Christmas is fast approaching, and for my Italian family it is one of the most important times of year. In this article I will share with you some of the defining features and traditions of what it means to celebrate Christmas Italian style.
The Nativity scene
The Nativity Scene or Presipe is a famous tradition In Italy. Along with decorating the Christmas tree most families including the very secular also set up nativity scenes, often with figures you wouldn’t expect to be there! It’s not uncommon to find a miniature Obama and other contemporary personalities along side the shepherds and three kings present at the stable, all in the spirit of fun. You will also find very large and elaborate displays in public squares too and sometimes with live actors!
A Christmas witch?
Though Father Christmas does make a pit stop at the homes of Italian kids on Christmas Eve, another surprising visitor to crawl down chimneys is La Befana, a red eyed witch complete with warts, a big nose and broomstick. At first glance she might seem totally evil but on the January 5 she visits homes, leaving sweets and presents for well-behaved kids and for the naughty kids a lump of coal (which these days is made of black sugar anyway!)
In turn Italian families leave her a little something too, not milk and mince pies but a glass of wine and some cheese (this is Italy after all!
You can’t mention anything about Italy without discussing food! Every region in Italy of course has its own unique specialties so the food on offer varies across the country. But typically Italians avoid meat on Christmas Eve and will usually eat fish such as tuna, salmon and even fried eel. Christmas day lunch is a lengthy affair, Italians often start with Crostini, cured meat, olives and cheeses, followed by Grandmother’s favourite pasta dish. For the main course they enjoy lamb with accompanying vegetables, lentils, Cotechino, and Baccalà (salted dried cod). For desert Italians indulge in nougat, or Panettone a kind of fruit cake, Struffoli (Honey pastry) dried figs, sweetened almonds, and marzipan, all washed down with a local wine and amaretto.
But just as elsewhere in the world Christmas for Italians is a time for all of the family to come together to share a good meal and exchange gifts. That especially includes all of the extended family too and it’s not uncommon to have over fifteen seated at the table for lunch!
May I take the time to wish you Buon Natale e felice Anno Nuovo!!! (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!)
Joe Di Trolio is an undergrad in his final year at the University of Essex and has studied Italian, French and Spanish. He has a passion for language, travelling and great food.