Italy – A European Christmas Story

Christmas is considered a major holiday in Italy. Across Italy, Christmas is a family-centred holiday, it’s a time to stay at home to eat and drink with loved ones.

Christmas season for Italians starts on the Day of the Immaculate Conception, which is December 8. This is when the decorations go up; both on the streets and inside Italian homes. Also, this is the traditional time, when some Christmas markets will start to open. Decorations and huge Christmas trees-can be found in all main piazzas. Traditionally, a large tree will be displayed in front of the Colosseum.

A meal is served on Christmas eve, this is a meat free and sometimes dairy free meal. It’s known as The Feast of the Seven Fishes (Esta dei Sette Pesci). Although the idea is to eat lean, most indulge on multiple courses of fish… sometimes as many as seven! Common types of fish eaten in the feast include Baccala (salted Cod), Clams, Calamari, Sardines and Eel. There are different theories as to why there are seven fish dishes eaten. Some think that seven represents the seven days of creation in the Bible, other say it represents the seven holy sacraments of the Catholic Church. After the family dinner, many Italians head to midnight Mass at their local church to celebrate.

Christmas Day many Italians invite their family and friends for a large lunch that usually goes on all day. Many save up to have the most lavish celebration as possible, serving up traditional dishes like pasta in brodo (pasta in broth), roasts and traditional desserts like panettone. Gifts are commonly exchanged on Christmas Day after lunch.

Celebrations often extend into December 26 with the national holiday of Santo Stefano and again families will come together and eat leftover Christmas dishes and sweets.

The official end of the Christmas season is January 6, the Day of the Epiphany, and the twelfth day of Christmas. On the eve of the Epiphany, families usually prepare a large dinner to mark the end of the holiday season; children are given candy or coal (usually made of black sugar), depending on if they were naughty or nice. Some families may even wait to exchange presents on this day as some believe Epiphany is when la befana, a kind of “good witch” who is believed to have followed the wise men but got lost—drops off presents. On this day Christmas markets will close, and decorations are taken down.

An anonymous personal story:

Christmas (Natale) is a major holiday in Italy. It’s a family-centric holiday, a time to stay at home with loved ones and eat! It’s always about food with Italians. The feast lasts 3 consecutive days.

Q1. What do you have for Christmas dinner?

24th Dec, Christmas Eve (la Vigilia):

Catholic tradition prohibits the consumption of meat in the evening before religious holidays. Most Italians, therefore, eat a fishy feast on Christmas Eve. Depending on which region you are from the variety of fish might change, but the emphasis is always on the freshness of seafood type and innovative cooking methods. Frittura di pesce (fried fish), which could include calamari, baby octopus or a paranza (mixed tiny fish) is very common. In the north of Italy, you’ll definitely find baccalà (salt cod), and further south, capitone (eel). Then, of course, there’s pasta. Linguine with lobster, spaghetti with clams, paccheri ai frutti di mare (short pasta with mixed seafood and many others. Whole roasted fish with potatoes as a secondo, and then Christmas cookies before the midnight mass.

25th Dec, Christmas Day (Natale):

On Christmas Day, Italians organise a large lunch that usually goes on all day, serving up traditional dishes. The antipasti (starters) almost always include cured meats and cheeses. More elaborate dishes are also common, like vitello tonnato (cold roast veal with a tuna-spiked mayonnaise sauce), or infinite variations on frittata. Then, pasta, often several courses of it. Christmas pasta almost always has some sort of meat in it. Throughout Italy, but especially in Emilia-Romagna, the most famous one is the incomparable tortellini in brodo—meat-stuffed circles in a golden broth of beef and capon. In the south of Italy, there’s pasta al forno, or baked pasta. After there’s usually succulent boiled meat, called bollito, traditionally served with salsa verde (piquant green sauce) or mostarda (candied fruit in spiced syrup). Some type of roast is very common, like roast baby lamb in Rome, or a baroque faraona ripena (guinea fowl stuffed with ground meat and spices). We’re not finished…of course, there are desserts.  The two most common are panettone and pandoro. Both are sweet, bread-like cakes. Panettone is from Milan, it resembles a fluffy cake, shaped a bit like an oversized muffin, dotted with dried fruit and raisins. Pandoro is from Verona, star-shaped, with a moister, denser texture, usually served with powdered sugar, mascarpone cheese and nutella. After all this food, Italians usually drink coffee and amari, herbal liqueurs that are commonly consumed as an after-dinner digestif.

26th Boxing Day (Santo Stefano):

Saint Stephen’s Day often involves another family lunch. Many Italians eat avanzi, the leftovers from the previous day. The remaining food from Christmas lunch is reworked, repurposed and re-enriched. Leftover pasta will get mixed with eggs and cheese to make a frittata di pasta. Boiled meat will be shredded and stewed with tomatoes and vegetables. The leftover cured meats and desserts from the previous day will be put out to round the meal, because more than enough will have been bought for Christmas. 

Q2. What is your fondest memories of Christmas?

My fondest memories of Christmas are related to the after lunch. In my family, after finishing the big feast it was games time. Italians love to play Tombola or traditional cards games during the Christmas holidays. Tombola is similar to bingo. Modern tombola cards are in plastic and have on the numbers small plastic slots that can be closed down when the number is called, but during my childhood, we used to cover the numbers with beans (fagioli) or with pieces of orange peel. There are five prizes (usually money or sweets), from lowest to highest, with tombola being the jackpot:

the “ambo”, two numbers on the same row
the “terno”, three numbers on the same row
the “quaterna”, four numbers on the same row
the “cinquina”, five numbers on the same row
the “tombola”, all numbers on the card

I am the youngest of my family. Thus, I was in charge of taking the numbers out of the sack, one at a time, calling them loudly. Each number has a nickname, either local or from the “Smorfia” napoletana” (i.e. number 77 is related to women legs). 

Another memory is the decoration of the Christmas tree. In Italy, you decorate the tree on the 8th of December, the Day of the Immaculate Conception which is a bank holiday and you remove them on the 6th of January, the Epiphany Day, another bank holiday. I used to create colourful Christmas ball with paper and fabrics at kindergarten and primary school. My mum used to be very proud of my artistic vain. Haha. 

Q3. What types of presents do you get from friends and family?

Presents…well, presents depend on the age of the receiver. When I was little, books, pyjamas, clothes were the most common one. My parents didn’t like to give me toys (they are old fashioned…I’m currently almost 30 years old, please consider that it was another generation, no cell phones, no gaming, no computer…. everything arrived later on when I was around 13-14 years of age). One year I received one of the best presents of my entire life. After stressing my dad for months (bless him) I got my first dog. It was a small puppy curled in a brown ball and for that reason, I’ve called her “Pallina” (little ball). Another very appreciated present that I vividly remember is one of the fewest toys I ever received. My grandpa gave me a stuffed husky because during that period I was really into the Disney cartoon “Balto”.  Growing up, since high school, the typical gift is an envelope with money inside. Between friends, presents are small, especially when you are still a student. Big gifts are typical of birthdays. 

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