Where Is Strega Nona Hiding?
Today is the first day of Advent. Our candles are on the table, awaiting their wreath of greens. I suppose I’m going to have to cook an actual dinner tonight—one more night of leftovers might result in a mutiny—so we can gather around the table and light our first purple candle and sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” My heart skips a beat, writing this…oh how I love this season of the year!
We’ll begin to pull out the lights, the decorations; these things take their places in our home gradually over the next four weeks. Today, though—today we commence my favorite of the many traditions that fill our Advent: we’ll bring out the books.
I owe a great deal of the inspiration for this particular tradition to Elizabeth Foss, my dear friend and author of Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home. Elizabeth’s Tomie de Paola Advent unit has enriched the holiday customs of hundreds of families—and her suggestions for family read-alouds, crafts, recipes, and prayers aren’t applicable only to homeschoolers.
Over the years I have accumulated a pile of beautiful Advent and Christmas books. Every January, after the Twelve Days of Christmas have come and gone, I tuck the books away in a closet for another year. I love the children’s gasps of delight when I pull them back out each Advent: they bubble over with joy at reuniting with these long-lost friends.
Today, as always, we’ll begin with our old chum, Strega Nona. I have been a huge fan of author and illustrator Tomie de Paola since I encountered his illustrations in Nancy Willard’s charming picture book, Simple Pictures Are Best, sometime around the age of eight. (Note to my sisters: if that book is still in Mom & Dad’s basement, it’s MINE. We will now return to the Season of Giving. Pardon the interruption.) Strega Nona, the wise and merry “Grandma Witch” who lives in village in Old Italy, is one of de Paola’s best creations. With a sparkle in her eye and a spoon in her hand, she dispenses advice and nourishment to Big Anthony and the other villagers—and to us as well. Of all the Strega Nona tales, Merry Christmas, Strega Nona is my favorite. The words “periwinkle and lemon blossom” conjure up such rich, tradition-steeped images for me, and Strega Nona’s bustle of preparation for the Christmas Eve feast puts us all in the mood to begin our own bustling and baking. Thanks, Elizabeth, for pointing us toward this beautiful book, all those years ago.
All right, it’s time for me to venture into the depths of that closet where I’ve stashed the books. If you don’t hear from me for a while, someone send a search party.