It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! And although you may be far from home, make the most of the season with our tips on how to celebrate an Italian Style Christmas.
Your beginner’s kit should include first and foremost a Nativity Scene or presepe. These are essential during the holiday season and in Italy they have historical significance. Since the times of the Etruscans people have worshiped figurine deities, this was also true in the Roman times, however it was not until 1223 that the figures represented Christian characters. Upon his return from Bethlehem, Saint Francis recreated a living Nativity Scene to tell the story of the birth of Jesus. The scene became popular throughout Italy were soon enough human participants became replaced by statues and were found in churches and homes everywhere. Nowadays you’ll see a great variety of scenes from very basic to more elaborate structures in rich settings with hundreds of characters some even animated, this is especially true in Naples where creating Nativity Scenes is an art.
Christmas trees are also popular, however, they have a much more recent history having only been incorporated to tradition since the end of the 1800s. As a rule, in Italy Christmas trees are decorated on December 8thday of the Immaculate Conception, the only exception would be the city of Milan where they are instead decorated the day before – the day of Saint Ambrogio the patron saint of the city.
Christmas Eve dinner or Christmas Day lunch, well ‘tis certainly the question to be asked! And Italy, on a general note, the answer depends on location. For the most part, Southern Italy celebrates on Christmas Eve with a family dinner based on fish, after all it’s called the vigilia from the Latin ‘veglia’ which calls for devotion as such requires a ‘lighter’ menu based on fish. Every region in Italy has their own specialties, but for Christmas dinner in the South, there are a few dishes that cannot be missed, these include: spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams) and capitone (eel) this can be prepared in a stew or fried.
In the North, it is customary to celebrate lunch with family on Christmas Day. This is a hearty meal with menu variations according to popular dishes in the area however a few key items are always included: ravioli/ agnolotti/ tortelli/ cappelletti con brodo (some sort of stuffed pasta with broth), and for secondo: cappone(capon) which is usually prepared roasted or stuffed.
Desserts deserve a topic entirely on their own, as these are slightly more capricious. The season calls for a rather bread-like treat adorned with seasonal ingredients like nuts, dried fruit, candied fruit – you would think the possibilities are limited, yet they are anything but. In fact they are endlessly delicious, so feel free to try any of the following:
Panettone, originally from Milan, you may find modern variations but the original version is made with raisins and candied fruit. In Liguria you’ll find Pandolce Genovese a variant of the panettone with raisins, pine nuts, anise and candied fruit. The Panforte di Siena in Tuscany resembles a fruit cake and contains nuts, honey, fruits and many spices. A similar dish, the Zelten, can be found in Trentino Alto Adige and features pine nuts, nuts and almonds. Verona is famous for its Pandoro, it is made with eggs (hence the yellow color) and decorated with powdered sugar. Neapolitan cuisine proposes struffoli, fried balls of dough with honey. In Calabria you’ll find a similar alternative, the cuddrurieddru with a doughnut-like shape and in Puglia you can enjoy cartellate with wine, powdered sugar or honey. In Sicily you cannot help a taste of buccellato – a bundt-shaped caked made with almonds, orange zest, candied fruit, raisins and traditionally stuffed with dried figs. To celebrate Santa Lucia on December 13thtry the cuccìa, another Sicilian specialty similar to pudding, made with ricotta, cinnamon and chocolate.
It is customary to attend mass at midnight on Christmas Eve to celebrate the birth of Jesus. After which depending on where you are and what the custom is, its time for gifts. The general rule for gifts is at follows: adults can take an early turn and open their presents Christmas Eve while children should go to bed early and wait the arrival of Santa Claus and open their gifts Christmas morning. It is advisable for children to leave a cup of milk for baby Jesus (or Santa Claus) and a carrot for the donkey or the reindeer, depending on customs and beliefs.
On December 26 celebrations with family continue to mark Saint Stephen’s Day.