From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Buddy Valastro leaves no doubt about what he values most in life. Ask him what is the best part about the phenomenal success of his TLC show Cake Boss, and he says, "I love that it brings families together for a half hour every week." Ask him what he wants for Christmas, and he'll tell you, without hesitation, "My favorite thing about the day is getting together as a big family."

Every year Valastro and his wife of nine years, Lisa, 30, treat their extended family-that's 30 to 40 siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews-to an Italian feast on Dec. 25. But first Valastro, 33, actually opens his Hoboken, N.J., store, Carlo's Bakery, because he doesn't want to disappoint any loyal customers hoping for a signature treat. So Christmas starts very early for the Cake Boss brood.

Valastro rouses his kids-Sophia, 7, Buddy Jr., 6, and Marco, 3 (another baby is due early next year)-around 4 a.m. to get to their presents. "They wake up really quickly when I tell them Santa came," he says. "There is nothing like seeing my kids' faces when they're opening gifts. It's so special."

By 7 a.m. Valastro arrives at the store he's run since age 17, when his dad, Buddy Sr., died of lung cancer at 54. He cranks up the yuletide tunes, greets longtime customers and prepares about 10 hams for employees who can't celebrate with their kin. "They're my other family," he says. "We keep the Christmas cheer alive." Next stop? Dropping off leftover cakes at a local homeless shelter. "My dad and I used to do it every year," he explains. "That's just the way I was raised."

He heads home around 3 p.m., arriving just in time to carve the prime rib. After dinner everybody moves to the living room for games and more gift giving, plus a pre-dessert snack of fruit and roasted chestnuts. The kids dance-Miley Cyrus and Flo Rida songs were hits last year-and the men play cards. "We just have a great time," says Valastro, who shares more family tales in his new book Cake Boss: Stories and Recipes from Mia Famiglia. Dessert, coffee and a little cognac signal the end of the night. The one minor snag in a perfect day? "The kids don't like cleaning up, but they have to," he says. "It's a dictatorship." Consider him a benevolent leader, though, since there's only one holiday tradition he truly insists his kids keep. "I just want them to spend time with their family and cherish those moments."

the menu

A traditional 25-course Italian meal. Highlights include:

• Prime rib

• Lasagna

• Potato frittata

• Stuffed peppers

• Stuffed tomatoes

• Sauteed broccoli rabe

• Bruschetta

• Roasted eggplant

• Artichoke bread

My Wife's the Boss!

"Lisa does 90 percent of the meal," says her proud husband. "She starts prepping two days before and cooks most of it on Christmas Eve. She's amazing." His favorite dish? "Her calzones with fresh mozzarella or tuna are really good."

Where's the Cake?

"There's nothing better than making a cake," says Valastro. Except on Dec. 25. "It's our family's one cake-free holiday," he explains. "There are just so many other great desserts that day. We have 20 different things."

De-stressing for the Holidays

How Buddy and Lisa keep calm during party prep

THEY RELAX

They spend so much time with their family, they're used to cooking for huge groups. "We just take a deep breath and get through it," says Valastro.

THEY AVOID A STRICT SCHEDULE

The Valastros don't panic if something goes awry. "If it's 10 minutes or an hour late, it's not the end of the world," he says.

THEY'RE NOT MARTYRS

The couple accept help from family members. "Lisa's mom [Gloria, 52] helps out," he says. "She entertains the kids so more cooking can go on!"