Traditional Italian Christmas

Christmas in Italy is rich with traditions going back for centuries.  Some traditions vary from region to region but much is the same throughout the country.  Italians celebrate Christmas for nearly a month, from December 8th to January 6th with a strong focus on religion, family, friends, and incredible traditional foods.

The official start of the holiday season is December 8th with the celebration of Mary and the Immaculate Conception. So begin the traditions of the season.

One of the most incredible scenes in Italy during Christmas time is the beautiful presepe or nativity scenes erected throughout the country. Italians favor presepes over our traditional Christmas trees.  Some have both, but everyone has a presepe.  In addition to the presepes found in homes, nearly every church has a presepe and they are often found outdoors in a square or other public areas.   Jesus is placed into the scene when the clock strikes midnight on Christmas Eve.

Instead of writing a letter to Santa Claus, Italian children write letters to tell their parents how much they love them.  The letter is traditionally placed under the father’s plate and read after Christmas Eve dinner.

Christmas Eve is the biggest holiday of the year for Italians.  It’s common practice throughout Italy not to eat meat on Christmas Eve. Many Southern Italians enjoy a full fish feast on that day, which include seven different varieties of fish.  Some believe “The Feast of Seven Fish” symbolize the seven days of creation.  Others believe it represents the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church and some believe it represents Mary and Joseph’s seven day travel to Bethlehem.  Nonetheless, there is no set menu for this feast, but if you are invited to an Italians home to celebrate a traditional Christmas Eve, you can expect to find such popular dishes as Baccala (Cod fish), Eel, Clams or other shellfish, Octopus, Scungilli (Conch), Calamari, Mussels, Swordfish and more.  This feast is always followed up with traditional Italian desserts – Struffoli (honey balls), Panetone, Cannoli, cookies, Torrone(nougat), Pizzelle, Chestnuts and more.  Midnight mass is celebrated with family and watching the Pope appear on his famous balcony on Christmas Day.

Christmas Day is celebrated with another family gathering and a feast of different sorts.  Usually there is no fish served on Christmas Day.  A typical meal starts with antipasto – Olives, roasted peppers, Prosciutto, Salamis, etc.  Next, you can expect a pasta dish, often baked, maybe Lasagna, Baked Ziti, Manicotti.    Lamb is the most popular meat served on Christmas Day, but don’t be surprised to find Prime Rib, sausage, and even poultry.  Of course, this is all followed up with more fabulous desserts.

New Year’s Celebrations in Italy are very much a part of the season, and have traditions you can count on as well.  Huge midnight firework displays celebrate the coming of the New Year. Most towns have public displays in a central square but private parties will also include firecrackers or sparklers.  Naples is known for having one of the best and biggest New Year’s fireworks displays in Italy.  The traditional must have food for New Years is lentils, often served with Cotechino (a special type of sausage).  It is believed eating lentils will bring good luck and good fortune in the New Year.  Another midnight  tradition of throwing the old out the window to symbolize readiness to receive the new is alive an well in Italy.  Items such as dishes, clothes and even couches have been known to fly out a window – watch out below.

The celebration of the Epiphany commemorating the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem on January 6th ends the holiday season.  On that day, Italian’s wait for La Befana, the Italian Christmas witch.  Legend says, upon hearing the news of baby Jesus, she went in search of him but never found him.  Since she can’t bestow gifts on Him, she leaves toys, candies and fruit for good Italian children every year on that day.   If the children have been bad, they will find their shoes filled with coal.  La Befana is the best known legend in Italy.

However you choose to celebrate the holiday season, may you be surrounded by your own traditions of family, faith, love, peace, and awesome food.   Buon Natale!!!!