Florence at Christmastime with Penny Howard

Florence by Penny Howard

Christmas lights in Florence. Photo by Penny Howard

I met Penny Howard last September at The Art of Writing, a writer’s workshop taught by author Lisa Clifford.  Penny was the machine behind the operation.  She organized our registration, wire transfers, and had the workshop running with the utmost efficiency.  Not always an easy task when located in remote Bed and Breakfast in Casentino, Italy.  A small mountain town about an hour outside of Florence.

Upon meeting her, you can’t help but instantly like Penny.  Always smiling, she instills an instant comfort.  We share a love for all things Italian, especially the city of Florence.  Penny first fell in love with city while studying art on a school trip in the early 70’s.   She returned on a three-month sabbatical to study Italian at Centro Fiorenza and can now communicate quite impressively.  In 2008, she set up her own company, Beyond the Yalla Dog, providing advice and support on Italian things to do in the Uk and in Florence.  Penny resides in the UK and spends time every month at her flat in Florence.

Penny and classmates at The Art of Writing, September '14.

Penny and classmates at The Art of Writing, September ’14.

When Penny posted the picture of the Christmas lights hanging in the streets of Florence, my heart ached to be there.  It has been something I have always wanted to see in person.  I had to find out more.

E: What is your favorite part of Christmastime in Italy?
P:  When the decorations go up all over the city.

E:  What is your favorite traditional Christmas dish?
P: A Capon – they seem more tasty than Turkeys.
(Capon? I must look in to this)

E:  What do you miss most from home during Christmas?
P:  I have only once stayed in Florence over Christmas and apart from the usual family meal, I have to admit to missing decent UK TV!

Penny’s website Beyond the Yalla Dog can be found at:

Christmas Traditions

Christmas Celebration circa 1946

Christmas Celebration circa 1946

With Christmas just around the corner, I thought it would be fun to explore the traditions observed in Italy and in America.  With so many expats in both countries, it would be interesting to see how they’ve managed to continue celebrating with their customs and how they’ve incorporated those of their new homes.

Both my grandparents grew up in large Italian American families and they carried on the traditions that they knew.  Family was number one and gathering for holidays was never a question, but an expectation.  The picture above was taken at Christmastime (note the Panettone) and probably soon after my grandparents were married.  It is a perfect example of how our gatherings were revered.  We dressed up for the occasion.

My grandmother remembers her father making sausage and having it ready to be served after they attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve.  My grandfather carried on that tradition making sausage from scratch and also serving it after midnight mass.  As the family grew, my great-aunt hosted Christmas Eve dinner and either served “Sauce” or Lasagna.  For dessert, we enjoyed traditional homemade Italian cookies.  After that, Christmas became very American with my grandmother staying up all night wrapping presents and for Christmas dinner, serving ham topped with crushed pineapple that was dyed red and green and a layered jello salad.  I have no memory of a television ever being on and of course, there were no cell phones or electronics.  If we weren’t cooking then a game of cards would begin.  There was constant food and commotion.

After learning of the sausage meal, I suggested to the girls that we should make that for Christmas Eve dinner this year.   My idea was met with much resistance.  They firmly stated that we couldn’t change from our dinner of spaghetti and sauce.  It’s our family tradition!