I sincerely hope that all my readers are acquainted with Tomie dePaola’s beloved character Strega Nona. She is the unforgettable “Grandma Witch” who can cure a headache with oil and water and a hairpin. Hers is the magic pasta pot that floods the town when hapless Big Anthony tampers with it. She is more than the wise woman of her little village in Calabria; she is the heart and soul.
If you haven’t met this dear old woman, I encourage you to go directly to the library and look her up without delay. But even if she is an old friend, have you come across all of her stories? As we begin this new church year with the holy season of Advent, I think there are a few worth pointing out in particular.
If you have not read much past the original tale, I would encourage you next to try Strega Nona: Her Story. Far better than most backstories, this one gives the full history of our heroine and how she became a strega like her beloved grandmother. Not only do we meet other characters like Amelia and Grandma Concetta (the ending, which nostalgically introduces Big Anthony, is especially endearing), but readers see and feel what it is that makes Nona so special. The magic of the pasta pot is revealed, along with the secret to her life’s work; and it could not be more satisfying.
Big Anthony: His Story is a riotous trip through the famous destinations of Italy, and we meet the exacting but lovable Bambolona in Strega Nona’s Magic Lessons. Anthony happily bungles the ambitions of Strega Amelia in Strega Nona Meets Her Match, though his mishaps feel a bit too ridiculous in Strega Nona Takes a Vacation. There are other adventures to explore, but at this time of year there are two in particular I reach for on my shelf.
First is Strega Nona’s Gift. Big Anthony is up to his usual antics and it ends in a standoff with the goat; the story is enjoyable enough on its own, but more interesting to me are Strega Nona’s traditional Italian preparations for the festive season. She makes special dishes for Santa Lucia and La Vigilia (Christmas Eve), and most especially for Epifania (Epiphany). In the back is a guide to these and other holy days, with a note as to how they are traditionally celebrated in Italy. In my home, where we keep the seasons of the Church without the benefit of cultural tradition, kicking off Advent with Strega Nona is a relaxed way to remind ourselves of our own customs at this fruitful time of the liturgical cycle. (And yes, we do take treats to the animals on Twelfth Night… but I can’t cook like Strega Nona!)
The other title I treasure is Merry Christmas, Strega Nona. Again we see our favorite strega preparing for the Nativity, this time with a thorough cleaning and fascinating descriptions of the foods she will make for all the villagers to celebrate after the Midnight Mass. But bumbling Anthony ruins her plans, and poor Strega Nona is feeling disappointed and alone when Christmas Eve arrives. Nevertheless, she goes to Mass; and her private exchange with the Christ Child at the stunning crèche brings tears to my eyes every year. When she climbs the hill to her little house, she finds that for once perhaps Big Anthony didn’t get it wrong, after all.
One of many things I love about these fun, simple stories is the constant presence of faith. Although she is a “witch”, Strega Nona is really just a skilled herbalist and healer with a tremendously good heart (and a pinch of magic for whimsy). Of course she goes to the beautiful church for Midnight Mass at Christmas. It seems quite right that she should remind the hired help to wear red underwear on the feast of San Silvestro… don’t you? The presence of the priest and sisters of the convent among the townspeople is just as natural and fun as the sprinkling of Italian vocabulary throughout these sweet stories. It simply breathes of a life where faith and community are understood.
Strega Nona’s Gift begins with the feast of San Nicola, which is today. Whether you set out your shoes every year or you’ve not tried it yet, grab these books and consider what your family can do to live the faith. You might find that Strega Nona does have a magic touch.