Christmas is a major holiday in Italy… which means Italians celebrate lots of great, Christmas traditions! Across Italy, Natale tends to be a family-centric holiday
, a time to stay at home (and eat!) with loved ones. But customs also vary from city to city, from exactly which dishes are served, to when to open presents, making every region an interesting place to enjoy the holidays.
Italians get into the Christmas spirit on December 8th when they celebrate the Immaculate conception. A fun fact to bring out at holiday parties is that this festival actually marks the conception of Mary rather than that of Jesus, as God intervened to absolve Mary of original sin while she was still in the womb. Maria Immacolata is celebrated in Piazza di Spagna, Rome, with a big celebration attended by the Pope. In the old times, when we had young men as Popes, it was the Pope himself to climb a tall ladder in order to put a flower wreath around a statue of Mary placed on a very tall obelisk. Nowadays, as it looks like it’s impossible to become Pope before you are 75, a fireman does on his behalf!
Traditionally on December the 8th Italian towns put out their decorations, people put up their trees at home and the festive atmosphere carries on until Epiphany, on January 6th, the day Italians commemorate the Three Wise Men arrival in Bethlehem, something which is re-enacted by horsemen in Rome’s Piazza Navona.
The nine days before Christmas, also known as the Novena, are filled with carolers singing traditional songs around the neighbourhood. If you’re in Rome, southern Italy or Sicily, keep an eye out for the zampognari, or bagpipe players—they travel from the nearby mountains to play their merry folklore carols. In the rural areas of Southern Italy during Novena children go from house to house dressed as shepherds and performing Christmas songs or poems during this time, often in exchange for money or sweets.
Along with the fancy lights, wreaths and trees, presepi (nativity scenes) are displayed in many churches and piazzas. Crafting these ornate works of art by hand remains an artisanal tradition in many parts of the country. In Bologna, my hometown, every year a local gentleman hits the local paper for building the largest “presepe” in town in the courtyard of his house. It’s amazing and it’s totally free to visit!!!
In Emilia-Romagna, my region, the nativity scene of Cesenatico, a pretty town by the Adriatic sea is very famous. Baby Jesus and all the other characters are on boats! It’s really stunning!
Food is an integral part of Italian culture and that’s more true than ever at Christmas. December 24th, though, was traditionally a day of fasting before Christmas for Catholics, with festivities starting only after the evening mass. Nowadays nobody fasts but Italians traditionally avoid meat on la Vigilia (Christmas Eve). Although the idea is to eat lean, most indulge on lavish courses of fish, sometimes as many as seven! In my region “Capesante Gratinate” (scallops au gratin) e “Seppie con pomodoro e piselli” (Squids in a sauce with peas and tomatoes) are traditional for il Cenone della Vigilia (the big dinner of Christmas Eve).
After the family dinner, some Italians head to midnight Mass at their local church to celebrate. Not everybody does, though! On the mountains, skiers down the slopes with torches at midnight to welcome Christmas.
On Christmas Day, the food that makes up the “pranzo di Natale”, the big lunch of Christmas varies from region to region, but meat is back on the menu, always preceded by pasta. The meal is followed by panettone, a sweet bread loaf originating from Milan, and other desserts filled with nuts, which were historically a symbol of fertility for the coming year.
In Bologna and in many other towns in Emilia – Romagna the traditional Christmas meal includes:
- a starter (antipasto) based on “mortadella a cubetti” (cubed mortadella) a kind of cured meat made of finely hashed or ground, heat-cured pork, and flavoured with spices, including whole or ground black pepper, myrtle berries, and pistachios.
- a first course based on Tortellini a ring-shaped pasta sometimes also described as navel shaped, hence their alternative name of “belly button” (ombelico). They are typically stuffed with a mix of meat (pork loin, ham), parmesan cheese an nutmeg and they are usually served in broth (in brodo), of capon.
- A second course called “bollito misto”, a stew consisting of various cuts of beef, veal, and a whole hen or capon, gently simmered for two–three hours in an aromatic vegetable broth, made with celery, carrot and onion, cloves, parsley, bay leaf, rosemary and sage. Bollito misto is served with salsa verde, a sauce made with parsley, capers, pickled cucumbers, boiled egg, anchovy fillets, lemon and olive oil.
- A dessert called “Certosino”, a typical Christmas cake of Bolognese cuisine with almonds, pine nuts, dark chocolate and candied fruit.
The day after Christmas is as well a bank holiday and it’s called “giorno di Santo Stefano” (Saint Stephen’s day); officially in Italy we commemorate Stefano, a man born in Jerusalem 36 years after Jesus who is officially recognized by all Christian churches as the first martyr; and for this reason later made a saint. To tell the truth, though, not many people head to church on that day. Italians are more busy to eat Christmas left overs or organising tombola or card games with friends and family at home. A panettone and some Prosecco in the middle of the table are never missing. In Bologna the typical card game of “giorno di Santo Stefano” it’s called “La bestia” (the beast): if you are lucky you can even win a few euros!!!
Italians celebrate New Year’s Eve, known as the Vigilia, Capodanno or Festa di San Silvestro, with a cenone (big feast), often featuring foods symbolic of wishes for the coming year, and washed down with plenty of Prosecco or spumante (“sparkling wine”). The star of many New Year’s dinners throughout Italy is lentils; with their coin-like shape, they were traditionally believed to bring prosperity in the new year. They are commonly served with either cotechino or zampone.
Pork is considered a lucky New Year’s food because it’s so fatty and rich and the classic accompaniment for New Year’s lentils in many parts of Italy is cotechino. Originally from Modena, a town in the Emilia-Romagna region, cotechino is a large sausage made from pork rind, meat, fat, and spices. It’s usually sold partially cooked or raw, and then simmered over low heat and sliced into rounds before serving.
A common alternative to cotechino is a zampone, a hollowed-out pig’s trotter stuffed with a sausage made with pork rind, scraps, and fat, just like cotechino. It’s also boiled and sliced into rounds before being served with lentils for a lucky New Year’s Eve dinner.
The dinner is finished off with dried fruit and grapes. It is said to take great willpower to conserve some grapes from the harvest until New Year’s Eve, this indicates that everyone at the table will be wise and frugal with their newfound wealth.
For New Year’s there are also traditions that don’t relate to food, for example both men and women wear red underwear on New Year’s Eve to bring luck in the coming year; red is also the colour of fertility and those hoping to conceive in the following year also wear red. Another very common traditions is to kiss each other on the cheeks when midnight chimes wishing “Buon Anno” (Happy new year) under a mistletoe branch previously hanged over a door in the house.
The bonfire of the old man is an ancient and well-established tradition of the city of Bologna and surrounding areas, as well as some areas of Modena, which consists in the burning of a large puppet in the form of old (the vecchione) that takes place at midnight on December 31 to celebrate the New Year. In leap years it is usual to burn a puppet with feminine features.
The old man represents the old year, which is scarcely burnt as if to want to get rid of its ugliness and in the hope that the following is better .
In Bologna, the vecchione’s bonfire takes place in Piazza Maggiore, where people gather to stay in company and watch musical and pyrotechnic shows.
Christmas atmosphere in Italy is kept until the 6th of January when Italians celebrates Epiphany but as well an ugly old witch!!
If you are interested in finding out who this witch is, stay tuned!! It’s going to be the subject of Italian Tutor next email!!!