February 29, 2024 | Rome, Italy


By |2018-03-21T18:34:48+01:00December 7th, 2008|"Suzanne's Taste"|
Louisa May Alcott's March sisters.

s there anyone left except children, sweet, innocent little things, who look forward to the holidays with excitement and joy? I’d love to have that tingle again, that night-before-Christmas, sleigh-bells-ring-are you listnin’ kind of magic that had my mother slip me half-a-tranquilizer one out-of-control year. I was 11 and couldn’t sleep. What would any responsible, tender, caring mother do? Slip her kid a mickey, that’s what.

Perhaps it all starts going downhill at 12, but we just don’t know it until around 40 when friends have multiplied along with kids, kids’ kids and cousins’ kids and their kids, and you wonder if you can just get a one-way ticket to Easter Island.

I can remember the anticipation of listening for Santa on the roof, making a list and checking it twice (just like Mr. Claus), helping my mother make her special Yule-tree and bell-shaped sugar cookies, and especially being allowed a tiny sip of egg nog-laced with Wild Turkey. A slug of that would inspire anyone to deck the halls.

But, oh, holidays of memory, where have you gone? Just after Halloween, little twinkling lights appear in the streets out of nowhere (in Rome, they are last year’s decorations never removed), and boxes of red, green and silver balls, five-way tree lights, candy canes, chocolate Santas and myriad little dolls, animals, and angels made in Taiwan or Indonesia (€5 apiece with inflation) fill shop windows.

I am nostalgic each holiday season remembering one of my favorite childhood books, “Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott’s 1867 novel about a struggling family during the Civil War. The novel’s four March sisters became integral parts of my growing up, and I identified with each one. Well, maybe not Beth: She was too good, and as sweet as my mother’s cookies even as she succumbed to scarlet fever (a shock — I had not yet encountered a character in a book who died). But I certainly had the temper and tomboy of Jo, way too much of Amy’s vanity and arrogance, and painful surges of Meg’s romanticism.

But they gave me much more than that.

As there was no money for gifts all around, they drew names for one gift only. Perhaps this was in the book, perhaps the movie, a classic, but drawing names has come up two years in a row with our family and no one can seem to follow through.

There are six grandchildren in our family, all of an age to still revel in presents under the tree, but presents from every member of the family? It is mind-numbing when you do the multiplication of six kids times several aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and this is after the adults have all agreed to forgo big presents to one another (they never succeed).

In the book, too, these loveable characters decide to take their Christmas breakfast to a needy family nearby, and are then unexpectedly rewarded by the wealthy family down the street who acknowledge their sacrifice with a large and sumptuous holiday dinner.

Many know of the Rome soup kitchen in Trastevere where one can drop off food, clothing and necessities for the homeless (this year, unfortunately, more than usual). But maybe our opulent holidays simply need to evolve into something less elaborate, a “Little Women” kind of giving that anyone can afford.

And maybe, just maybe, when I see a room full of unfortunates having what might be their first hot meal in weeks, my holiday spirit will surface again.

Santa Maria in Trastevere Via della Paglia, 14c, Rome. Tel. 06.581.4802. Take cans of food, wrapped toys for kids, and the very meaningful gift of good will.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.