sink in. Could it be this simple? I thought back to the past couple of weeks in which I had hosted two dinner parties for 30-35 people; decorated every room in the house; set up three Christmas trees; shopped, wrapped, and mailed packages; cooked, baked, and entertained house guests. I had been busy, sure, but it was fun! I was organized! I had felt on top of things.

But my doctor's words forced me to be honest with myself, and the truth was I fell into an exhausted heap every evening, had problems dragging myself out of bed in the morning, ate on the run (and ate badly), prayed on the run (and prayed badly), and totally neglected my exercise routine.

My doctor was right. So I made some immediate changes, but the damage was such that it took a good three months before I felt like my normal self.

I learned my lesson, and I was determined not to go to that place again.

So this past Thanksgiving I did a lot of soul searching. I asked myself some hard questions. I thought of ways I could create a Little House on the Prairie Christmas instead of a Biltmore one. I thought about what I wanted the spirit of our home to feel like this Advent season.

And because I work better with a plan, I came up with one.

Simplifying Christmas

~Bring the decor "home" Is all this decorating for our benefit, or for others? The question got me thinking. So this year we are decorating in ways that are meaningful to our family. Inside, we will focus our decorating only in the family room/kitchen. This is the heart of our home. This is where we gather. This is where we pray, and laugh, and eat. This is where we will set up our Christmas tree.

Outside, the window wreaths and candles will go up, only because Joe and I discovered that the boys said this one of their favorite things about Christmas. They love coming home after dark to see the windows lit up, and we love it that this memory has already taken hold in their hearts.

~Decorate with purpose In bringing the decor "home", I also wanted it to reflect our faith. So the first thing we did was set up an Advent wreath to help us mirror the journey of the Magi as they followed the star, of Mary and Joseph as they traveled to Bethlehem, and of the shepherds as they left their fields to visit the Christ Child. Then, although I have many nativities, we are setting up only one. We will gather around it for nighttime prayers and, on Christmas Eve, we will read the story of the nativity and sing Silent Night.

~Music with meaning Secular songs are fine (who doesn't love Snoopy and the Red Baron or a round robin of Jingle Bells?), but I will be more conscious of playing sacred carols/hymns (especially at home) and of learning the stories behind some of them. For example, did you know the story behind this beloved carol?

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve in 1818, in a tiny village in the Austrian Alps, a Catholic priest named Joseph Mohr wrote some heartwarming words that he was hoping to use during the midnight Mass. Since the church pipe organ was broken and couldn’t be repaired in time, the church organist Franz Gruber wrote a simple tune, thereby setting Mohr’s words to music for a tenor, a bass, and two guitars. That very evening during midnight Mass, Silent Night was heard for the first time. It wasn’t until 1850 – almost 30 years later – that the poet and composer even knew that their song had traveled out of their remote village and that Silent Night had become one of the most beloved Christmas carols ever written.

~Food for thought Which for me, means no baking. What? No baking? Believe me, we receive plenty of goodies from our neighbors, and this time of year cookies, fudge bars, and Panettone will find a way into our home. So instead of baking, I will cook healthy, hearty meals. Stews, soups, homemade breads ... comfort foods which satisfy, relax, and make our house smell like a home.

~Shop from home Online shopping will keep me from going to a store during lunchtime or to the mall on weekends. It's hard to be spiritually focused when you're elbowing your way through a crowd, fighting traffic, or being bombarded with commercialism.

~Charity in action As a family, we will look for ways to give of ourselves ... both in big ways (cleaning out our closets and donating items to Catholic Social Services, working at the Soup Kitchen, visiting a family in need) and in small ones (bringing goodies to the workers at tree lots on Christmas Eve, leaving an extra tip for a harried waiter, offering the UPS man a cup of hot chocolate).

And this, quite simply, is our plan for celebrating the holidays.

We're keeping it simple.

We're making it sacred.