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My big fat Italian Thanksgiving

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It’s that “hurry-up” time again!

We may feel our hearts quickening as we enter the big box stores — and rightfully so. In October, amid the Halloween decorations, I spotted some Christmas stuff tucked in the corner. Nowadays, it seems like the retailers do it up faster than the speed of light.

But — hold on, folks! Do we really need to subscribe to this madness?

Thanksgiving is right around the corner — and like many others, I am giving thanks, but with one little twist: I am going to give thanks for everything that I “forget” is a gift — like waking up!

This year, Jeff, Cassandra and baby Luca will be flying in from California for Thanksgiving. Some of my siblings and their families will also be gathering around my table on this, my favorite, holiday.

For me, it’s not about the turkey, football games, stuffing the turkey and stuffing myself. Thanksgiving is a holiday where gratefulness graces our table, or should. Imagine no presents required, only our presence!

For a forward-thinking kind of gal, I am still steeped in tradition. I was raised in an Italian-American household where turkey was not the big thing. Turkey was almost an afterthought.

When my first husband George, who was of Irish descent, attended his first (of many) Thanksgiving dinners, he was bewildered. Let’s just say, it wasn’t the calm “please-pass-the-potatoes” type of gathering.

My parents, grandparents and siblings with assorted aunts, uncles and cousins were all seated around a large table, one talking louder than the other!

As Mom and my aunts brought out each course, George wolfed it down. One aunt whispered not too softly to Mom, “Morire di fame.” Loosely translated she said George was eating like “he was dying of hunger!”

For those who have not experienced an Italian Thanksgiving, we Italians go over the top in the food department.

We started with wine. Then came the antipasto followed by lasagna, salad, more wine and sherbet (to clean the palate). Two hours later and numerous bottles of Italian red, the turkey with trimmings made its debut.

George looked greenish!

He whispered, “Baby doll, I thought maybe you didn’t do turkey. I’m stuffed and will be sick if I eat any more.”

I replied, “This is our tradition. Mangiare! Eat!”

Back then it was about tradition. Some of us try to continue our family traditions but it feels like we are shoveling sand against the tide.

Over the years, as life became more complicated, time became a premium and I became more health savvy. My tradition changed and evolved. I eliminated the lasagna and the elaborate antipasto in favor of an array of cheeses, nuts and dried fruit. The wine has stayed.

If my grandparents and parents were alive today, they would wonder if everyone was pazzo (crazy). Big box stores are messing with Thanksgiving by opening at 10 p.m. — some even earlier —on Thanksgiving. Good Lord, at 10 p.m. they were just finishing the cannoli and espresso and washing them down with Brioschi.

The big box stores are not entirely to blame — those who would rather chase bargains than be with their family are accomplices. It’s the “ f you build it they will come” mentality.

If you plan to run out on your family at 10 p.m. or earlier, drop your turkey leg and chew on this for a while: If you knew this was the last holiday you would spend with a loved one, would you be so quick to leave, carrying your pumpkin pie in a doggie bag?

I’m not one to live in the past, but some traditions are worth keeping — and it’s hard work. We live in a global world. Families no longer live on the same block. Now they’re often scattered across the country or the continent.

Getting everyone together is one of those aforementioned simple gifts. Family bonds are strengthened when we have those “remember when” conversations. They give us a sense of identity.

Tevye, one of the main characters in Fiddler on the Roof, says it best:

“Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years…This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you — I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”

This year, I will celebrate the gift of family by embracing my Italian tradition. Along with bottles of Italian red, I will serve a big antipasto, lasagna, salad and turkey with the trimmings. We will drink espresso and devour cannolis and pumpkin pie.  And I will have Brioschi on hand.

My faith tells me that Mom, Dad, my grandparents and all who have gone before will be present — if only in our memories.

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Celia Marszal-Iannelli
Celia Iannelli is a native New Yorker enjoying a second career — in 'retirement' — as a freelance writer. She lives in Jamesport.