December 4, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Christmas Facelife

By |2018-03-21T18:23:32+01:00December 1st, 2006|"Suzanne's Taste"|
My husband and I decided long ago that we need no more objects in our lives...

never was a bah humbug kind of person. I can string colored popcorn with the best and carol with joy at Pavarotti’s door. I know how to make ornaments from pine cones, rag dolls out of scraps, and produce sugar cookies faster than you can say adeste fidelis.

But things have changed.

In my childhood, Christmas reigned.

Preparations began after the rigors of Thanksgiving, just as Yule advertising now begins at Halloween. My able and efficient mother laid out intricate plans for making lists and checking them twice. They included baking and jellying and jamming and sewing, and the finale — shopping and wrapping and putting things under the tree.

These inextricable parts of growing up produced almost unbearable anticipation until the moment I positioned myself at the window, cookies and milk in hand, to watch for reindeer and await you know who.

I remember one Christmas, when I was already far too old to be dancing over the oddly-wrapped package under the tree (a bicycle — duh) but still young and gullible, my mother entered my room with an outstretched palm on which rested half of a tiny orange pill. “Don’t worry, darling, just something to help calm you down.”

And yes, mamma, Thorazine will do that every time.

This only happened once, I’m glad to say, and no, I am not a dope addict — yet.

But I have the beginnings of something worse — cynicism.

Justifying this change in perspective is hard when I tell you that I still give thanks daily to my creative mother for the lessons she imparted: Being able to redress the decay of one’s clothes with a needle and thread; knowing that neither mayonnaise nor meringues must ever be made on a rainy day; calculating just when to bat one’s eyes to achieve certain strategic successes; shaking hands firmly and looking others straight in the eye; using lay and lie correctly to prove knowledge of one’s mother tongue (my mother was a teacher); and never, never “letting” a man beat you in any game, tennis, cards or anything else.

So I was well-prepared for the onslaught of December demands.

Throughout my own adult life, I was in near-nirvana as I steamed Christmas puddings and wrapped them in red and green cellophane for gifts. I built gingerbread houses, iced panettone, and hiked into the woods for red berries and pine for door wreaths. I wore only sparkly clothes and hung bells on my ears and carefully trimmed the tree in an attempt at Martha Stewart-style ingenuity (which I never achieved).

But as the years wore on, Christmas became, well, burdensome.

A list of 43 gifts within a family seemed a bit much, especially as many of the members lived elsewhere and could only be reached with the help of sherpas or by carrier pigeon, or not at all (simplifying matters greatly, I might add).

There were the endless trips to the post office and waiting in lines at supermarkets. Sometimes the butter ran out in the middle of a brioche run. Oh yes, and how to leave out scrounging for last Christmas’ wrapping paper (not too wrinkled or covered with scotch tape) and sacking the “present” drawer to find something suitable for the hostess of a forgotten party only to catch the flu in the middle of it all and be knocked flat through New Year’s?

Sound familiar?

Well, it’s not quite that bad, but I have begun taking a new look at holidays in recent years.

I now have step-grandkids whose Christmas-lit faces are worth the sacrificial days of preparation and the search, say, for the best computer deal in Rome or the tea set that perfectly fits last year’s doll house. The adage that the holidays are for kids is true and fine by me.

Sure, I’ll have a few little stocking gifts for all five of them — and a puppy toy for Nelson, the Lab, who thinks I’m his girlfriend — and browse through my Pittman Davis fruit catalogue, which I discovered long ago could solve most holiday problems. I’ll send little boxes of Vitamin C to a pared-down list of recipients, have a small holiday gathering of family, light ritual candles, and make a Yule Log (and also hope I don’t catch one of December’s myriad little bugs).

This time, though, I’m refusing to start the process months ahead of time. I’m also not surrendering to pervasive buy-or-die consumerism: so no presents purchased for their own sake.

There might not be an array of holiday trimmings in our Rome apartment, but there will be a welcoming smile at the door and hugs all around. I’m giving to those I care for and love, and what I give may well not come in packages.

How about a few nights of baby-sitting to my stepson and his mate whose lives have changed drastically with a new child? Or pruning some roses for a friend with a terrace who hates dealing with the upkeep? Or just baking a few loaves of focaccia every week for a bread-lover?

My husband and I decided long ago that we need no more objects in our lives, and so our gifts to one another are moments: a nice dinner at a trattoria or day in the country at our favorite hideaway. Or something as simple as a bite or two of little black fish eggs on New Year’s Eve.

Christmas, in my view, is in desperate need of an overhaul, a face-lift if you will. There are too many wrinkles in a worn out holiday that was once a religious feast (not for Muslims, Jews, and others who know nothing of St. Nick, and don’t need to). The spirit of the feast hailed compassion, something that is sorely lacking on a global scale.

No, I won’t forget my Christmas skills.

Or the enthusiasm I still feel.


I’ll hold on to them so I can pull them out when the world looks a little rosier.

This year, though, it’s back to basics.

I’m pulling last year’s extra plum puddings from the sheltering freezer. They are always better — as are we all — with age.

And if my grandkids didn’t know the simple art of stringing popcorn before this year, they’ll remember the Christmas of 2006 as the year they learned.

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.