When Christmas rolls around in the Italian countryside, the smell of a log fire lingers in the cold night air. In the evening, we hear the owls calling each other, a song that marks their territory. From December 8, the “largest Christmas tree in the world” can be seen illuminating the hillside of Gubbio in the distance.
Christmas in Italy is a special time, as most people are Catholic and everyone celebrates the traditions of the season in the same way. The best part of Christmas in Italy is that it lasts much longer than most other places. The festivities last from December 8 to January 6, the Epiphany Day.
Naturally, special foods and shared meals play a major role, as well as being with family. The more people there are around the table for Christmas pranza seems to bring the most joy. Last Christmas, my husband and I joined 16 other people to enjoy a meal that included wild boar, rabbit and house chicken, roast lamb and cappellettia ring-shaped pastry filled with savory meats and cheeses served in a fragrant broth.
Cappelletti are a traditional dish for Christmas lunch in Umbria, and I watched my 87-year-old neighbor and her daughter make them hundreds of days before Christmas. Lunch is inevitably accompanied by cravings for Eat again! (“Eat more!”) and I learned to say basta (“enough”) and say so.
Along with all the special Christmas treats (which I talk about in detail below), here are four of my favorite Italian Christmas traditions.
1. The ubiquitous Presepi
Presepe means “nativity scene” or “nativity scene,” and from December 8 to January 6, all over Italy — inside churches, storefronts and homes — you’ll find replicas of the scene of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. This tradition is said to have started with Saint Francis of Seated in the 13th century, in a cave near the town of Greccio. He had a nativity scene built there in a chapel where the peasants gathered for mass. Since then, the tradition has spread throughout Italy, although Naples is perhaps most famous for its handcrafted presepi statues.
Sometimes a presepe is adopted by real people and animals. called a presepe live (“living nativity scene”), these presepi represent not just the nativity scene, but often an entire village with its daily activities and people dressed and acting as if they were in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.
Once we ventured out on a cold, windy night to see the local presepe. Despite the freezing winds, we were able to taste bread baked on a stick, mulled wine and see women using ashes to wash their clothes at the well. With the temperatures so cold, we were relieved to find Baby Jesus represented by a doll and Mary and Joseph huddled in a corner of a canteen waiting for the tourists to finally go home!
If you don’t make it for Christmas, you can often see what is called presépi permanenti (“permanent crèches” open all year round, often in churches). We saw some one day at the monastery of San Silvestro in Fabriano. It was made by one of the monks. The beautiful nativity scene alternated between day and night because the monk had painted the buildings with phosphorescent colors, allowing the town to light up without any electricity.
2. Treats for every sweet tooth
Italians can’t imagine Christmas without panettone, the traditional Christmas bread that originated in Milan. The panettone is a huge sweet cake, filled with candied fruit, nuts and/or chocolate. The box will take up half of your kitchen counter! In fact, Italians consume 29,000 tons of panettone every year, which equates to almost 9 pounds for every man, woman and child!
The pandora is another popular cake/bread served as a traditional dessert at Christmas dinner. Star-shaped pandoro is rich in eggs and butter, and served with powdered sugar sprinkled on top.
Panettone and pandoro boxes are popular gifts, and one Christmas I ended up with 5 in my house. Last Christmas when I saw a good friend arrive with one, I told her to put it back in her car! They are monstrously dangerous for any diet!
But perhaps my favorite Christmas dessert is panforte, the traditional holiday dessert from Siena dating back 1,000 years. This compact and decadent treat contains no flour at all but is loaded with cocoa, fruit and nuts; sweetened with honey; and spiced with cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Let’s not forget the breathtaking torrone, the Italian equivalent of nougat. If you don’t buy the torrone morbid (“sweet”), you can easily chip a tooth on this sweet treat filled with toasted almonds. Traditionally made with honey, sugar, egg whites and nuts, torrone can even be covered in chocolate. After the festive meal, the torrone is usually served already cut on a plate with a glass of strong vin santo (holy wine) or homemade nocino (an Italian nut liqueur).
3. Christmas Eve
Christmas Eve is a special time in Italy, synonymous with family, fish and midnight mass. As a traditionally Catholic country, most Italians will not eat meat on Christmas Eve. But that doesn’t mean there’s no party! Italians don’t just enjoy a fish dish; it’s almost like they think that because there’s no meat, that means you need at least 5 or 6 fish dishes — from calamari to baccala (which is salt cod) with eel.
Women line up early that day at the fishmongers to buy the best, freshest and often most expensive fish to feed the table of the parents who will descend on them that evening. The fish is served a variety of ways – raw anchovies floating in olive oil, garlic and parsley; Fried squid; clams with pasta or potatoes; Sea bream smothered in coarse salt then baked in the oven — it all depends on the region and the traditional family recipe.
After the evening meal, everyone (even the less pious) heads for midnight mass. Churches are usually packed that night and on Christmas Day.
Did you know that the tradition of Christmas carols was born in Italy in the 13th century, under the influence of Francis of Assisi? From Italy, the singing of popular Christmas songs spread to France and Germany. Two of the most popular songs you will hear in Italy are “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle” (or “You Come Down from the Stars”) and “Astro Del Ciel” (or “Silent Night”). Click here to listen Andrea Bocelli’s interpretation of “Silent Night” in Italian.
4. La Befana
While Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) can be seen in Italy at Christmas, it is La Befana (The Good Witch) who traditionally delivers gifts on Epiphany, January 6. A national holiday, Epiphany is considered the last day of Christmas. The presepi vivete usually feature the arrival of the Magi or the Three Magi paying homage to the Christ Child that day, complete with real camels and a royal entourage. However, it is La Befana that steals the show. Flying on her broomstick, she hands out gifts and treats to the good kids, while the bad boys and girls get chunks of coal.
According to legend, La Befana herself was visited by the Three Kings, who asked for her help in locating the newborn Jesus. Stopping at old Befana’s house, they asked her if she knew where the Child was. When she admitted she hadn’t, the sages said goodbye to her and continued on their way.
La Befana, however, decided that she would join the search. Setting off on her broom, she carried a large bag of gifts to give to Jesus if and when she found him. Unfortunately, La Befana got lost and never arrived in Bethlehem. Nevertheless, she never gave up the search. Each year, she takes flight, renewing her quest to find the Child. Whenever she approaches a house where children live, she stops to see if one of them could be the child she is looking for. This is never the case, but old Befana still leaves them presents.
Across Italy you can buy your very own Befana doll to hang from your ceiling and fly around your living room. In my village, the children gather in the church on the afternoon of January 6 to eagerly await his arrival. One of the village women does her best to disguise herself with a headscarf and a fake nose, carrying a package of toys and sweets to distribute to the eager children. But everyone still has fun trying to guess who she really is in the village!
Italy does Christmas well
Christmas is a special time of year no matter where you are, but Italians seem to know how to celebrate it best. Whether it’s the delicious food, the religious spectacle, the family spirit or the ancient folk traditions, even the silliest of Scrooges will eventually join in the fun and say “Good Natale! »