by Gianluca Isaia
Christmas at ISAIAby Gianluca Isaia
Christmas in Napoli has always assumed many aspects of spiritual significance. It condenses the most profound sense of a particular religiousness rooted in the local culture and expressed in myriad ways. The Neapolitan Christmas is a convivial occasion with opulent Baroque nuances, brimming with aromas, surprises, colors and flavors. Unfortunately, even in Napoli you hardly ever see the "zampognaro" bagpipe players anymore. When I was a child and adolescent, they underscored the festive mood during the Christmas holidays, with that sense of eager expectation and emblematic significance. For me, always traveling around the globe, Christmas is now an ideal moment of tranquility, a time for reflection, thought and assessment. Even more than New Year's Eve, it is a moment for meditating on life in general and on future projects. Spending time with the family, I can finally enjoy my city to the fullest. This "full immersion" in Napoli can be spiced up with a few lazy digressions to Capri. Still today, my children and I like to explore the crèche makers' shops on Via San Gregorio Armeno, which you can only find in Napoli, during the weeks of Advent to avoid the incredible crowds on the weekends. This trip takes me back to my childhood when thirty or forty of us gathered in our large family home in Sorrento. A huge Nativity Scene was set up for the holidays and constantly supplemented with new shepherds, animals and details as well as realistic and picturesque theatrical effects. We were all awed and excited when the crèche was unveiled, a moment that coincided with everyone exchanging gifts just before Midnight Mass.
There was no melancholy, tears or regret: just happiness and good cheer.
Everyone seemed so elegant and appropriate – never exaggerated. Almost all the men wore a dark blue suit and a white shirt with cufflinks. There were many dark ties, but some fellows dared to wear jewel colors. I realize that well-dressed elegance influenced my life even back then.
From my perspective as a child, save for the magical Star of Bethlehem, the holiday had nothing to do with the poignant melancholy expressed by Eduardo di Filippo in what may be his most famous comedy, "Natale in casa Cupiello” [Christmas at the Cupiello's], which was written in 1931. I still have a vivid, almost photographic memory of those festive tables for Christmas Eve dinner in Sorrento. On the evening of December 24, no meat was served and the menu was strictly fish. There was pasta with clam sauce and fried eel, which was a symbol of eternity for the Greeks and ancient Romans. Desserts included the colorful and extremely sweet struffoli, a proverbial prerogative of my grandmother who affectionately prepared them for me. I have to confess, however, that I never liked them all that much, but I insisted on thanking Grandmother to please her. Perhaps, due to such happy and engaging childhood memories, Christmas for me has become an invitation to live in the present with no past regrets or excessive, anxious thoughts about the future.
It is a reminder to realize the beauty of life, so full of magnificent things. "Dàtte da fà: ca 'a jurnata è 'nu muòrze..." [Hop to it! The day passes in a flash!] Of course, I attend Midnight Mass in the church on Via Tasso, where an extraordinary priest named Father Gennaro Matino – a man second to none who worked with inte
Intellectuals such as Erri De Luca – knew how to create a strong sentiment of community and sharing. From a gastronomical perspective, I strictly abide by the traditional menu. I do the same with the suit, reinterpreting with an extra touch of creativity the Neapolitan allure that is in Isaia's DNA. As the old saying goes, "Natale cu 'e tuoje e Pasqua cu chi vuoje" [Christmas with family; Easter with whomever you want], which is always good advice. Merry Christmas! I sincerely wish you all the best this holiday season.