24 December 2009

Tonight is La Vigilia

Tonight is La Vigilia. Despite my complete lack of anything resembling an Italian heritage, I have claimed one anyhow. The way I see it, I'm Italian by intention not Italian by birth. That's a mere technicality.

La Vigilia is an Italian-American, traditional meal held on the evening of 24 December. So before I get ready to dive into some Baccalà and salt cured anchovies tonight, I need to set a mood for the day.

In 1744, a Neapolitan priest named Alfonso Maria de Liguori wrote a song that would come to be Italy's great and lasting contribution to the body of world Christmas music. The song is Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle and here it is performed by Luciano Pavarotti. This version makes the hair on my arms stand up, but that's just me.

Tu scendi dalle stelle,
O Re del Cielo,
e vieni in una grotta,
al freddo al gelo.

O Bambino mio Divino
Io ti vedo qui a tremar,
O Dio Beato
Ahi, quanto ti costò
l'averci amato!

A te, che sei del mondo
il Creatore,
mancano panni e fuoco;
O mio Signore!

Caro eletto Pargoletto,
Quanto questa povertà
più mi innamora!
Giacché ti fece amor
povero ancora!

Buon Natale!


  1. In the pre-Gene days I dated an Italian guy for four years. He was born near Naples and then immigrated to the US with his family when he was very young. His mother spoke English, but his father didn't. I had the great fortune to spend four holiday seasons with them and it was a cultural experience that I will never forget. I've never had food like that since and, try as I might, I can't duplicate it exactly. Grazia, Vinny's (yes, his name was Vinny, and yes, he lived in Bensonhurst...and had brothers named Joey, Peter and Paulie. There was a Carmine too) mother, made a cold fish salad for which I'd give my right arm. It was a vinegared mix of squid, celery and other seafood marinated overnight and then eaten cold. I never did learn how to make it, but I did finally dump him secure in the knowledge of how to make a mean batch of Sunday gravy and eggplant rolletini. I'm making eggplant tonight for dinner and may attempt the fish salad once again.
    In the end, there was too great a cultural divide for us to manage - they were old school to a very great degree - and we parted ways but not without weeks of histrionics and battling. I'll never forget the first time he took me to his house. We pulled into the driveway and as we were about to get out of the car, one of six sisters ran out of the house screaming and crying at the top of her lungs, immediately followed by the second of six sisters in a fit of rage bellowing that she was going to kill the first. He didn't give them a second of his attention and took me into his house to meet his mother as if nothing had happened. Welcome to the Fusco family.

  2. Oh man, such a picture you paint. I cannot explain why but I am drawn to Neapolitan culture with a power I can't resist. I was raised without a real sense of my ethnicity and I guess I glommed onto the strongest one I could find. Maybe that's it. Neapolitan culture is ancient and it's all-encompassing. It's born of hardship and struggle but it celebrates the mundane with a passion I say is unmatched. A friend, a historian, who lives in Positano swears that if you want to experience the culture of ancient Rome, all you have to do is spend an afternoon in the market in Naples.

    Underneath the passion and strong emotion you described through Vinny's sisters is a loyalty and a love that requires to guessing to be gaged. It's right there in your face.

    I can imagine that it can overwhelming and stifling at times but to this outsider, I can't get enough of it.

    So tonight when I break out the alici, the tonno, the baccalà and the pulpo I'm fully aware that I'm borrowing a culture that isn't mine but I don't care. I love the people I'll have gathered around my table and my favorite way to express that is to feed them.

    Thanks for your story about the Famiglia Fusco, I'd give my right arm to sit at their Vigilia table and you're fortunate to have had the experience four times. Knowing you, I bet your baccalà rivals that of la Signora Fusco despite your protests to the contrary.

    Buon Natale Melody and give my best to Gene.

  3. You can totally be Italian by intent, I'm Norse by intent afterall :) (and only the tiniest bit of genetics of that persuasion). Sometimes it's not about what you are by heritage but what makes you happy and comfortable. Hell, if some people are born the wrong gender why can't some of us be born the wrong heritage?

  4. So I guess this makes me transethnic. I like how that sounds. When someone asks me my ethnic background, I'll say "well I was born Scots but I identify as Italian." That's absurd enough that I doubt people will question it. Thanks!

    So Nim the self-identified Norsewoman, I'm glad you've decided to hang around here. I like what you contribute to the tone of the place. Enjoy your Christmas and you have my warmest wishes for a really great new year.


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