Much more than a merry celebration, Christmas in Italy is rooted in religious tradition.
In Italy, Christmas is essentially a religious and family event -'Natale con i tuoi, pasqua con chi vuoi' - Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you like.
Messa (mass) is at midnight on the 24th, thus the main celebrations commence on the 25th and of course, a lengthy lunch is involved. We will get to the food later but for now,
San Nicolò di Bari, or Saint Nicolas of Myra, was an early Christian bishop known for his miracles and generosity in the second century, he remains the patron saint of children and many others. His feast day is on the 6th of December which some celebrate by leaving empty shoes outside their doors in the hope of a secretly gifted coin as the legend goes, but the night before is when, for children of Italy's northern provinces, Christmas begins. Saint Nicolas in Dutch is Sinterklaas, perhaps a forerunner for modern-day Santa Claus as we know him? Our Veneto children would spend the evening of the 5th bundled up warm, waiting on the village piazza clutching their Nonna's hand. They'd wait excitedly for San Nicolò to turn the corner in his red velvet bishop's robe with his trusty donkey. Ears would prick and eyes would widen when his tolling bell was heard and grandparents would smile down lovingly at their little treasures. "Sta arrivando San Nicolo!" Here comes San Nicolo!
His little donkey would be ladened full of presents which he'd duly hand out to the local children, calling their names through the frosty December air as part of a beautiful ongoing tradition. He is celebrated with stockings of simple delights - sweets, fruits and nuts in a celebration that grandparents love to keep alive by leaving cake for him and a carrot for his donkey, allegedly spotting a passing bishop through the window, maybe hearing a distant bell being rung or even seeing his footprints after he'd passed their way, leaving a stocking of sweets at the door.
The catholic church is sewn into every seam of this season and while Christmas may feel commercial in other countries, here sits the original seat of these celebrations, Italians don't forget this. Toy and perfume commercials bombard TV channels and sales peak in this country as much as everywhere else, however, first and foremost Christmas remains a revered celebration of Christ.
Christianism is embedded into Italian schools from simple wooden crucifixes on classroom walls to the daily chanting of traditional prayers and blessings. Village schools enjoy using the church for their Christmas concerts where families can gather to sing along proudly as a close-knit community and just maybe, this is the magic of Christmas after all. Overhead lights line winding streets, decorated trees twinkle and festivities swiftly move from the church to the village hall, where cakes, salami, bread, cheese and wine is brought along and the merrymaking continues into the evening.
While Christmas traditions change from region to region, for most of this season the nation's favourite tradition of all is il presepio, the nativity scene.
In Naples, the nativity scene is taken very seriously. It's Christmas all year round at la Via dei Presepi in the Centro Storico. Here, this tiny pedestrian street deals exclusively in presepio figurines ranging from tiny to life-size, some with moving parts depicting the quaintest of everyday scenes. You'll feel like a little child in awe of these scenes and you'll love the Neopolitan cheeky sense of humour running through this quirky tradition. If visiting the city, it's a sight not to miss amongst other memorable things to see and do in Naples.
Tellaro, a small fishing village on the Gulf of La Spezia, south of the Cinque Terre, boats a beautiful Christmas tradition. Their village presepio lies under the sea! At midnight on Christmas Eve, divers emerge onto the beach carrying the town's statue of baby Jesus through narrow streets lit by torchlight to the Church where they lay him in the manger. The divers remain near Baby Jesus for the service watching over him during Midnight Mass.
A fascinating presepio throughout Italy is the 'Live Nativity Scene' - il Presepio Vivente, where Mary, Joseph and Nativity figures are acted by people. The place that does it best, is undoubtedly Matera in Puglia. The Sassi di Matera UNESCO site has lent their timeless authentic beauty to many a film-set such as 'The Passion' with Mel Gibson and they lend it every Christmas to Matera's epic live Nativity Scene with up to 300 actors in traditional costume on a kilometre-long stroll through these historic stone ruins telling their story. Uniquely memorable, if you ever can, do get there.
Every Christmas in Mura, a tiny stone hamlet of 200 residents near Valdobbiadene on the Prosecco Route, nativity scenes are built into nooks and crevices, barns and windows of the local houses. Every house competes in a friendly village contest, carving figurines from wood or upcycling what they have, to create their charmingly creative scenes. Visitors amble through the hamlet's intricate cobbled streets flickering with Christmas lights, ending up in the tiny stone piazza where vin brulé and panettone await. We live nearby and go every year, it's humbling, simple and hauntingly beautiful.
Another of our favourite things at Christmas is to take 'the long way' home, to drive the cold, dark winterly evenings looking out for Presepi lights. Most village churches have figures in their gardens and many homes spend time making their own every year but mind, you won't see Baby Jesus in the manger until Christmas day because he wasn't born before then!
Christmas lunch is a long, drawn-out affair and the second focus of the day. If you missed Midnight Mass, then there's Mass on Christmas day which takes precedence before all. Presents are given but there is no tradition here, it may be before lunch, during or after, every family is different. Some also lean towards Santa's passion for a glass of milk on Christmas Eve but instead of a mince pie there'll be a slice of Panettone or Pinza (see Panevin) and a glass of Grappa - Italy's distilled grape spirit sometimes flavoured with herbs, berries or fruits.
After religious tradition, comes food and we sit down together, gathered as a family. Italy's sweet seasonal treats are Torrone (nougat bars), Panettone, Salame al Cioccolato and Pandoro and while restaurants traditionally offer a carne meat-based and pesce fish-based menu with vegetarian options in-between, there's no real set menu for Christmas. The old favourites pop up every year nonetheless.
Let's pull up a chair at a few regional tables...
On a Venetian table, you may find a savoury pastry stuffed with artichoke or mushrooms placed before you or an Insalata di Piovra - octopus salad, to start. As a Primo (first course after starters) Tortellini in Brodo are traditional, expect miniature ham tortellini served in a clear, meaty broth. If you choose seafood this year, possibly a Risotto ai Frutti di Mare may present itself, a classic in the Northern provinces.
For Secondi, you may find a seafood dish like Branzino al Sale - sea bass baked in a sea-salt case, or Cappone - slow-braised rooster with polenta and seasonal vegetables like roasted Radicchio di Treviso.
Traditionally a star-shaped Pandoro, sliced and layered with mascarpone crema, will follow or Italy's other fluffy Christmas cake, Panettone, served with a glass of Prosecco or Moscato.
Cortina d'Ampezzo, Dolomites
It's ski season, with sub-zero temperatures and Alpine postcard scenes, food is rich and meaty. Expect Cheese Fondue, Ravioli stuffed with taleggio cheese and Speck (cured Alpine pork) or Canerderli (bread dumplings with cheese, spinach or Speck served in broth or melted butter), Cervo in Umido (venison/deer stew) and classic Apple Strudel.
If opting for meat, you may be offered Beef Carpaccio as a starter moving on to ravioli or Mezzelune (large moon-shaped ravioli) filled with pesto, artichokes or caciotta cheese. Main course (secondo) will be Fassona Beef Steak or Tagliata di Filetto (sliced fillet on a bed of rocket).
Sides of roast potatoes and grilled red peppers or stuffed tomatoes will keep you going until dessert which may be Tiramisu or Amaretti Semifreddo.
In Sicily seafood rules so expect a Swordfish Carpaccio or Seafood Medley of mussels, squid, clams, prawns and scallops.
Primo will be Lobster Tagliatelle, or Gran Soporo - crab on a pile of seafood spaghetti.
Stuffed squid or fillets of mackerel or tuna will follow with a grande finale of Sicilian Cassata or Torroncino (soft or hard bars of Christmas nougat) semifreddo with Limoncello and Mediterranean fruits and nuts.
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Christmas ends on the 4th of January with the last celebration, the Epiphany.
'L'Epifania tutte le feste si porta via." - The Epiphany takes away all the festivities.
Throughout autumn and winter in Italy's northern provinces, wood cuttings and garden trimmings are saved to be piled into cleverly constructed bonfires for the eve of the Epiphany. Panevin means 'bread and wine' in local dialect with 'la vecia' - the old lady who represents the old year who is placed on top of the bonfire to be burnt away for new beginnings full of hope. Village families gather around the fire with cups of mulled wine and simple foods like salami and bread. In the Veneto province, a traditional, dense Christmas cake is made every year from bread, raisins, pinenuts and dried figs, la pinza. It's a beautifully rural tradition where young and old gather together to cheer the lighting of the bonfire with a watchful eye on the direction of the billowing smoke. If it blows West, we're in luck with a plentiful year ahead.
Se il fumo va versa sera, polenta pien cagliera, se il fumo va a mattina. Prendi il sacco e vai a farina.'
Translated from Veneto dialect: If the smoke blows West, polenta will fill the pot. If it blows East, take the bag to get flour.
Westerly or easterly wind, good luck or none, decorations are taken down and presepi gently packed away for the year, concluding the festivities, until Carnevale with the arrival of the season's delicacies, fritelle and crostoli, in abundance, not long to wait until February.
Buon Natale a tutti!