When I was younger, we knew we could start to get excited about the coming Christmas on the evening the carol singers came to my grandparents’ house in the second week of December. Twenty people would arrive carrying lanterns, sing professional renditions of classic carols and then collect for charity. We would then join in the few that we were allowed to ruin: the Fortes are not known for their singing voices.
Everything about that evening was magical: the enormous, over-the-top Christmas tree, the extravagant manger that Nonna added to every year with her carefully preserved Neapolitan figures, the huge buffets with cotechino, lentils and huge parmesan wheels, the tables throughout the ground floor with their nearest and dearest friends, and what often seemed like most of the Italian community in London.
We would be summoned to tables to be cooed over and reintroduced to distant cousins we hadn’t seen since the last family party. This was an occasion when we were encouraged to show off – sing a carol, recite a poem – and we would be summoned to Nonno’s side so that he could boast about our successes, our A-level results, and to Nonna’s, so she could show off our lovely dresses and immaculate manners.
My father died when I was nine and my sister was six. Christmas was my extended Forte family around an enormous table, with ravioli made by my great-aunt and grandmother, a turkey big enough to feed 50 people, ditto the Christmas pudding, followed by a present frenzy, followed by 4pm Mass.
After my grandparents died and we no longer had the luxury of a house big enough for all of us at once, I think my aunts and uncles were relieved to finally be free to have the intimate Christmas they had always wanted. They could begin to create their own traditions. I, instead, have always wanted to emulate those years to whatever degree I was able.
Since then, I have had to work over the festive period at least 10 times in the last two decades, and I have never minded doing so, even when I was in Hong Kong for three years and so far away from my family. But by far my favourite Christmases have been the ones when I was running Hotel Endsleigh for Mum, and I had the opportunity of making it as fabulous for our guests as it had been made for me. Hospitality is an intrinsic part of Christmas, and the desire to make people happy is one of the main – maybe naïve – reasons I entered the industry.
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