Christmas is my favorite day of the year — a day of sweet exhaustion, comfort food, merriment, and utter excess. It is foreshadowed in that one moment of autumn when the temperature turns bitterly cold, when you can “feel” Christmas in the air. The wind has a special kind of bite to it, and as you put on your gloves and hat you realize it’s time to start making The List.
In my family, The List is mercifully short. With sixteen seats at the table solely for immediate kin, gift-giving can become onerous. Thus the true coming-of-age moment in the Iannolo household is not graduation from The Kids’ Table — it is having one’s name placed in The Hat.
While dessert is being served at Thanksgiving, each victim’s name is written on a piece of paper and submitted for picking. Woe to the person who seems to get the same name every year. Then there are the con artists. This year my brother-in-law thought it would be sly to participate under the aliases Charles, Chuck, Dad, and Papa in order to better his odds. We nabbed him in between pumpkin pie and pfüffernüsse.
And so begins the most non-secret version of Secret Santa I have ever seen. By the time coffee is served almost everyone has shared extensive discussions, some covertly trading names in the garage, some trying to bribe others to swap names, some of us hoping you-know-who didn’t get our name.
In turn, we all pray that the men in the family delegate purchasing to their wives and girlfriends, otherwise we might have a repeat of the Christmas where gifts came in the form of wood-chopping tools and bad slippers. God Bless the spa gift certificate.
I am the only one who seems to treat this gift-giving responsibility with grave seriousness. For me, The Gift becomes a quest of epic proportions. Never one to do anything halfway, I must find a gift that perfectly expresses the essence of the recipient, then mask it in the most obscure way so my identity cannot possibly be deduced.
This often entails multiple boxes, disguised writing, and other ruses. Sometimes I will torture the victim, er, recipient, with a series of poems — a Christmas treasure hunt, if you will. One year I was an evil elf that had kidnapped Santa, and each clue was a ransom note attached to a candy version of a body part.
But the gifts are only a piece of the Christmas experience. My family has learned through years of harsh reprimands that I, and only I, must choose The Tree for my mother’s house. Twice in years past, when I lived too far away to micromanage the purchase, I have come home in festive spirits only to be greeted by a hideous spectacle of a tree.
Without missing a beat, I have proceeded to dismantle the decorations, throw the tree out on the lawn, and set out to buy a new one. One year I almost succeeded without being caught, but my mother pulled in the driveway just as I was untying it from the car. Thankfully she has a sense of humor.
I owe this tree-related neurosis to my father Serafino, who decided to grace our house one year with the original version of the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree. My memory is burned with the image of its scrawny, yellowed branches bowed under the weight of hideous tinsel and garland.
Some years I overcompensate. My eyes tend to be too big for my mother’s living room, and my quest for the spectacular results in the need for a buzzsaw and several large men to set the tree in its stand. As long as there is a clear path to the front door, I am satisfied. The fact that one cannot see the TV from the couch is inessential — television numbs the mind anyway. Then I go to work.
I have learned to allow digressions in the tree’s decorative theme, as The Family insists upon breaking my design schematic. One year they purposely bought an ornament that did not match, just to spite me, and proceeded to hang it in the front. So I retaliated. Last year I purchased a remarkably lifelike Derek Jeter ornament for my mother (big fan) and hung it dead center. The Yankee Captain glowed like an angel among the lights as he stretched to catch a fly ball. The taunts have ceased.
Then there is the meal. Our approach to Christmas dinner differs greatly from that at Thanksgiving. For Turkey Day the dinner is elaborate, with candles made out of baby pumpkins and tea lights, mini haystacks to hold place cards, a multi-leveled centerpiece (which can be dangerous when combined with fire) and a formal table setting.
For Christmas, several new challenges present themselves: hyperactive children who want to tear everything open, parents who want to drink themselves into a state of mild numbness (just to take the edge off), fathers hunting for AAA batteries, and the dog desperately searching for a place to hide. The buffet is the answer. Grab it while you can, don’t miss the photo of the twins opening their new thingamabobs, and make sure you get some lasagna while it’s hot.
We take great delight when there is a new parent in the family, for this blessed occurrence is guaranteed to provide us with a good ten years of sadistic pleasure. We take enormous pride in providing our nieces and nephews with the childhood essentials: drums, anything that plays Barney music, finger paints, Play-Doh, permanent markers — the list goes on. With twin boys now in their Terrible Twos, we are planning special, special things this year.
Given the above, there is only one word to describe the dynamic of Christmas Day with the Iannolo family: LOUD. For some reason my brothers (and one of my nieces) seem to think we are gathered in a machine shop, and find it necessary to express themselves at maximum volume in order to be understood clearly. I’m not sure what spawned this, but attribute it to the dominant Neanderthal gene that courses through their veins (niece sometimes excluded).
Finally, Christmas Day chez nous cannot be complete without a full-contact, in-your-face version of the board game. Our clan lends an entirely new definition to “Family Game Night”: pencil points are snapped in a furious game of Pictionary; insults are hurled across the table in a battle of Outburst; slumlords are exposed in Monopoly; and entirely new languages are invented with the aid of Scrabble. They have yet to beat me at Trivial Pursuit.
On the years when we don’t head to the bar just to recover from the day, we typically rent a movie to wind down and relax, and that is when I break out my special hot chocolate recipe. It is excellent for any nippy winter night, but candy canes are the secret touch that gives the recipe a holiday spin.
(makes 2 servings)
1 oz. (or 6 individually wrapped squares) Valrhona bittersweet
2 cups whole milk
3 Tbsp sugar
1 tsp vanilla
dash of nutmeg
2 candy canes
Pour milk into heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Add all ingredients except candy canes. Heat slowly under low flame. When chocolate starts to melt, whisk to incorporate. Continue to whisk occasionally as milk heats. Do not allow milk to come to a boil. When you see the first bubble, remove from heat, remove cinnamon stick. Skim off any skin that has formed. Pour into mugs and serve with candy-cane stirrers.
Sip carefully. Do not burn tongue. Enjoy the sound of silence all around you.
Despite the headaches, the volume, the sheer chaos of spending time with my family, I would not trade Christmas with them for anything. We are a lively bunch who will welcome in a new friend and treat him like a VIP. We are Scottish and Italian, so there is no such concept as “Not enough room at the table.” This runs parallel to “What do you mean, you’re not hungry?”
There is always enough food, laughter, and gregariousness to scare the hell out of anyone new to the concept of Iannolo hospitality. Funny thing, though — by the end of the evening we always have more people than we started with.
So stop by. Have some lasagna. Pull Phil’s finger. The twins will be delighted to examine your tonsils with their new flashlights, and the dog will be equally amenable to stealing the food from your plate. We’ll save a seat for you.
Jennifer Iannolo is a freelance writer and the former director of L'École des Chefs, an international culinary educational program, where she worked with culinary luminaries such as Charlie Trotter, Daniel Boulud, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. A passionate student of gastronomy, Jennifer has published articles and interviews in The Valley Table and youngandsuccessful.com, and maintains a colorful weblog about food, Jennifer's Gastronomic Meditations.