Until I visited Italy at Christmastime, I never realized the differences between how they celebrate Christmas and how Americans do. On the Italian holiday calendar, December 25 isn’t the only special day.
Throughout December and January there are a number of religious holidays to mark the season. They begin their festivities on December 8, celebrating the Immaculate Conception and end on January 6, the Epiphany. Here is a calendar of the religious dates they honor.
DECEMBER 8: L’Immacolata Concezione – celebration of the Immaculate Conception
DECEMBER 13: La Festa di Santa Lucia – St. Lucy’s Day
DECEMBER 24: La Vigilia di Natale – Christmas Eve
DECEMBER 25: Natale – Christmas
DECEMBER 26: La Festa di Santo Stefano – St. Stephen’s Day marks the arrival of the Three Wise Men and announcement of the birth of Jesus
DECEMBER 31: La Festa di San Silvestro – New Year’s Eve
JANUARY 1: Il Capodanno – New Year’s Day
JANUARY 6: La Festa dell’Epifania – The Epiphany
Kicking off the season on December 8th, there will be lights strung across city streets, lighted trees in the piazzas, roasting chestnuts on the corner, a traditional Christmas market in the main piazza, as well as nativity scenes (presepi) in most churches and piazzas. These sights are what excite Italians at this time of year. Though gifts are exchanged, the emphasis in Italy is not on gift-giving, but more about being with friends and family and observing their Catholic traditions (even though many are disillusioned with the Church). Here are some photos taken this year of the lights and sights in Florence.
From the north to the south of Italy, depending on the local traditions, different parts of Italy celebrate in different ways. In the Alps at midnight on Christmas Eve hundreds of people ski down an Alpine peak carrying lit torches. In Umbria, you can see many representatives of Babo Natale (Santa Claus) in their illuminated canoes on the Tiber River. Bagpipe and flute players (zampognari and pifferai) are a part of Christmas celebrations in Rome, Naples, and southern Italy.
When I was in Florence, we went to the Mercatino di Natale in the Santa Croce Piazza, shopped and sipped hot mulled wine and munched on steaming hot chestnuts.
But for most, it is the delight of gathering around a bountiful, beautifully laid table, sharing traditional regional dishes and the holiday atmosphere that Italians look forward to every year. There are three important Christmas meals.
Before attending Midnight Mass, the traditional Christmas Eve Dinner would include seven types of fish. Since we have an Italian now in our family, I wanted to honor his traditions, but seven courses of fish on Christmas Eve was just too much for me to accomplish. So, we put all seven fishes in a fish stew called Cioppino, which was created by fishermen in San Francisco. It has now become our family tradition. Click here for my recipe.
On Christmas Day, Italians invite their immediate family for a large lunch that can go on all day. In recognition of the importance of this day, only a family’s best table linens, finest china and silver flatware are used to set a table of which everyone can be proud, even Nonna!
The first course is often preceded by a classic antipasto of local cured meats and cheese. Next is the pasta course, followed by roasted meat – veal, beef, or pork, including lots of everyone’s favorite seasonal side dishes. Not to be forgotten are the traditional sweets, such as panettone, almond cookies, and torrone (honey nougat with nuts).
Santo Stefano’s lunch, served on the 26th, is a less formal meal (leftovers!) and often friends and more distant relatives are invited.
The last of the celebrations falls on January 6th, the Epiphany. During the night of the 5th, la Befana (a witch on a broomstick) arrives with gifts for the good children and coal for the not so good! The legend says that la Befana was approached by the Three Wise Men who asked her to lead them to the baby Jesus, but she declined to help them.
She then realized that she had made a big mistake and gathered up a bag full of gifts and set off to search for the baby Jesus. Though she followed the same star as the Magi, she was unable to find the stable. Now, la Befana continues to travel the world, searching every house for the Christ child. The arrival of la Befana marks the end of the long and festive holiday season in Italy. No matter how you celebrate the season, make traditions for your family and spread good cheer to all.