When Christmas comes to the Italian countryside, the smell of wood fires wafts into the cold night air. At night, we can hear the owls calling to each other, a song-song that marks their territory. Starting on December 8th, we can see the “biggest Christmas tree in the world” lighting up the Gubbio hillside in the background.
Christmas in Italy is a special time since most people are Catholic and everyone celebrates the traditions of the season in a similar way. The best part about Christmas in Italy is that it lasts much longer than in most other places. The festivities last from December 8 to January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany.
Of course, special foods and shared meals play an important role, as well as being with family. The more people sit around the table for Christmas prance seems to bring the most joy. Last Christmas my husband and I joined 16 others to enjoy a meal of wild boar, local rabbit and chicken, roast lamb and Cappellettia ring-shaped dumpling filled with savory meats and cheeses served in a fragrant broth.
Cappelletti are a traditional dish for Christmas lunch in Umbria, and I have watched my 87-year-old neighbor and her daughter prepare hundreds of them days before Christmas. Lunch inevitably comes with urges to Mangi ancora! (“Eat more!”) And I’ve learned how to say it basta (“enough”) and I mean it.
Along with all the special Christmas goodies (which I talk about in detail below), here are four of my favorite Italian Christmas traditions.
1. The Ubiquitous Nativity Scene
Prespe means “cradle” or “nursery” and from December 8 to January 6, everywhere in Italy – inside churches, shop windows and homes – you will find replicas of the scene of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. This tradition is said to have started with Saint Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, in a cave near the town of Greccio. There he built a manger tent in a chapel where the peasants gathered for service. Since then the tradition has spread throughout Italy, although Naples is perhaps most famous for its handmade Presepi statues.
Sometimes a presepe is enacted by real people and animals. It is called a presepe vivente (“living nursery”), these prespei depict not only the manger scene, but often an entire village filled with its daily activities and persons dressed and behaving as if they were in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.
Once we went out on a cold windy night to see the local presepe vivente. Despite the bitterly cold winds, we could enjoy wood-baked bread, mulled wine and see women using ashes to wash their clothes in the well. With the temperatures so cold, we were relieved to find the baby Jesus depicted by a doll and Mary and Joseph huddled in a corner of a canteen waiting for the tourists to finally go home!
If you can’t make it for Christmas, you can often see what’s being said presepi permanenti (“permanent daycare centers” that operate year-round, often in churches). We once saw one in the monastery of San Silvestro in Fabriano. One of the monks made it. The beautiful manger scene alternated between day and night because the monk had painted the buildings in glow-in-the-dark colors, allowing the city to be lit without electricity.
2. Treats for every sweet tooth
Italians cannot imagine Christmas without panettone, the traditional Christmas bread originating from Milan. Panettone is a huge sweet cake, filled with candied fruits, nuts and/or chocolate. The box will take up half of your kitchen counter! In fact, Italians consume 29,000 tons of panettone each year, which equates to nearly 9 pounds for every man, woman, and child!
The pandoro is another popular cake/bread served as a traditional dessert at Christmas dinner. Shaped like a star, the pandoro is rich with eggs and butter and served with powdered sugar on top.
Panettone and pandoro boxes are popular gifts, and one Christmas I ended up with 5 in my house. Last Christmas when I saw a good friend arrive with one, I told her to put it back in her car! They are monstrously dangerous for any diet!
But perhaps my favorite Christmas dessert is panforte, the traditional festive dessert from Siena that dates back 1,000 years. This compact, decadent treat contains no flour, but is packed with cocoa, fruit and nuts. sweetened with honey; and seasoned with cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Let’s not forget the jaw-dropping torone, the Italian equivalent of mandolato. Unless you buy the torrone morbidity (“soft”), you can easily cut a tooth into this sugary treat filled with roasted almonds. Traditionally made with honey, sugar, egg whites and nuts, torrone can even be covered in chocolate. After the festive meal, torrone is usually served already cut on a plate together with a glass of strong vin santo (holy wine) or homemade nocino (Italian walnut liqueur).
3. The Christmas Vigil
Christmas Eve is a special time in Italy, synonymous with family, fish and midnight mass. As a traditionally Catholic country, most Italians will not eat meat on Christmas Eve. But that doesn’t mean there’s no celebration! Italians don’t just enjoy a fish dish. it’s almost like they think because there’s no meat, that must mean you need at least 5 or 6 fish dishes — from squid to baccalà (which is salted cod) in the eel.
Women line up early that day at the fishmongers to buy the best, freshest and often most expensive fish to feed the table of relatives who will descend upon them that evening. The fish is served in a variety of ways — raw anchovies floating in olive oil, garlic and parsley. Fried calamari? clams with pasta or potatoes. sea bream smothered in coarse salt and then baked — all depending on the region and the traditional family recipe.
After the evening meal, everyone (even the least pious) sets out for midnight. The churches are usually full that night and on Christmas Day.
Did you know that the tradition of singing Christmas carols began in Italy in the 13th century under the influence of Francis of Assisi? From Italy, the singing of popular Christmas carols spread to France and Germany. Two of the most popular songs you’ll hear in Italy are “Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle” (or “You Come Down from the Stars”) and “Astro Del Ciel” (or “Silent Night”). Click here to listen to Andrea Bocelli’s cover of “Silent Night” in Italian.
4. La Befana
While Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) can be seen in Italy during Christmas, it is La Befana (The Good Witch) who traditionally delivers gifts on Epiphany or January 6th. A national holiday, Epiphany is considered the last day of Christmas. Presepi vivente usually signifies the arrival of the Magi or Three Wise Men who pay homage to the Baby Jesus that day, along with real camels and a royal entourage. However, it is La Befana that steals the show. Flying in her broom, she gives the good children gifts and treats, while the bad boys and girls get lumps of coal.
According to legend, La Befana herself was visited by the Three Wise Men, who asked for her help in locating the newborn Jesus. Stopping at Old Befana’s cottage, they asked if she knew where the Child was. When she admitted that she did not, the Wise Men bid her farewell and continued on their way.
La Befana, however, has decided that she will join the search. Starting on her broom, she carried a large sack of gifts to give to Jesus if and when she found him. Unfortunately, La Befana lost her way and never reached Bethlehem. However, he never gave up the search. Each year she takes to the heavens, renewing her quest to find the Child. Whenever he approaches a house where children live, he stops to see if one of them might be the child he is looking for. They never are, but Old Befana leaves them gifts anyway.
All over Italy, you can buy your very own Befana doll to hang from your ceiling and fling around your living room. In my village the children gather at church on the evening of January 6th to eagerly await her arrival. One of the village women does her best to disguise herself with a headscarf and a fake nose, carrying a bundle of toys and sweets to pass out to the eager children. But everyone always has fun trying to guess who she really is in the village!
Italy does Christmas well
Christmas is a special time of year no matter where you are, but the Italians seem to know how to celebrate it best. Whether it’s the delicious food, the religious spectacle, the family spirit or the ancient folklore, even the humblest of Scrooges will end up joining in on the fun and saying “Buon Natale!”