This is my second Christmas in Italy, and I now think that I am getting the hang of how the Italians like to celebrate the festive season!
Just like in the UK, the Italians start their celebrations early! On December 8th, which is a public holiday to celebrate the Immaculate Conception. This is the conception of the Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne. Not only is this a public holiday in Italy, but fires the starting gun for nearly a month of celebrations!
Italian Christmas decorations
On this day many Italians start to decorate their homes, their windows and sometimes trees in their garden. It is also the time when the decorations normally are put up by the local council in the streets, making those long winter nights a little brighter.
Presepi (Nativity scenes) are placed outside churches for all to see, although bizarrely Jesus is sometimes only added on Christmas Eve! I have also seen some where the ex Italian PM Renzi has been added, and some others with random famous Italian footballers!
All the way up to Christmas Eve, the familiar smells of Christmas; mulled wine, chestnuts and Italian delicacies fill the air. This helps everyone get into the Christmas mood! The Christmas market in Piazza Cavalli, the central square in Piacenza has stalls selling everything essential for Christmas from decorations to different sweet treats such as panettone, pandoro, and torrone.
What do Italians eat at Christmas?
Although I’ve previously blogged about how the Italians like to enjoy their food, tradition has it that on Christmas Eve Italians should only have an evening meal based on fish. The tradition is that this to purifes the body for the onslaught of food to come! After their evening meal, they go to church to celebrate midnight mass. After this, they may have a slice of panettone, and children, excited by Santa’s arrival, prepare a glass of milk, nuts and a slice of Christmas cake under the tree to thank “Babbo Natale” (Santa) for their presents.
If Christmas Eve’s meal is designed to be a light feast, Christmas Day’s meal is the complete reverse! The Cenone (literally meaning ‘big dinner’) in Emilia Romagna consists of tortellini (Anolini) in brodo (broth). Meat is most definitely back on the menu! This is usually a roast of some sort, and turkey seems to be as popular here as it is in other Western countries.
The feast is a family affair and will last the majority, if not all of the day. It is not unheard of for a family not to move from their table for the entire day! After the pasta and meat, they eat more panettone and other sweet treats. The families play board games, and unwrap their presents.
26th December, St Stefano’s Day is a public holiday in Italy, and another excuse to continue the feasting and celebrations!
The celebrations continue until Epiphany on January 6th, which is when it is said that the three wise men visited Jesus.
January 6th is also connected with the legend of “La Befana” a woman who it is said lived in Bethlehem, and is now referred to as the “Christmas witch.” Legend has it that the three Wise Men met La Befana early on during their quest to find the baby Jesus. The story says that she hosted them for an evening in her humble and cosy cottage. When they woke the next morning the wise men invited her to join them on their quest.
She said at first that she was too busy cleaning her home. However, after they carried on their way, she had second thoughts. She quickly filled a basket with gifts for the baby Jesus and set off alone to try and catch up with the three Wise Men. The story says that although she followed the same star, she was unable to find the manger before the Wise Men did on January 6, the Epiphany.
The tradition says that La Befana is still flying round the world every year on the eve of Epiphany on her broomstick trying to find Jesus. She leaves sweet gifts in children’s houses hoping this is the child that she has been searching for so long. If you’re a good child legend has it that you will be left something nice. If you’re bad, she’ll leave you a lump of coal. However, nowadays, it will turn out to be a delicious sweet treat disguised as coal!
Christmas in Italy, with all of the traditional food, markets and festivals is truly magical, and you should experience it at least once in your life!