Blog | Kathy

Growing Up Italian-American- Little Christmas

When my grandmother, the matriarch of our Italian-American clan, died, I inherited the music box we all called Dancing Santa. It was a beloved Little Christmas gift—an Epiphany gift—from several years earlier, from when I was probably ten. We were shopping at the after Christmas sales my grandmother loved. She always bought 95% of her Christmas presents at these sales, and she only gave us one type of present: church clothes. This meant we almost always had to return the clothes when she incorrectly guessed what size we’d be wearing 364 days later.

That December 26th, she and I went into a Hallmark store to poke around. I’m not one to usually stop at the music boxes, but something about this one caught my attention. It is a small, sideways cardboard cylinder decorated in Christmas colors that contains a smiling Santa Claus. When it is wound up, Santa merrily dances a little jig to “Here Comes Santa Claus.” As soon as I wound this music box up and sent Santa dancing as he’d just had a few too many seven-and-sevens at a Knights of Columbus dance, my grandmother started laughing. A few moments later, it turned to howls and tears streamed down her face. The next day, I went back with my mother and bought Dancing Santa for Grandma when we went to her house for Little Christmas on whatever Sunday was closest to January 6th.

She loved it.

Until she died a few years later, every year when she pulled out her Christmas decorations, Grandma put Dancing Santa in a place of honor, on top of her television, next to the VCR covered in plastic. My sisters and I would fight about who got to wind him up. But every time we sent him jigging, my grandmother would stop what she was doing and come watch Santa, laughing each time.

That is the one, the only, Dancing Santa doing his thing.

Dancing Santa isn’t the only thing I inherited from Grandma. I also love celebrating Little Christmas. My grandmother had always wished that she could host the regular Christmas, but my parents refused to budge. She’d always hosted Thanksgiving, and they didn’t want to truck presents for 5 kids and several adults to San Francisco each Christmas morning. My parents and grandmother’s compromise was Little Christmas, where we would visit on the Sunday closest to the actual feast of Epiphany. Next to the crèche under the tree each year would be one present for each of us (can you guess what it was?!) and stocking that had exactly one candy bar and ten scratch-off lottery tickets my grandfather had bought at the corner bodega where he got his newspaper every afternoon. And we loved it. Maybe not as much as regular Christmas, but as you would an essential part of your family traditions.

Now The Bife and I make our own family traditions, and one of those is celebrating Little Christmas as Grandma did. It is a nice combination of my Italian-American heritage and my wife’s Czech one. In The Life’s childhood, the Wise Men didn’t appear in Nativity scenes until they arrive on Epiphany, which is of course why it is also called The Feast of the Three Kings. So that is the way it is in our house, with the kids watching our Wise Men start moving magically around the downstairs rooms when no one is looking. (This year they even took a quick trip out on the porch to bypass the living room on their long 12-day journey. I think they were lost. And being men, no matter how wise they are, they don’t look like they asked for directions.) In many ways, celebrating all twelve days of Christmas with the Wise Men’s journey is my favorite tradition now, watching the kids excitedly yelling, “The Wise Men moved again! They moved!” each time they notice a change.

So even though celebrating Epiphany is not exclusive to Italian-Americans, it is one of the things that been surprisingly enjoyable to carry on with my own family. While the presents aren’t huge, and there are no scratch-offs for the kids (Yet!), Little Christmas is a way of celebrating the last day of Christmas in a way that is much more satisfying than collecting all the livestock and dancing maids of some WASPy Christmas carol.

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