By Suzanne Saluti

I learned to count in Italian by playing Tombola, or Italian bingo, which is played exclusively during the Holidays. There are no letters, though, just numbers: 1-90. Each number has a nickname or backstory attached to it, which is how the number gets called: 77 is the “crooked legs of a woman” and 88 is “Grandpa’s glasses”. Many of these nicknames are fairly standard throughout Italy, but they can vary a bit region to region; some families even make up their own. For example, the birth year year of my oldest nephew (whose parents generally host these gatherings), is called out as, “71, he is born.”

I was made fun of early on for my accent and minor counting errors when calling out the numbers, and quickly learned to get it right. These games are rambunctious, fiercely competitive, multi-generational affairs that last until the wee hours during the holiday season. Italians are dedicated gamblers, so everyone saves their spare change for weeks leading up to Christmas in order to buy as many cards are possible for every round in hopes of winning one of several prize levels. There is serious money to be made if you get lucky.

I’m fairly certain that in Italy, playing Tombola is obligatory to pass the time between the three-hour Christmas “lunch” (which usually commences around 2 pm) and the inevitable re-emergence of leftovers at about 9 PM. In between the two meals we snack on clementines and chocolates while we play. Lunch starts late on Christmas because we are all still recovering from the Feast of the 7 Fishes -and subsequent games of Tombola-that we had on Christmas Eve before some departed to attend midnight mass. Once the littlest kids get bored and wander off, then the Italian playing cards come out and the complicated games begin with even fiercer levels of competition; these games are played far into the night.

There is a small break in the gaming action on Christmas Day sometime after the first few rounds for the gift exchange. This is actually a very minor affair, generally limited to one small gift per family for each “kid” (roughly defined as the generation below the oldest in attendance), a scarf or a bottle of homemade liquor, or even the occasional gag gift. Little kids may get a few extra presents from the grandparents, but it is nothing like the all-out gift bonanzas that I recall from my childhood. Even now as Christmas in Italy is sadly becoming more and more commercialized, it is clear that the gifts are not the point. Rather, it is the food, games and the family time. I’m going to miss those sprawling, rowdy games this year because Covid Christmas regulations mean that we are strongly discouraged from gathering with family in groups larger than 10-and not at all with family living outside one’s region.

A few years ago, in order to accommodate the older kids spending time with significant others and relatives on the in-law’s side of the family, my husband’s siblings decided not to gather on Christmas Eve for the Feast of the 7 Fishes. That year, since we hadn’t planned an alternative gathering it was just my husband, our daughter and me. At first, we thought we would just stay home, but at the last minute we decided to see if any place in town was open for dinner. We called a wine bar that we like, and they told us that we could come in but had to leave by 9PM as they would be closing. We were the only customers, and it was cozy and warm near the fireplace at the wooden table in the building with the vaulted brick ceilings dating back to the 16th century. We didn’t have the Feast of the 7 Fishes, but we had a few carefully prepared appetizers and a great bottle of wine. After dinner we were the only people walking through the usually crowded main square, and that experience was one of the most magical moments of my life. The Christmas lights reflecting off the smooth travertine of the pavement gave the “piazza of the people” an ethereal quality, and the eerie silence and the timeless beauty of the place made me catch my breath.

Since we also have an extended group of ex-pat friends here in Ascoli, (none of whom have any family locally) we usually kick off the season by hosting a Winter Solstice Celebration at out farmhouse. In a nod to US tradition we make it a potluck, with all of our friends bringing favorite holiday dishes to share. I ask guests to participate in goofy semi-pagan rituals like writing down on scraps of paper the things they want to let go of from the past year, as well as their hopes for the new year. Once completed, we consign the notes to the fire. People are encouraged to share their intentions and gratitude publically if so moved, and we sing songs and toast our good fortune for having found each other and such a rich life in Italy. Since it will just be the three of us again this year, perhaps we will celebrate Solstice with an outdoor bonfire like I’ve always wanted to do.

This year we will scale back our expectations as well as our gatherings. We will improvise and focus on our blessings; saving our pent-up Holiday spirit for next year when we can all be together again.

In yet another reminder that this year is different, there will be no lively Christmas market outside the Duomo selling local and hand-made items, a victim of the “no public gatherings” decree. However, the Mayor has assured us that the Christmas lights will still be strung, the town will sparkle, and an abbreviated midnight mass will be held outdoors. As they have for centuries, the ancient fountains with the beautifully-carved horse heads at each end will silently stand guard in the middle of the empty but still beautiful piazza, reminding us that what once may have seemed terrible and unbearable will eventually pass and another season to celebrate will again return.

Suzanne was born and raised in Northern California, but has been living on and off in Central Italy for 30 years. She has now found her forever home in the Marche region with her Italian husband, six chickens, three cats, and 95 olive trees.

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