This is my favorite time of year. There are so many great aspects to the Christmas season: good food, good music, and the special traditions that come along with the “reason for the season.” Come experience and discover how Italians celebrate the holidays.
The Christmas atmosphere is really felt in the Bel Paese (beautiful country) since the holiday is one of the most important ones in my country. Although there are commons traits, the magic of Natale (Christmas) is different all over the world. Christmas, for every Italian, is like Thanksgiving in the United States. It is a big family reunion that no longer reflects the symbolic religious tradition of the nativity, although many services still run on Vigilia di Natale (Christmas Eve). There is a famous phrase: “Natale con i tuoi, Capodanno con chi vuoi” (Christmas with yours [relatives], New Year’s Eve with whoever you want). Italians really feel the spirit from late November, but the Christmas season officially starts on December 8, the Day of Immaculate Conception. We decorate our homes and trees, bake cookies, wrap presents, and schools and offices are formally closed. From this day on, up to December 26, the holiday spirit grows. On many Italian streets decorations and huge Christmas trees are displayed, presepi (Nativity scenes) are placed outside for all to see, and the smell of chestnuts, wine, and Italian delicacies, is apparent on every corner. People hurry across the streets with lots of packages in their hands, zampognari (double chanter bagpipers) play Christmas melodies all around, and Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) gives candies to the children. Natale and Vigilia di Natale are observed in different ways all over the country, depending on where you are. Some Italians start celebrating with a nice dinner on December 24. My family and I prefer a light meal without meat and wait for a huge Christmas lunch the day after. However, the midnight Mass at the local church is a tradition from the North to the South. Afterwardwe brindiamo (make a toast) with a glass of spumante (Italian sparkling wine), a slice of panettone or pandoro (sweet treats), and open presents. When I was a child I was so excited by Santa’s arrival that I used to prepare a glass of milk, and place a slice of Christmas cake under the tree to thank Babbo Natale for the gifts.
The joy of this time reaches a fever pitch on December 25, which is a day for eating! This is the perfect occasion to meet up with your family, sit around the table almost all day long and enjoy good food. This happy and peaceful atmosphere lasts late into the evening, while households play board games, taste Italian delicacies and unwrap presents! On Christmas Day, the table abounds with different entrees: insalata di mare (seafood salad), types of salami, cured meats, and flat breads. The main course, depending on the region, consists of the famous tortellini in broth, lasagna or pasticcio (the amazing baked pasta prepared following grandma’s style), and lamb. Normally, after the main meal, a tasty variety of meat is served. Whatever the menu, Italians cannot end their lunch without some famous Christmas treats: pandoro and panettone. The former is a traditional Veronese sweet yeast bread, whereas the latter is a tall sweet bread enriched with raisins and dried fruits, hailing from Lombardy. One of my favorite things is to add more sugar to my sweet meal, with torrone (classic Italian nougat), hazelnut chocolate, and homemade cookies.
December 26, Santo Stefano Day, is a national holiday in Italy, and obviously another occasion to gather with your loved ones and taste other homemade specialties, and sometimes the Natale’s leftovers. Celebrations are not over yet! After these three days of merrymaking, the next date is December 31. This is another crazy opportunity to meet with friends and families and have a big party all night long. Capodanno (New Year’s Eve) normally starts late in the afternoon with the famous aperitivo, followed by a traditional big meal called cenone (big dinner), and the right party to welcome the new year! The day after, if you still have the energy and your stomach is up for more food, it’s time for another substantial lunch! If each Christmas meal differs from one family to another, each New Year’s Eve dinner is carefully thought out to serve the right food that promises to bring you luck, such as cotechino (pork sausage) lenticchie (lentils), and uva (grapes). January 1 is a day to relax, be with the people you care about most, and have some traditional food and dessert.
As we approach the last day of the year, you may think that the holidays are over, but they are not. Christmastime in Italy is not complete until January 6, giorno della Befana (Epiphany Day) . On this night, children wait for the Befana, who, according to Italian folklore, is an old witch-like woman who arrives on a broomstick, climbs down chimneys and fills kids’ stockings with sweets, chocolate, or a lump of coal for those who have been naughty. It is a story of the good witch versus the bad witch, depending on how you behaved during the past year. After her arrival, there are many parties and Italians go from home to local squares celebrating with family and friends. A famous sentence that marks an end to the holiday season is: “l’epifania tutte le feste si porta via” (Epiphany takes away all the holidays). We have to wait until Easter to celebrate again with family and friends.
I leave you with a typical Italian nursery rhyme that children will sing for “La Befana” and my preferred Christmas recipe: Roman Lamb.
Enjoy your holidays everybody!
Italian nursery rhyme:
La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col cappello alla romana
viva viva la Befana!
The Befana comes at night
wearing old broken shoes
dressed in Roman (hat) style
long live la Befana!
How to make Roman Lamb
Rosemary potatoes and lamb
125 ml (4 fl oz/½ cup) extra virgin olive oil
2 rosemary sprigs, each about 12 cm (4½ inches)
8 garlic cloves, unpeeled
1.5 kg (3 lb 5 oz) roasting potatoes, peeled and cut into 4 cm (1½ inch) cubes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 kg (2 lb 4 oz) shoulder of spring lamb, bone in, cut into 2 cm (¾ inch) pieces (ask your butcher to do this)
2 garlic cloves, crushed
6 sage leaves
1 tablespoon plain (all-purpose) flour
125 ml (4 fl oz/½ cup) white wine vinegar
6 anchovy fillets
- Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F/Gas 4). To make the rosemary potatoes, pour the olive oil into a large baking pan, add the rosemary, garlic and potato and toss to coat. Transfer to the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 30 minutes. Turn the potatoes, sprinkle with sea salt and bake for a further 30 minutes, or until crisp and golden.
- Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a heavy-based frying pan with a lid. Add the lamb and cook in batches over medium heat for 3-4 minutes, turning to brown all over.
- Return the lamb to the pan and add the garlic, sage and rosemary. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, stir well and cook for 1 minute.
- Using a small, fine sieve, dust the lamb with the flour, then cook for a further minute. Add the vinegar, simmer for 30 seconds, then add 250 ml (9 fl oz/1 cup) water. Cook, partially covered, over low heat for 50–60 minutes, or until the lamb is tender, adding a little more water if needed.
- When the lamb is almost cooked, mash the anchovies to a paste with 1 tablespoon of the cooking liquid using a mortar and pestle. Add to the lamb and cook, uncovered, for a further 2 minutes. Serve immediately, with the rosemary potatoes.